Brown finally finds everything in place
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- It was New Year's 2004, and Mack Brown's personal misery index was spiking.
His Texas Longhorns had just lost 28-20 to Washington State in the Holiday Bowl, a dismal performance against an inferior team. (Brown's blunt appraisal: "We stunk.") In a couple of days, he would watch hated rival Oklahoma play LSU for the national championship -- a trip the Sooners paved with a 52-point detonation of the Horns in their annual October meeting in Dallas.
At that point, the anger in Texas was audible from El Paso to Texarkana. Brown had lost four straight to Sooners coach Bob Stoops and still had not earned a BCS bowl bid in six seasons in Austin.
All that money they were paying him, all those recruits he was signing -- where was the payoff?
"I don't think he spoke for three days," said Brown's wife, Sally.
"That was really hard. The fans were rough then. Things were in a balance at that point; they could have gone either way."
Yet as loud as the criticism was on the outside, it was worse inside Mack's mind. In there, he was still the boy who never could do enough to please his dad. He was still the little leaguer who once was pulled off the diamond in Cookeville, Tenn., by Melvin Brown when he took a called third strike -- even though Melvin was just another parent in the stands, not the coach. Mack was the three-sport athlete and Boy Scout with good grades and impeccable manners who nevertheless felt like a failure when measured by his father's impossible standards.
In a rare interview a couple of years ago, Sally Brown said, "I feel like everyone has something they carry with them that's their burden."
I asked her this week what Mack's burden is.
She thought for a moment and said, "Probably pleasing his father. Mack grew up in a wonderful little 'Ozzie and Harriet' family, but his dad was real hard on him."
Hard enough that Mack would spend much of his professional life trying to prove his worth to Melvin Brown. Melvin died in the mid-'90s, and Sally believes Mack and his dad were at peace by then.
But Mack's 81-year-old mother, Katherine, believes the burden is still there for her middle child. Asked whether Mack once drove himself in an endless quest to please his dad, she answered in the present tense.
"He still does, I think," she said. "It was hard to do."
Hard enough that Mack could find flaws in everything. He remained painfully polite. ("In 17 years of working for him, I cannot ever open a door for him," Longhorns offensive coordinator Greg Davis said.) But he was tense, defensive and agonizing over everything.
He averaged 9.8 wins per year in his first six seasons at Texas after the school had averaged just 6.4 wins in the previous dozen seasons, yet nobody was satisfied. That's why, as 2004 dawned, self-doubt was routing self-confidence inside Mack Brown.
"I was about at the end," he said. "I was absolutely miserable at 10-3."
Growing up in idyllic Cookeville, the Brown boys did everything together. Watson was the oldest, Mack not far behind. They hung out all day with little brother, Mel, in the family's sporting goods store, and these grandsons of local high school coaching legend Eddie "Jelly" Watson were a two-man team in every sport.
In football, Watson was the quarterback and Mack the receiver. In basketball, Watson was the point guard and Mack the shooting guard. In baseball, Watson was the shortstop and Mack the second baseman.
And at home, Watson was the golden boy and Mack the whipping boy. Or maybe it was just that Watson more easily endured Melvin's tough love, while Mack suffered from it. Depends whom you talk to.
"My dad was the tough guy," said Watson, now the coach at FCS school Tennessee Tech in his hometown after four stops at FBS schools. "He wasn't one to throw out the compliments until everything was right -- and it was hard to be right. Even when we had good times, Dad always wanted it to be better.
"He wanted everything to be the best it could be, and it hardly ever was good enough. We both felt that, but Mack seems like he felt it more than me."
Said Sally: "He was a great guy, but he was tough on the boys. Particularly on Mack."
When it was time for college, the brothers split up -- Watson played quarterback at Vanderbilt, 80 miles west of Cookeville, and Mack left the state to be a receiver at Florida State. Mel tagged along to Tallahassee as a manager.
Watson and Mack reunited, sort of, in their choice of profession. Both dove into coaching, but they never worked together.
Watson was first to get a head-coaching job, at Austin Peay in 1979. He went 7-4 in both of his seasons there before beginning a sojourn through some of the worst jobs in big-time college football: Cincinnati, Rice, Vanderbilt and UAB. In 20 years at those schools, he had three winning seasons. His career record as a college coach: 107-171-1.
Mack, meanwhile, saw his coaching stock do nothing but rise. He went 6-5 in one season at Appalachian State, left to become offensive coordinator at Oklahoma for a year, then was hired at Tulane in 1985.
Mack parlayed steady progress at a football doormat -- 1-10 to 4-7 to 6-6 -- into the head-coaching job at North Carolina. After opening with two straight 1-10 seasons, Mack made Tar Heels fans care about football. He had eight straight winning seasons, capped by consecutive 10-win years that landed Carolina in The Associated Press' final top 10.
And then Texas called.
Life was good at North Carolina. Mack had gotten remarried, to Sally, a real estate developer who had made millions. They were comfortable there and probably could have stayed for life -- but the odds of winning on a level that would ease the burden inside were considerably better in Austin than Chapel Hill.
"I think the reason we moved to Texas was because he wanted to win a championship," Sally said.
First, a lot of work needed to be done to even conceive of competing for a championship. As folksy former Texas coaching legend Darrell Royal told Mack when he arrived, "The BBs are out of the box."
It was Mack's job to put them back in the box -- to rebuild burned bridges with Texas high school coaches, former players and boosters.
This was where Mack's exceptional people skills helped him thrive.
If Melvin had a rough exterior and a soft interior, Sally surmised that her husband is the opposite -- "the sweet exterior and the gruff interior." He could charm a cactus, remembering everyone's name and conversing easily with everyone from politicians to teenage recruits.
"I believe Coach Brown could run for president and have a legit shot," current safety Earl Thomas said. "He's such a people person."
But even after Mack got all the BBs in the box, the Oklahoma boulder weighed him down and the marbles of doubt were still loose in his head. Six years in, a championship still seemed a long way away. Even a Big 12 title remained elusive.
Which is how Mack could be, by his own description, 10-3 and miserable. Maybe this wasn't the job to have after all.
He didn't sleep the night before games. Had stomach pains. Bristled at criticism -- all while internally giving himself hell.
"I probably was trying to figure out how I fit here," Mack said. "I have never given myself credit for anything."
Perhaps you should, Watson tried to tell him. Just about everyone in their profession -- including Mack's own big brother -- would like to experience the misery of 10-3.
"You don't know what you've got," Watson told Mack. "I'd love to have been 10-2. I've been 6-5 and happy as I could be at times."
Watson added: "He's got a job where you're expected to win every time."
Turned out Mack was working for an entire fan base of Melvin Browns.
To Mack's credit, he chose that difficult time to start reaching out to others. He can recite advice he received from several sources: Royal, Sally, Texas Rangers owner Tom Hicks, defensive coordinator Greg Robinson.
In different forms and different words, they all could be distilled to the same basic message: You've got to start relaxing, stop worrying about every criticism and stop trying to be the perfect coach to all people.
Robinson told him: "You get mad at fans for being mad about not being 13-0 or 14-0, but you're really mad, too."
Said Mack: "I realized he's right. I had to try to embrace it. One day, I just ended up thinking, 'You know what? If we get to 13-0, it's not me. If we go 10-2, it's not me.'
"I got the ego out of it. I got the me out of it. To sit around and blame myself for everything that goes bad or credit myself for everything that's good, that's stupid. In a weird way, I think that look a lot of pressure off me and gave our kids more confidence."
Part of that process also included projecting a happier Mack during games. Sally told him, "You have to smile more. Who wants to play for a miserable person? People are attracted to people who are happy."
So, armed with an improved perspective, Mack went to work in 2004. By his own estimation, that was a good team -- not a great one. The Longhorns had lavishly talented Vince Young at quarterback, but he was just a sophomore.
The Longhorns were not as talented and experienced as nemesis Oklahoma and lost to the Sooners once again, 12-0 -- but that would be their only loss all season. Texas finished 11-1 and, thanks in part to politicking from Mack, outmaneuvered California to earn the school's first BCS bowl bid. The Longhorns landed in the Rose Bowl.
Just getting there was a gift. Winning the game in dramatic fashion turned out to be tonic for a frustrated program and a haunted coach.
"I walked out of that stadium thinking we could win the national championship in 2005," Mack said.
To do that, Texas had to maximize Young's ability -- and part of doing that was building a complete trust between the 50-something Tennessean and the irrepressible kid from Houston. Mack listened to some of Young's hip-hop; Young listened to Mack and Davis' coaching. The coaches trusted Young with their offense, and the trust was returned with respect.
Of course, Texas still had to beat Oklahoma. At that point, Mack was 3-10 at Texas against top-10 opponents and just 1-5 against Stoops.
His credibility -- and newfound serenity -- were on the line this time.
The Longhorns didn't just win -- they demolished the Sooners 45-12 on the way to a 13-0 record and a bid to play mighty USC for the national title.
You know how that one ended. Texas won the Game of the Decade 41-38 behind an epic performance by Young. Mack Brown, the coach who seemingly couldn't win the big one, beat Pete Carroll, the coach who seemingly couldn't lose the big one.
Professional validation was his. But as it turned out, Mack already had experienced personal liberation. You could tell by what he told his players after the whooping and hollering subsided in the Texas locker room that night.
"Make me a promise," Mack said, "that this won't be the best thing that happens in your life."
Davis, his longtime offensive coordinator, asked him days later: "Where did that come from?"
Mack's answer: "I don't know. I didn't plan on saying that."
Sally thinks she knows exactly where it came from. It was the realization, after those grim times, that there was more to life than simply trying to pile up accomplishments so high that even a deceased man could see them.
"I think it's so interesting," she said, "that he finally won it when he quit wanting it so badly."
Make no mistake, Mack Brown wants this one, too.
He is more relaxed than ever, less likely to yell, more comfortable in his own skin, less insecure about criticism. But he's not here in California to serenely enjoy the ride. He is grinding hard in preparation for playing Alabama.
Hard work with a dose of perspective is a powerful combination. The guy who was 3-10 against the top 10 in his first seven years is 5-3 against that level of competition since then. Although Stoops has forfeited his "Big Game Bob" nickname, Brown has only polished his big-game résumé.
And if he beats the Crimson Tide and wins a second national title, Brown will have done something so many of the more celebrated coaches out there -- Alabama's Nick Saban, Ohio State's Jim Tressel and, yes, Stoops -- have not done.
"I'm more confident, I'm happier, I'm healthier," Brown said. "We know what we're doing, and everything is in place. Everything's good here right now."
There is nothing left to prove to Melvin Brown or anyone else. Nothing left at all.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.