By Jeff Greenberg
Pulling from the Archives – Originally published in 2014
There are few coaches that can stand the test of time in college football. The game is constantly changing in how it’s played, how it’s coached, and how it’s regulated. A certain few names are known throughout all corners of the game, and with those names come a high level of respect from competitors and fans alike. Their resumes stand on their own and other coaches look to them for advice in navigating their way through a very difficult profession. One of the few coaches that fit this description is Mack Brown, former head coach of the Texas Longhorns.
Since leaving the sidelines in Austin this past January, Coach Brown has been able to take some time with his growing family and do “normal” things like travel and go to the movies. Does that mean he was done with football? Not exactly. After taking some time off, he had a job waiting for him at ESPN/ABC to be their lead studio analyst on Saturdays this fall.
Coach Brown sat down with me for an interview in his first, full-length, retrospective look back at his coaching career since leaving his position with Texas after last season.
Let’s start at the beginning. When did you know that you wanted to be a coach? – “When I was about 13 or 14 years old. My Grandfather was the winningest high school football coach in middle Tennessee history. And he was the superintendent of the schools and ran the recreation center for the summer. So I actually worked on the fields, all the baseball and softball fields. And I got to coach a little league baseball team was I was about 13 years old.”
When you started your college coaching career, was there a moment or time when you said to yourself, “I belong in this profession?” – “Well, originally I really wanted to be a lawyer. But I didn’t like to read, especially the volume of reading lawyers do in law school. As I was going into preparation for law school they told me I would have to go to school an additional 2 years before I even became a lawyer. And I realized I really liked being outside and working with kids and helping them in their lives. So it was probably my sophomore year at Vanderbilt that I realized I needed to make a change in order to do what I wanted to do. So I transferred to Florida State. The reason I went there was because of a coach named Steve Sloan. He was an All-American quarterback at Alabama from Tennessee. He had been the head coach at Vanderbilt and Texas Tech. Coach Sloan was very influential in my life and when he became the offensive coordinator at Florida State I went down there to be with him. That’s when I decided what I wanted to do with my life.”
Along with Coach Sloan, what other coaches served as coaching mentors to you? – “Coach Pitts, my high school football coach, was very influential to me. My Grandfather, Eddie Watson. Bill Parcells when he was the linebackers coach at Florida State. I got to know him real well and learn from him. And Dan Henning, former head coach of the Atlanta Falcons and the San Diego Chargers.”
When you got the head coaching job at North Carolina, basketball was still king under Dean Smith, but fans and the administration wanted a winning football program on day 1. But you made a gutsy call in your first two years to start freshman and sophomores and go through some growing pains in order to gain experience down the road. How did you decide on that strategy and was it a hard one to implement knowing the risk involved? – “You know it was, but Paul Hardin and John Swofford had made a commitment to me for 5 years. So I knew that I had 5 years to implement my plan, unlike the way things are today. I had promised them I would stay at North Carolina for at least 3 years if they promised me I could stay at least 5 years. I wouldn’t talk to other schools for those 3 years and they wouldn’t talk to other coaches for 5 years. My job was to rebuild the program and get things going in the right direction and back on track, and by the end of the 3rd season we were headed in the right direction.”
Early on, you endured 2 one-win seasons at North Carolina. From the outside things didn’t look great, but is that a function of the people in the locker room knowing and believing in the vision and the plan being something that those outside the locker room can’t understand? – “Not only do they not understand the process, but they don’t like the results if you’re not winning. They want instant success but we knew the program was in bad shape. John Swofford told me it would take a while and not to get discouraged. I knew the top boosters well at North Carolina and I spent time educating them on my vision and how we were implementing that plan. And when we tied Georgia Tech the year they won the national championship, I told them, ‘It’s not a matter of if anymore, it’s a matter of when.’”
You took North Carolina to new heights as a program and people in Chapel Hill didn’t want to see you go. When Texas came calling, what were the deciding factors for you to head to Austin? – “I think the biggest thing is that I talked to Coach Smith and Coach Guthridge. I talked to other people around the athletic department. And when I looked at where we were at the time, I was very disappointed. We were ranked #4 in the country with one loss, yet we were headed back to the Gator Bowl. I thought the players deserved better than that. I thought the program deserved better than that. So I wasn’t happy with that. Another factor was that I had 2 years left on my contract and was one of the lowest paid coaches in the ACC. Texas gave me a 7-year contract and offered me a lot of money and at that time in my life and my family’s life, that was important. But you know the people at North Carolina were great to us. Some were mad that I left, but I thought that was a compliment. And in reality we never thought we’d leave Chapel Hill. We loved it there. We still have our friends in North Carolina that we’re very close to and talk to all the time. And I would also be lying if I said we weren’t disappointed that UNC didn’t proactively come out and say, ‘We want you to stay here for good, no matter what it takes,’ instead of just reacting after-the-fact to the Texas interest. And then we went to see Austin and it was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up.”
When you got to Texas, I’ve heard you say that Coach Royal (legendary Texas Head Coach) told you the best part of coaching Texas was that thousands of people watched your every move, and the worst part was that thousands of people would be watching your every move. Did you feel a lot of pressure in the beginning or did feel like you had the freedom to build the program the way you wanted? – “To be honest Jeff, I really didn’t feel any more pressure at Texas than I did at UNC. Both places treated us wonderfully. We were lucky to get off to a great start at Texas and win 9 games that first year and beat Jackie Sherrill’s Mississippi State team in the Cotton Bowl. Ricky Williams also won the Heisman, so it was a great start for us in Austin.”
Speaking of coaches giving advice to one another, I know Larry Fedora called you before he accepted the head coaching job at UNC. What kind of “Coach Royal-type” advice did you give him? – “Larry is a very smart, very hungry, very aggressive, and very positive coach. And when he was the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State, he called me and said, ‘Can I spend a couple of hours with you and talk about being a head coach.’ I called Mike Gundy to make sure it was ok, and he said yes. So Larry and I talked for about 2 hours. So when the UNC job came open he called me and asked me to tell him about Chapel Hill. We loved it there so I told him it wasn’t a good place, it was a great place. Great fans, you can win, and you can win big there. I told him I’d be excited for him to be there.”
Coach Fedora has encountered some similar situations there early on that you did as well, inheriting some turmoil and having to play a lot of youth early. Is that a fair comparison? – “I would agree with that and I hope Larry gets the patience he deserves and the patience I was given. But in this day and age there is less patience then there should be. But I really like Bubba Cunningham and what he is doing at UNC. He’s a strong supporter of Larry and I think they’re moving in the right direction. I’ve talked to Larry a few times this season in my new role. You have to realize he only has 6 scholarship seniors. Anytime the NCAA takes away scholarships it’s painful and it sets you back in recruiting for 4 to 5 cycles. It may not hurt you the first year, but it hurts you down the road. USC is a perfect example of that. They’re still recovering from 4 years ago. It’s a long process to get things back in order and I think Larry is moving in a positive direction. I really do.”
One of your strengths as a coach was your ability to win the recruiting game. Nobody did it better. What would you tell young coaches today are the keys to winning that discussion at the dinner table in a recruit’s home? – “Number one, have a good product. I was very lucky to be at THE University of North Carolina and THE University of Texas, and how that helped me recruit in-state. That was very important. Number two, get to know and respect your high school coaches. They’re the ones that really help you be successful by developing those players and in a lot of cases they help the kids make their decisions. So if they don’t respect you, they’re not going to sign off on their kids coming to play for you. Finally, when you’re in that home you need to find out who is really making the decision. Is it the mother, the father, or somebody else in the kid’s life? Sometimes the kid will make the decision, but they usually have somebody who heavily influences that decision. And at that point you just need to be honest with how they can help you, and how you can help them develop as a player and a student.”
I just have to ask because I never understood how you did it, but how were you able to always convince a 5-star quarterback to come to Texas when there were already 3 other 5-star quarterbacks on the roster? – “Jeff, it’s the most difficult thing to do at that position. When you’re winning a lot you’re playing a lot of guys at other positions. That’s why you gain great depth and morale. Winning cures all ills. But even at Texas when we were doing well, we got into some difficult situations in those last few seasons. If you bring in a top quarterback and he fights others coming or he doesn’t pan out, and some others have now transferred, you can get in trouble faster at quarterback than at other positions.”
Thinking more about your time at Texas, you had some really high points, including bringing the Longhorns their first national championship in 40 years. But you’re human. So what was Mack Brown, the man, thinking to himself in moments such as the days leading up to that national championship game? – “The thought I had before the first national championship game was, ‘this is really cool.’ Every coach dreams of getting to this game. But now, what am I going to say to the players before the game? What am I going to say at halftime? What’s good enough for these kids? If we lose the game and they’re devastated, how do I help them? If we win, what do you say? This is as good as it gets. I was 54 years old and I had been fighting for all those years to get to this moment. And now you’re at a loss for words because it becomes bigger than a football game.”
Speaking of bigger than just a game, you celebrated on the field with your family after winning the national championship. The coaching profession is not easy on families. What did that mean to you to share that moment with them? – “It was the top of the mountain for me emotionally. I was happy for them too because they’ve been with me when people said great things about me and they’ve been with me when people said not-so-nice things about me. It was just so cool. And two moments stick out to me. First Matt, my son, came up to me and said, “Mack, the most impressive thing tonight is you did it within the rules and you didn’t cheat. You should be really proud of that.” And then later on in the night at the hotel Katherine, my daughter, came up to me and said, “Dad, I didn’t know if you could ever do it, and do it within the rules. Congratulations. You’ve done it and you did it right, and that’s really cool.” Those will be two comments I remember for the rest of my life.”
Speaking of people congratulating you, did you have any interesting calls after winning that game? – “I did (chuckling). The most unique one was the next morning at 6am. President Bush called. He said, “As a fellow Texan, I couldn’t be prouder of what you’ve accomplished.” But he also said, “But you know what? You can’t measure if you’re the best President, best husband, or best father. But you can now say you have the best football team in the country. You’re the last one standing. Congratulations.” I thought that was a really cool statement to make. Another call came from Will Ferrell, who got my number from Matthew McConaughey. Will was a USC graduate and he called me on the phone and was very nice and gracious. He said, “You broke our hearts but I can’t even get mad about it because it was the best college football game I’ve ever seen.”
That game stands out in your career I’m sure, but what other games were big moments for you in your career? – “I remember the first time we beat Clemson at UNC. When we got there, they were so much better than us. So when we beat them 24-0 that sent a message about how the program was doing. The first time we also beat USC in the Pigskin Classic against John Robinson’s Trojans. We dominated the game and that sent a message as well that UNC football was back and here to stay. Even in a loss, I remember playing Florida State at home. We were ranked #4 and they were ranked #1. The students had been in the stadium since 2:oopm. And even Coach Bowden walked onto the field and said, “Oh my gosh, I never thought I’d see a North Carolina stadium like this.”
Only people on the inside of any situation really know what’s going on. With that in mind, how would you describe your last few seasons at Texas? – “The last few seasons were seasons where we struggled at quarterback and being consistent there. We had three years of more injuries than I’d ever faced before in my career. And the Big 12 was a better conference at that point too. We won 8 games, then 9 games, and then we had a horrible game at BYU last year. But we came back and the players fought like crazy to put themselves in position to play for the conference championship. And that was with injuries to 15 important players. So I really felt like this year would be a big year for us. But when we sat down at the end and talked, some people thought it was time for a change. Sally and I are not the type to fight that and cause problems, so we thought it was best we go do something else.”
Last year, considering how it started and the BYU game, and then looking at how the team fought back, looked like one of your best “coaching” seasons at Texas. What are your thoughts about that? – “I really think the same. I think my first year and my last year at Texas were my two best coaching jobs.”
What does Texas mean to you today? – “Sally and I had 16 wonderful years in Austin. Wouldn’t change anything for the world. We made so many friends and had so many wonderful experiences at Texas. Having a player win the Heisman Trophy, playing in two national championship games, winning one of those games, growing that stadium to 102,000 seats, helping Texas be one of the biggest brands in sports, and being able to spend time with Coach Royal. In the end, I told Sally we stayed through 4 presidential terms and that’s pretty good.”
Less than a year removed from coaching, has your mind adjusted to this new routine in your life? – “It really has been a smooth transition. Whatever I’m asked to do, I jump in with both feet. And when ESPN/ABC came in an asked me to come aboard, they said take six months with Sally and do everything you want to do. And when you’re ready in the fall, you have a spot here with us. For them to put me in a prominent position on ABC, I feel like I owe it to them to be the best analyst I can be. I’ll try to tell the story for the coach and be the advocate for the fan and take the fans places that they can’t go.”
Does your adrenalin still kick in on Friday evenings or Saturday mornings? – “It does. That will never go away. Coach Royal said he never stopped being nervous on game days. And plus, now I get to watch 40-50 games a day on Saturdays and I’m taking notes so I can’t focus on Texas, which would make me nervous watching those games. I’ve really love working with the coaches and getting their thoughts on their game plans and then seeing if those plans work when I watch the games. It’s been a lot of fun.”
From a coaching perspective, what do you miss most? – “The players. The staff. Organizing a program and all that entails. You miss it. You really miss the players and the people you worked with every day.”
I noticed you’re active on Twitter in keeping up with former players. Are you still in contact with the players? – “We are. That’s something Sally thought she would miss the most. But actually, many of our former players from Tulane, UNC, and Texas have been in constant contact with us and it’s a really neat thing.”
Are there coaches or programs you like following now? – “There are. Some are friends, and some you enjoy watching because they do a great job and you respect how they do it. Some are good and you don’t respect how they do it. But my job isn’t to play any favorites or be an open fan for anybody. I just need to say what I see. It can be difficult but that’s my job. And the coaches know that too. You don’t have to bash the guy or call him an idiot. It’s not like he meant for it not to work or hadn’t worked all week on trying to make it work. But I just tell why they did it or what they were trying to do, and maybe why it didn’t end up working out.”
Do you have 4 teams you would put in the Football Playoff at this point? – “Well, I told ESPN I wouldn’t even consider naming 4 teams until mid-October. Because all of it would change. And then you look at the last few weekends and that’s proven to be true. It’s difficult. But maybe we’ll end up with Mississippi State, Florida State, Oregon, and Michigan State.
Now that we have a playoff committee, should we do away with preseason rankings? – “I’ve thought that for 20 years. They don’t matter. Nobody knows what each season will look like. It’s all for hype. But I like the fact that committee doesn’t start their polls until mid-October. I feel that’s a good idea.”
Its mid-October, some whispers have started about schools being interested in you coaching their teams. Is there a situation that could find you back on the sidelines? – “Yes. Sally and I have talked about it. If the right situation came up we would definitely consider it. There’s no question about that. I’ve talked to people older than me that have gone in and out of coaching. Every single one of them has said not to consider coaching until December. And if somebody offers you a job you’ll know whether you’re interested or not. A lot of it will depend on the job and there are a few jobs I would consider. But I haven’t even decided which schools those would be for sure. I just want to do this job the best I can and we’ll see how the future plays out.”
We would like to thank Coach Mack Brown for his time and conversation. You can follow him on Twitter @ESPN_CoachMack
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