- Ivan Maisel, College Football Senior Writer
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NEW YORK -- Until a couple of years ago, there were three things you could count on with Texas coach Mack Brown: His teams would win a lot; his teams would fall just short of their ultimate goal; and if Brown's skin were any thinner, you could read a playbook through it.
He cared what people thought of him. The insecurity that drove him to succeed would well up inside him and spew forth in an Old Faithful-like protest.
The fans don't understand. The media aren't fair.
Most coaches learn at an early age that the fans will never understand, that the media will always get the last word. They tolerate it and move on. Brown never did. A case in point:
When linebacker Derrick Johnson and tailback Cedric Benson decided in January 2004 to return to Texas for their senior seasons, a reporter called Brown to find out how he continued to persuade his players to return to play for him.
Three weeks earlier, the Longhorns had been upset by Washington State 28-20 in the Holiday Bowl. Brown knew the subject of the interview. It would do nothing but paint him in a flattering light, and deservedly so.
But when the reporter asked Brown a small-talk, how-are-you opening question, the coach replied, "We're trying to clean up the mess you all make when we lose," Brown said.
He couldn't help it.
Brown wanted to win. He wanted to win with the old-fashioned competitive ethic, deflecting the credit onto others. But he had no poker face. His insecurities never strayed far from the surface.
He was just so damned earnest! It is part of his charm, part of the way he succeeds in the living room with Mama and in the meeting room with his players. He needs them. He hugs and he talks and he listens. There's a reason Brown has had only one player, North Carolina tailback Natrone Means, leave early for the NFL. He takes care of his players.
But what Brown never did was take care of himself. He drove himself to succeed, and he drove hard. Fear is a powerful motivator. Brown remembered going 1-10 in each of his first two seasons at North Carolina. And just as Bear Bryant's memory of his childhood deprivation pushed him so hard at Alabama, Brown would be damned if he would let that happen again.
"It was hard to relax and have fun," Brown said, "because I had to fight so hard to get out of the early stuff."
As he continued to drive himself, he looked up one day and saw nothing but a bad road ahead. So Brown pulled off the road. He gave himself a good talking-to, and when he started driving again, he tried to enjoy the scenery.
"Mike Gottfried said this," Brown said, referring to the ESPN analyst and former head coach. "'You have tough, bad problems your whole life, and you finally get to a good [job], and you wear yourself out and you're miserable.' And that's what happens with coaches. There's never a time when you really have fun in your career. I started thinking, I'm not going to be that way. I'm gonna finish this thing right. I'm gonna enjoy the kids more."
Brown relaxed. He tried to bring more laughter into the meeting rooms and the locker room. He quit trying to prove himself.
Wouldn't you know it? Once Brown quit trying, he proved himself even to his strongest doubters. In his first six seasons at Texas, Brown went 59-18. In the last two, his record is 23-1. Texas has won 19 straight. Texas won the Big 12, Brown's first conference championship. Texas even beat Oklahoma, which Brown had not done for five consecutive seasons.
Changes in attitude
If Brown writes a book about the last two seasons, he should call it "The Importance of Not Being Earnest."
As the Longhorns prepare to play No. 1 USC for the national championship, Brown sat down in the coffee shop at the Waldorf-Astoria earlier this month and discussed his change in attitude. He is a bit abashed by the fuss over it. Looking across the table at longtime assistant athletic director Bill Little, Brown said, "I've thought a lot about this. Everybody said, 'You've changed so much,' and I said, 'Bill, what was it like before? I must have been awful.'"
"I don't feel like I've changed that much," Brown continued, without waiting for an answer. "I do feel like I'm having more fun. My values haven't changed. My work ethic hasn't changed. Naw, I don't really feel like it has changed this much."
But when he starts to talk, his conversation reveals just how much he has changed.
"I do think coaches need to have more fun," Brown said. "Coach [Darrell] Royal told me a story that really scared me my second year at Texas. It's really true. There is not a team that our fan base doesn't think you should beat. And if you're not careful, he said, you get so you're relieved after a win and devastated after a loss. And you don't have any joy."
Royal told a reporter earlier this month that he retired after 20 seasons and three national championships at Texas before people got tired of him. But it's just as true that he was tired of them. He had lost the joy of coaching.
"And there's some truth there, now," Brown said, employing the Southerner's use of the last word in that sentence for emphasis, not time. "You have to be really, really careful about believing someone and saying, 'I didn't really accomplish anything.' Or, 'I'm glad that one's over.' Or in the third quarter, you start looking at the clock, saying, 'Let's get this one over because I've got to start worrying about the next one.' So those are things you have to worry about in a job like this."
At one point, Brown stopped himself and said, "If all that makes sense."
It makes perfect sense. What doesn't make sense is how Brown achieved such a breakthrough in perspective without spending $150 an hour in therapy.
But Brown kept hearing the same thing from retired coaches, and even from their wives. He once asked Marie Dooley, the wife of Bill Dooley, a predecessor of Brown's at North Carolina, what they would have done differently.
"She said, 'We would have just had more fun,'" Brown said. "'Just enjoyed it more.'"
Brown's ability to enjoy grew last year when Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds gave him a 10-year contract extension. Brown didn't make the speech Sally Field made when she won her second Best Actress Oscar -- "You like me! You really like me!" -- but the extension had the same effect.
"DeLoss [has] made it so that I didn't have to sit around every day and wonder about, 'Do I need to look for another job? The pros? Is there a different college job where I want to finish?'
"Very few coaches" -- Brown landed hard on each of those three words -- "get to decide where they want to finish. And that's a real pressure point for a coach in his 50s and 60s, when he doesn't have a place to stop. You don't know where you're gonna be buried. Sally [Brown's wife] and I talked about all those things. You don't have a base of friends that you know you can go play golf with when you get through if you don't know where you're going to live. Older people start talking about retirement. You know, retirement to us will be friends. We want to be around people we like."
For now, he will cut up around the players more. He tries to get them to understand how lucky they are, not only in the material possessions they have but in the freedom. He will tell them how his high school coach back in Cookeville, Tenn., wouldn't let the players speak to their girlfriends on game day, or how lucky they are to have cell phones and iPods.
It's not anything older people haven't been telling younger people for centuries, but most of them don't tell it during a pregame speech before a showdown against the biggest rival on the schedule. That's what Brown discussed with his team before the Oklahoma game.
Step back, he told them. Appreciate what you have. Step back and soak it in. It worked for Brown. He wants so badly for it to work for the players he loves. Brown stepped back. He stopped taking what the fans and the media said about Texas to heart. He did so when he came to a simple realization.
He is not Texas. He is Mack Brown. He is not Texas, and Brown decided he shouldn't be so egotistical as to think that anything said about Texas applied to him.
It is enormously liberating, this feeling. The week of the Oklahoma game, when someone asked Brown his opinion about whether the rivalry should continue in Dallas or move to the respective campuses, Brown said, "It would be really selfish of me to have an eight-year opinion on a game that's been going for a hundred years."
A new perspective
He is convinced, as he put it, that six months after he retires, no one will remember his record. Brown, in essence, got over himself.
"Now, obviously, I still work the same amount of hours," Brown said. "That hasn't changed any. I still want to win just as badly. But I think what I did was I took the pressure off me, that if we lost the game, it was all my fault. If we won the game, it was all the kids. There was not any joy I had in the thing, because everything was pressure on me."
The pressure is gone. Why? Brown decided it was. If you live all your life to win games, you're going to be disappointed. After all, you only get a chance to win a game 12 times a year.
"Yes," Brown said, "and you got 352 days to prepare for 12. If you don't enjoy it, my gosh, get out. Go do something else. Life's too short. And this sounds funny. Being in the national championship is wonderful, but that's not gonna change my life. I would have thought it would. But I want to get ready for them. I want to win the game. I want to win because it's a game we want to win. But it's not something I feel any different about."
The Longhorns arrive in Los Angeles on Wednesday, one week before they take on USC and its 34-game winning streak.
"We're the second-best team in America, and we got a chance to prove we're the first, and that's good," Brown said. "But I do know, in talking to Bobby Bowden and to Joe Paterno, that if you win on Jan. 4, you're going to go right back to work and start trying to win next year. The monster never gets fed. So I do understand that. So what you better do is enjoy the playing part and start working on the opening game next year, and not make it bigger than life, because it's not.
"I kind of felt like something just got in me and said, and I really don't want to get sappy here, but I really felt like somebody said, 'Wake up.'"
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The pressure to succeed was removing the joy from Mack Brown's life, but a wake-up call has the Texas coach more relaxed and winning more than ever.