ONE BLAST from a manager's air horn ended practice and sent the Texas players running to the middle of the field, where they bounced off one another in a giddy scrum. This was on Thursday of the team's mid-November bye week; the Longhorns would not play rival Texas A&M in their last regular-season game for another eight days. After four punishing daily practices they would soon be turned loose for a long weekend before starting their stretch drive in pursuit of the school's first national championship in 36 years. Players danced and chanted and thrust fists skyward. "Going home!" shouted quarterback Vince Young. The prospect of freedom filled the air.
The players formed a fluid semicircle, and many of them dropped to a knee as a man in burnt-orange sweats and a white cap called them to order. "Just a few things," said Mack Brown, 54, coach of the Longhorns and architect of the eight-year rebuilding of the Texas program. Watching from a hillside behind Brown was Darrell Royal, 81, who with his revolutionary wishbone offense had guided Texas to its last title, four coaches and a hundred broken promises ago.
"Give me your eyes now," said Brown, in a slightly elevated version of the syrupy, down-home tenor that developed long ago in his native Tennessee. "When you're home this weekend, or wherever you go, and you're watching the games on television and they put up the BCS standings, feel proud of yourselves that you're 10-0 and sitting up there in the top two. But nobody on this team wants to be remembered for losing to the Aggies. And here's something else for you to think about: Some of the buddies you'll be seeing this weekend don't have the same rules we have on this team. We're going to let you go home again after the A&M game, but know who you're driving with. There's an awful lot of drinking that goes on in that stadium."
Here, a long pause. "Be careful. All of you. Be careful."
Last Friday, Texas went to College Station and beat the hated Aggies 40-29, pushing its record to 11-0 for the first time since 1983 (a season that ended with a Cotton Bowl loss to Georgia). With a win this Saturday over Colorado in the Big 12 championship game in Houston--the Longhorns beat the Buffs 42-17 on Oct. 15--Texas can secure a place in the BCS title game at the Rose Bowl on Jan. 4. The Horns would play two-time national champion and top-ranked USC, provided the Trojans can dispense with UCLA this Saturday (box, page 50).
Brown, who upon taking the Texas job in late 1997 was called by Ohio State coach John Cooper "the Number 1 program-builder in college football," will be deservedly hailed if the Longhorns reach the title game. He will be sainted by Texas fans if he delivers a championship. And in so doing Brown, who is 81-19 at Texas, will shed a quirky, Mickelsonian burden, for it will be his first championship as a coach at any level. (Brown's only title of any kind came in 1967, his junior year at Putnam County High, when the Cavaliers defeated Clarksville 26--7 and were crowned unofficial Tennessee public school state champions by a Nashville newspaper.)
"Mack has worked hard, created a good atmosphere for players and hired a strong staff," says Congressman Tom Osborne (R., Neb.), who in his previous life won 255 games and three national titles at Nebraska. "You knew this could happen at Texas, with the talent and the tradition, and Mack has brought together all the pieces."
One piece is relatively new. It's the one that compels Brown to face his players and tell them not just to win football games but also to be careful. It's the piece that's formed when a man has been touched by death enough times that he steps back from an all-or-nothing philosophy and finds joy simply in the pursuit of victory. The death of his grandfather. His grandmother. His father. Eleven Texas A&M students and an alumnus. One of his own players. An old and dear high school teammate. All in a five-year span. "There's no doubt it's changed me," says Brown.
He has been coaching football since 1973, after having played it since age six in his hometown of Cookeville, Tenn., a small city in the Upper Cumberland Region. He grew up in a home in which his parents, Melvin and Katherine, sent their three sons to a Church of Christ every Wednesday and Sunday and enforced a 10 p.m. curfew. "You didn't think about missing it," says Mack's brother, Watson, older by a year and now the coach at Alabama-Birmingham. The boys' grandfather Eddie (Jelly) Watson was the town's school superintendent, but he had been the high school's revered football coach when Watson and Mack were preschoolers watching from his sideline.
Like characters from a period piece the Brown boys, including youngest brother Mel, and their friends played sports year-round. "Every game invariably ended with a fight between Watson and Mack," says Kevin Tucker, a family friend. Watson was a gifted athlete who would be recruited by Western Kentucky for basketball before signing to play football at Vanderbilt. Mack was forever chasing him. "I would run all summer just to keep up with Watson, and he'd do nothing and still be better," says Mack.
On their high school football team Watson was the star quarterback, Mack the wide receiver-running back. Teammates called him Mack the Knife for his slashing style. (They called Watson "Snotwad" for other reasons altogether.) Mack followed Watson to Vanderbilt but transferred to Florida State after his sophomore season because he didn't like the way the coaching staff was handling Watson. A year later Mack blew out his left knee and was finished as a player.
Mack went into college coaching immediately upon graduation in 1974, bringing with him the same intensity that drove him as a player. Nine years later he became the Appalachian State coach, at 32, and produced the school's first winning season in four years. He left after one season to become the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma in 1984, then took over at Tulane and in his third season guided the Green Wave to its first bowl game in seven years. He moved to North Carolina in '88 and had three 10-win seasons, capped by a No. 6 ranking in 1997, the Tar Heels' highest finish since they were third in 1948. He went to Texas and began chasing history and Oklahoma as he once chased his older brother, catching neither and beating himself up with every loss.
"I was too hard on our players and too hard on myself," Brown says. "For whatever reason, I've always had this obsession with being perfect. I wanted to win every game. I wanted every kid on my team to be happy. I wanted to please everybody. And that's a pretty miserable existence."
His passions had begun to shift in the spring of 1997, when two grandparents and his father died in a four-month period. Then, on Nov. 18, 1999, tragedy struck at A&M during the building of the ritual bonfire before the Texas game; Brown, who was driving to work when he heard the news, pulled to the side of the road and wept for the victims' parents. Fifteen months later Texas defensive tackle Cole Pittman was killed when his pickup truck rolled over as he drove to Austin from his hometown of Shreveport, La. On a day when he had expected to welcome his players for the start of spring practice, Brown instead told them of a teammate's death. At the urging of Pittman's father, Marc, Brown spoke at Pittman's funeral.
Less than a year after Pittman's death, in 2002, Mike Phillips, one of Watson's and Mack's teammates at Putnam County High, died of cancer. Phillips, 51, owned a service station in Cookeville and back in the day was a plugger who caught a touchdown pass in the Clarksville game. He was in the Brown brothers' core of friends who every year attended a Texas game (and a UAB game, as well) and hung around for hours afterward, making the same old high school stories seem better with age. It was one of Phillips's last requests that Mack speak at his funeral too, so that's what Mack did.
"I remember hearing Coach Brown talk that day," says Phillips's son, Jimmy Mack, who had been given his middle name for the coach and former teammate his dad admired. "It was comforting to hear his voice. It made me feel good about my dad to know he had friends like that." In a town where almost everybody wears Volunteer orange, Jimmy Mack, now a high school senior, walks around proudly clad in Longhorn burnt orange.
The accumulated impact of all these deaths altered Brown's perspective on life. "You learn that losing a football game, a big football game, is a tough thing," says Brown. "But it's not like losing a loved one. I made a decision: Start having fun or quit coaching."
There is little doubt that the players who entered the program in the last five years have noticed their coach's subtle transformation. "He's relaxed, not uptight," says Young. "He'll get on you if you drop a ball or make a mistake, but he jokes around, asks about your family or your girlfriend."
Before this season began, Brown downloaded songs by rappers 50 Cent and Mike Jones onto his iPod, making him a source of media humor. Young sees it for something more. "We asked him to do it," he says. "Yeah, it's funny watching him try to rap, but maybe when he listens to those songs, he can understand a little bit of why we act the way we do."
Linebacker Derrick Johnson, who last April was taken 15th in the NFL draft by the Kansas City Chiefs, says, "He tells you, 'Life is bigger than football.' Then he says, 'Just go out and play and don't worry about things.' Guys want to play for a coach like that."
Never has Brown suppressed his anger more than at halftime of Texas' home game against Oklahoma State on Nov. 6, 2004. The Longhorns trailed 35-7 before scoring a touchdown just before halftime. "I think the players expected me to be emotional," says Brown. He was not. He told them that Oklahoma State could not possibly play better and that Texas could not possibly play worse. Mimicking a move that Royal had once pulled and recalling advice given to him by coach Barry Switzer when he was at Oklahoma in 1984 ("If you're not careful at halftime, you can convince your team that they're going to lose," Switzer told him), Brown wrote "42-35" on a chalkboard and said, "We're going to win, and that's going to be the final score." Texas won 56-35.
Seven weeks later Brown was given a 10-year, $26 million contract, and on Jan. 1 Young rallied the Longhorns to a 38-37 win over Michigan in the Rose Bowl. Little has gone wrong since.
Brown is a stellar recruiter, mixing honesty ("He didn't tell me I'd start," says defensive back Michael Huff. "He didn't even tell me I'd play") with a salesman's gentlest touch. "He'll go into a home and pick up the little nephew and say, 'Don't you forget about me in 10 years,'" says offensive coordinator Greg Davis.
Dealing with parents who are dissatisfied with their kids' playing time consumes huge amounts of Brown's time. He has a system for this. "Every player we recruit thinks he's going to be an NFL star," he says. "When a parent has a problem with playing time, we bring the parent in, with the player, and we watch tape of practice. It usually ends with the father saying, 'Coach, that's enough. You can turn it off.'"
In Brown's 22 years as a head coach, during which 23 of his players have been picked in the first or second round of the NFL draft, only three times has a Brown-coached player left for the pros with eligibility remaining. Hand in hand with his second wife, Sally, a real estate developer and cancer survivor who didn't know football from Foosball when Brown met her in 1992, Brown has built a program that players don't want to leave. "He's provided an atmosphere that makes you want to stay as long as you can," says Tennessee Titans tight end Bo Scaife, who was at Texas from 1999 through 2004.
In an era in which it's hardly worth being called a coach at all if you can't be called a genius, Brown has flourished without a signature system. "No gimmicks and no weaknesses," says former Texas Tech coach Spike Dykes. "Just solid football." He is the ultimate football CEO, delegating play-calling to Davis and defensive calls to Gene Chizik while accepting blame for losses and taking little credit for victories. "Mack is the rare coach who's gone 1-10 and gone 10-1," says San Jose State coach Dick Tomey, who worked under Brown in 2004. "He understands both ends of the business."
Before kickoff this Saturday, as he does before every game, Brown will find a quiet place away from the noise and the urgency. He will think not about the win or the loss that awaits but about family and friends long gone. Then he will begin to cry, his own private moment of clarity and balance that precedes the spectacle.
Second to None
Coaching his 100th game at Texas last Friday, Mack Brown won for the 81st time--a feat even more impressive when you consider that the Longhorns were 57-41-2 in the 100 games before Brown arrived. Here are the winningest coaches in Division I-A since the start of the '98 season.
MACK BROWN, Texas 81-19
FRANK BEAMER, Va. Tech 77-22
BOBBY BOWDEN, Florida State 77-23
BOB STOOPS, Oklahoma 74-16
PHILLIP FULMER, Tennessee 74-26
LLOYD CARR, Michigan 73-25
BILL SNYDER, Kansas State 70-31
MIKE BELLOTTI, Oregon 68-28
BARRY ALVAREZ, Wisconsin 68-32
TOMMY TUBERVILLE, Auburn 66-31*
*Includes one season at Mississippi