Only in Austin: Mack Brown, Matthew McConaughey and Texas connection
It’s late at night on April 24, 2014, and former Texas coach Mack Brown, actor Matthew McConaughey and country music artist Jack Ingram are sitting on Brown’s back porch in Austin, Texas. There’s a slight breeze blowing, clear and warm. It’s on nights like this where it’s hard to imagine being anywhere else.
The three are exhausted, having made it through the first day of their second annual Mack, Jack & McConaughey (MJ&M) fundraising event, which is put on by their non-profit organization to raise money for children’s education, health and wellness. They get to talking, and none of the three is particularly shy. Brown and McConaughey drink wine, while Ingram prefers to stick to beer. Ingram is a bit of an outsider—Brown and McConaughey have known each other since 1998—but all have a connection. This is a time when the men can be themselves.
Brown faces a decision. After spending 16 seasons as the head football coach at the University of Texas, where he won 158 games including a national title, he announced he was stepping down on Dec. 13 of the previous year. That led to the January hire of former Louisville coach Charlie Strong, as the end of an old era begat the start of a new one. The conversation quickly turns to the future, and McConaughey asks Brown a few questions.
Do you know what you want to do? You want to restart a program? You want to go close to home? There’s a little school over there that could use somebody called North Carolina. Or do you have enough steam to go to a big-size school that’s already got a machine running? You can do that.
For as relaxed as McConaughey seems most of the time, he can dial up the intensity at a moment’s notice. He looks others in the eye and refuses to break his gaze, like an odd version of a staring contest that McConaughey is guaranteed to win. Reflecting on his interaction with Brown at an appearance for Lincoln before this year’s MJ&M event in April, he leans forward, stressing each word and using gestures that’d seem absurd if delivered by anyone else. “He had a pretty good answer,” McConaughey says. “Over the next month he made some choices that I saw from the outside. I’m not saying it didn’t have to do with that conversation, but he made some choices where he designed and clarified his future. He’s still got it. He’s still got that energy. If he was going to do it, he needed to be all in.”
That’s a mindset Brown shares with McConaughey. It has helped both reach the top of their respective professions, despite bumps in the road along the way. It has also served as the foundation of an unlikely and enduring friendship.
Before getting to Brown’s choice, this year’s fundraiser or even the very creation of MJ&M, it’s best to start at the beginning. Relationships mean a lot to Brown, who is described by almost all of his former players as one of the most loyal people they have ever met. And the relationship between Brown and McConaughey, odd on the surface, is one Brown treasures. “They have been friends for a long time,” former Texas quarterback Colt McCoy says, “and I think their friendship just grows.”
The two met during Brown’s debut season in Austin in 1998, when the Longhorns began 1-2. They dominated New Mexico State in the opener, but fell to Cade McNown’s UCLA team and then dropped a blowout loss to Kansas State. Next up was a home game against Rice. Texas was in need of a spark, and Brown thought of McConaughey’s film A Time To Kill, which came out in '96. McConaughey is a Texas alumnus and one of the biggest fans around. Said a donor at this year’s MJ&M event: “If you cut him, he bleeds burnt orange.”
Brown had longtime Texas sports information director Bill Little reach out to McConaughey and ask if he would talk to the roster. McConaughey agreed, and Brown named him a guest coach for the week. “He gave a team-building speech about how lighting guys have to be in tune with the sound guys [on set] and really did a great job for us,” Brown says. “Then he was around all the time and was on the sidelines for most games.”
The Longhorns downed Rice 59-21 and went on to win eight of their final nine, closing with a Cotton Bowl victory over Mississippi State. Star running back Ricky Williams captured that season’s Heisman Trophy and was selected No. 5 overall, by the New Orleans Saints, in the 1999 NFL draft. For Brown and McConaughey, a lasting bond began to take shape.
That bond was tested months later, in October 1999. McConaughey was arrested for a disturbance in which he was reportedly found dancing naked and playing the bongo drums at his home. Drug-related charges were dismissed, but the actor was charged with a misdemeanor for resisting transportation and paid a $50 fine for his violation of Austin's noise ordinance. University officials sought to distance themselves from McConaughey. Brown, however, opted otherwise.
“He never wavered,” McConaughey says. “There were people around the football team and the university who were saying, ‘Let’s back McConaughey off a little bit.’ Mack was right there, not in front of my face, in front of theirs, going, ‘No. He’s part of this. He’s a good man.’ I heard that from other people, not him. He didn’t advertise that. He’s always been straight-up and solid with me and has been right there. He’s been excited about my successes and never flinched in my failures.”
The successes would come for Texas and Brown, most famously in Rose Bowl against USC following the 2005 season. McConaughey was present for much of that year, telling the team to have “the goal to win the conference championship and the dream to win the national championship.” McCoy, who redshirted and led the scout-team offense in ’05, remembers a different refrain McConaughey uttered.
“He came out to one of the bowl practices,” McCoy says, “and USC was the best team of the century. He pulled everybody around, and he started singing this song. Somebody don’t think so. Somebody knows so. He was talking about the rest of the world thinking we don’t have a chance, but he’s been to practice. He knows the squad. He knows the team. He knows coach Brown, and we’re going to give it all we got. He kind of rallied everybody in a huddle and started singing that song.”
Former Longhorns wide receiver Jordan Shipley couldn’t forget that phrase either.
“That one stuck,” Shipley says. “I don’t know why. It was kind of strange. But everybody was half laughing when it started, and it kind of caught on and because it was Matthew. Everybody kind of rallied around it. He was right there in the middle of the whole thing. It was fun.”
Texas toppled USC when, in one of the most memorable plays in college football history, Vince Young sprinted right for the game-winning touchdown on fourth-and-five. And who was on the sideline, hoisting up Hook ’Ems? McConaughey.
The image of a goateed McConaughey—draped in a brown leather jacket, arms thrust high in celebration—became forever tied to that triumph. Yet its significance had to do more with what came before, and what would come after, than anyone probably realized.
It’s a little after 11 a.m on a sun-filled April day in the Texas Hill Country and Brown is wearing a blue pullover and a khaki hat—both adorned with the MJ&M logo—with black shorts. A silver watch with a Texas logo on the face dangles from his wrist, and golf seems secondary to the camaraderie of the afternoon.
Between snapping pictures with Roger Clemens and some other big-name donors, Brown tracks down former Longhorns running back Cedric Benson, to whom he hasn’t said hello. Brown wants a photo with Benson, and promptly tweets it out to his 71,000-plus followers.
The former Texas coach may as well be the mayor of Austin given his ability to mingle. He knows the name of virtually every person who works on the course, from the cart men to the groundskeepers, and stops to shakes hands with anyone who is willing. “I’ve been fortunate enough to meet the last four presidents,” Brown says, “and the one thing with all four, when they see you, they lock into you like there's no one else in the room. It’s unbelievable. What a trait. People love for you to care enough about them to remember their name. It’s something I’ve really worked at. It’s important. And it’s not easy. I’ve even learned if I get their name wrong, they’ll correct me, and it’s still better, because you’re trying. Then I’ll remember it for next time.”
Brown’s name—rejoiced in Austin for so many years—became a touchy subject in the falls of 2012 and ’13. The Longhorns suffered a steady decline after losing to Alabama in the ’09 title game, failing to crack the double-digit-win plateau for each of the next four seasons. The low point may have come in November ’13, when speculation about Nick Saban leaving Alabama for Texas went from groundswell to an outright roar. That September, the Associated Press reported a January phone call between Saban’s agent, Jimmy Sexton, and a University of Texas regent in which they discussed Saban taking the Longhorns job if Brown retired.
A once-adoring public turned against a Lone Star State legend. And just as Brown stuck by McConaughey in his time of need, McConaughey returned the favor. In fact, his perspective was especially valuable. The actor had recently rejuvenated his career behind roles in Mud (2012), Magic Mike (’12), Dallas Buyers Club (’13) and The Wolf of Wall Street (’13). He knew Brown could achieve something similar. As Ingram puts it, McConaughey, like Brown, “actively looked at [his] career and said, ‘This isn’t what it’s supposed to be. This isn’t what I want it to be. I’m talented enough to where I can make this what it needs to be.’”
Back at this year’s MJ&M event, Brown pulls his golf cart over to a shelter where a chef is cutting brisket and a table sits covered with cornbread, smoked turkey and pickled veggies. He hollers to someone nearby—“You’ve got to try this brisket!”—and asks the chef for his name, remarking that he hasn’t seen him around the club.
McConaughey is set to fly in from New Orleans, where he is filming a Civil War drama-thriller called The Free State of Jones, scheduled to hit theaters in March 2016. He sends Brown a text message when he lands. “Are we going to hang on the back porch again?”
Shipley says the relationship between Brown and McConaughey brings to mind the connection between former Texas coach Darrell K. Royal and Willie Nelson.
“A lot of people on the outside didn’t get it, but they were friends, and coach Royal was going to stand by Willie, and they were going to be there for each other,” Shipley says. “It’s kind of been the same thing with coach Brown and Matthew. You wouldn’t pair those two together naturally, but they became friends. That’s how coach Brown is. There’s not a lot of guys that get to be in the circle. I think part of it is because coach Brown took him in. If you’re his guy, you’re his guy forever.”
Royal, who died at age 88 in November 2012, and Nelson used to host a golf tournament and concert for charity, even getting Austin native Ben Crenshaw involved. Royal would organize pickin’ parties, where the idea was to listen to music, identify with the lyrics and feel close to the artists on stage. Making noise was strictly forbidden; Royal would flick on a red light—or simply yell “red light”—if those in attendance were being too loud.
One night a few years ago, Ingram sat enjoying a few beers and thought back to those events. Ingram’s presence at one during his teenage years inspired him to become a songwriter, and he still owns a hat with Nelson’s faded signature on the brim. He texted Brown and asked if he remembered those concerts. Brown said he did, and Ingram sent a response along the lines of, I’m no Willie Nelson, and no offense, you’re no Darrell Royal, but how about we bring back the spirit of that?
Brown agreed and pitched bringing McConaughey on board. They met at Austin’s Spanish Oaks Golf Club in March 2012 to hash out the details. MJ&M was born.
Two years later the trio sat on Brown’s back porch following the second annual fundraising event and McConaughey quizzed Brown about the future. His 16-year tenure at Texas was done. He was 62 years old. McConaughey asked: Do you know what you want to do?
Just over a month later, reports surfaced that Brown would join ESPN as an in-studio analyst. In late July the hire was made official. Brown has worked there ever since.
This spring, after taking off his black golf hat and massaging some gel into his not-quite-shoulder-length hair, Ingram looked back fondly on that moment. “I remember thinking, this is killer, man, because Matthew was committed to finding out what Mack wanted to do,” Ingram says. “‘What do you want to do? You’re 60. You’re going to live to be 100, dude. That’s a long time. Whatever you want to do, tell me you’re in, because I know you know what it feels like to be in. Do you want to coach? What do you want?’ Right there, that conversation is something that only friends can have who understand the highs and lows that each of the three people there have committed themselves to.”
At this year’s MJ&M golf tournament, the Longhorn Network filmed a series of videos starring Brown. He interviewed a few former players from his national title team, including offensive guard Kasey Studdard, who was asked about what he remembers most from that Rose Bowl squad. Studdard brought up something Brown said after the game: “Don’t let this be the greatest moment of your life.”
Whether Brown coaches again remains to be seen. Yet no matter what happens, he is all-in with regard to this phase of his life, just as McConaughey is with his. When McConaughey took home the Academy Award for Best Actor in March 2014, Brown tweeted, “Congrats to Matthew for winning an Oscar. He is the best. I'm so proud of my friend. It's long overdue.” And when Brown, McConaughey and Ingram hosted their ’15 fundraiser, they generated more than $1.5 million.
Country artists Little Big Town and Toby Keith performed on Thursday night of the event, and Brown and McConaughey watched from the stage during Keith’s set. The two wrapped their arms around each other, with McConaughey somehow getting his hands on a stray drumstick and Brown slapping his knee to the beat. McConaughey went up to play during Keith’s cover of Ted Nugent’s “Stranglehold.” As Brown would joke later, “It’s not the first time Matt has played the drums.”
“Matthew’s crazy,” Brown says. “And Jack’s crazy. But they’re rubbing off on me, and I’m having more fun.”