Coaching football at the University of Texas is not for the old or faint of heart. No one was more beloved than Darrell Royal, and he quit at 52, burned up and out. Favorite son David McWilliams aged 10 years in five as coach. Blair Cherry went 32-10-1 in four years and gave up Texas at 51 for the oil business. He complained of an ulcer and insomnia, a condition aggravated by drunks calling at 3 in the morning.
Mack Brown outlasted them all, the good and bad and anonymous. He’s 62 and still game after 16 seasons, even if his bosses aren’t.
When word leaked Tuesday that the end was near, Mack responded in typical fashion:
“I’m in Florida recruiting,” he told recruiting guru Bobby Burton. “If I had decided to step down, I sure wouldn’t be killing myself down here.”
For a coach of such vision, the CEO who turned Texas into the nation’s biggest, richest football program, Mack didn’t see it coming. Or maybe he just refused to acknowledge it. He liked it too much to give it up. That alone separated him from his predecessors.
His detractors among Texas’ power brokers had a few reasons for wanting him out. Not the least of them was the fact that both Texas A&M and Baylor passed Texas in the last couple of years behind Heisman quarterbacks Mack didn’t want. Jameis Winston says he wanted to go to Texas, too, but Mack said no, thanks, to him as well. If Winston wins the Heisman as expected for Florida State, the streak continues after Mack’s gone.
Quarterbacks would bedevil him for most of his tenure at Texas. He got crosswise with fans because he favored Chris Simms over folk hero Major Applewhite. He had to cave in and fit the offense to fit Vince Young’s talents before he won a BCS title. He might have won a second if Alabama hadn’t knocked Colt McCoy out of the 2010 title game.
His career at Texas was one of extremes. He owns some of the greatest moments in Texas’ long, distinguished history. Also some of the worst. He’s considered one of the best closers ever, yet inspired the nickname February’s Coach early on for his failure to translate talent into titles. He won at least 10 games nine years in a row and went 10-4 in bowl games. You can count his conference titles on one set of hook ‚Äòem horns.
His problems at the State Fair alone might have toppled a coach with less clout among his bosses. He was 6-9 against Bob Stoops. Four of the losses were by 40 or more points.
For years, I promoted the theory that Mack was as good as his coordinators. When he had good coaches running his defenses, he won. But the problem was that his coordinators were always just passing through on the way to better jobs. It put pressure on him to make good hires, and Manny Diaz wasn’t one of them.
Every new coach brought a different philosophy. If Kirby Smart left as Alabama’s defensive coordinator, the Crimson Tide would still run Nick Saban’s defense. Same with Bob Stoops at Oklahoma. Urban Meyer at Ohio State and Baylor’s Art Briles are the de factor architects of their offenses. Mack never had an offense or defense he could call his own.
He wanted a power running game, a quarterback who could throw deep and a hard-nosed defense, just like Alabama’s. He occasionally had one, maybe two, but not all three.
Critics called his players soft, like their head coach. If that was unfair, it was probably true that he wasn’t tough enough. He didn’t demand the offense he wanted from his first offensive coordinator and friend, Greg Davis.
Of course, he was just being true to himself. He was nice to everybody. Even sportswriters. No one ever worked a room better. He’d remember your name, grab your hand and refuse to hold a grudge, even if he had a right.
But for all the political skills that served him so well with his bosses and boosters, he wasn’t close to the media. Not like Royal, the only coach who eclipses him at Texas. Royal, a sportswriter’s best friend, hosted raucous media parties in Room 2001 at the old Villa Capri. In the ‘60s, he occasionally stayed over with a couple of Dallas sportswriters on trips up I-35.
The distance between sportswriters and coaches is considerably greater now. In an era when everyone has a coach’s cell number, no one has Mack’s. He loosened up some the last couple of years, perhaps sensing he needed more friends. His weekly off-the-record conversations were funny, insightful, even dangerous, considering the possibility someone he didn’t know well would betray his confidences. He didn’t seem to appreciate the risk. He was having too good of a time.
Mack isn’t too old to start over someplace else, but that’s not the history at Texas. Over the last 80 years, only two former football coaches have gone on to coach elsewhere. Fred Akers went to Purdue, to his regret; John Mackovic, to Arizona’s.
The Texas job makes you old before your time. If you’re the head coach in Austin, capital of the greatest football state in the country, you’re supposed to win. You can’t make someone else’s history.
Whatever else you might say about Mack Brown, he didn’t flinch. Blair Cherry was so sick of it, he couldn’t wait to go into the oil business.
“You dig a hole,” he once said, “and oil comes out, or it doesn’t.
He died a rich man at 65 of a heart attack, having never looked back.