LONG READ, BUT FANTASTIC!!!!! Randy
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College Football: Constant Eyes of Texas
AUSTIN, Texas — Mack Brown has asked for a show of hands. It’s Sunday afternoon, Sept. 5. He is standing in front of his Texas football team on the day after its 34-17 season-opening victory over Rice. Brown and his assistants have just run through game video with the players, offering commentary on all phases of the Longhorns’ performance. Positives are sprinkled in among the critiques. Brown has congratulated his team on being 1-0, and called for the players to applaud themselves. But the clapping was brief, and now it’s time for the man in charge of arguably the biggest and most valuable brand in college football to drop some hard, big-picture truth on his players. “Raise your hand if you played with as much passion and emotion as you ever have in a football game,” Brown says, then looks out and counts the hands. There were six.
“How much do you like being at Texas and like being a football player?” Brown continues. “Some of you like being at Texas more than you’ve earned the right to be here. “I was embarrassed for myself. I was embarrassed for some of my coaches, not all. I was embarrassed for some of you players, not all. … It was kind of embarrassing. “Boy, I’m scared. I’m worried about this team. I’m worried about it. “We’ve got some entitlement in this room. Got to get that fixed. Got some selfishness in this room. Got to get that fixed. This isn’t Texas football. “What concerns me, we’ve got guys in this room who have won too easy. … You’re ranked the fifth-best team in the country, and we just played OK. We have not earned that ranking.”
For all the people who have labeled him “Mack the Nice” — too soft on his players to make them as good as they can be — this was an illustrative moment. He wasn’t very nice. Not mean. Not browbeating. Not profane or insulting or bullying. But certainly not nice.
Two hours later, Mack Brown is walking with his wife, Sally, to the team’s Sunday victory dinner in an opulent dining hall in 100,119-seat Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. He sees wide receiver Marquise Goodwin ahead of him, wearing a New York Yankees hat, and calls him over. “Would you please tell your fellow receiver Mike Davis that the Yankees don’t wear red?” Brown asks, exchanging a playful fist bump with Goodwin. “He has a red Yankees hat. I hate red.” For the next 90 minutes, Brown is once again the paternal jokester who won over these players and their families as high schoolers. He is literally hands-on in expressing his affection for the players he just chewed out — grabbing an elbow or a neck, slapping a belly or a back, giving a hug. “We separate what we say out there [in the film room] with what we say in here,” Brown says. “In here, we ask about their families and have fun with them.” During dinner, Brown quietly consoles cornerback Chykie Brown over the loss of his uncle Friday night — the coach didn’t hear about it until Sunday morning. He congratulates several freshmen on getting their first playing experience, asking each of them, “Did you have fun?” And he gives the business to Mike Davis when he sees him. “Did Marquise talk to you?” Brown asks, blue eyes twinkling. “The Yankees wear a blue hat, not red.” Davis, a highly touted recruit who was in on 38 plays against Rice but did not catch a pass in his first college game, breaks into a smile. “Did you block anybody yesterday?” Brown needles. “Yes.” “You did?” “Look at the film!” Davis says, laughing. Brown has looked at the film. Three times, in fact, in less than 24 hours — once he watched the broadcast copy, twice he watched the team’s own cut. He’ll review it one more time that night before moving on to discs of the next opponent, Wyoming. Being a film freak is part of the Texas football coach’s job. So is being the bad guy. And the father figure. And the motivator. And the face of the program to recruits, boosters, media and fans. There are so many parts to Mack Brown’s high-paying, high-pressure job that it’s amazing one man can perform them all. ESPN.com gained unprecedented access to his program to see how he does it.
“I own the restaurant. There are a lot of cooks, waiters and waitresses in this restaurant. They worry about their problems. I worry about all the problems.”– Mack Brown
Thursday, Sept. 2
AUSTIN — This is Mack Brown’s favorite day of a game week. The work on the game plan is largely done. The staff meetings by this stage are what Brown calls “worry meetings” — there is no serious strategy left to be mapped out. The heavy practices are over. The tension of game day is still 48 hours away. It’s time to lift nose from grindstone ever so slightly and have some fun with his team.
So, practice at Texas’ full-size indoor bubble — the school also has a 50-yard indoor facility because, hey, this is Texas — includes entertainment at the beginning and the end. It starts with trick-shot archer Frank Addington — a buddy of Longhorns icon Earl Campbell — who claims he can shoot an arrow behind his back and hit a baby aspirin in midair. The archer warms up by puncturing a few balloons, to polite applause from the team. Then he goes for the grand finale: nailing three aspirin with three arrows all fired simultaneously. Everyone in the bubble is skeptical. The salvo misses. The second salvo misses, and you can see some coaches — notably ultra-intense defensive coordinator Will Muschamp — beginning to wonder whether they’re going to be here all day instead of getting on with practice. On the third try, Addington announces success — “Got ‘em!” — to a surprised audience. Fact is, the aspirin are too small to know for sure whether he hit them. Nevertheless, the team cheers and he gets to break down the huddle, sending the players off to work on special teams. (Every Texas practice follows the same general script: special teams, individual position work, group work and team scrimmage situations.) While the Horns begin their drills, Brown positions himself at midfield so he can observe the offense to his left and defense to his right. At his side are two booster friends from Dallas, Baker Montgomery and Bill Duvall — Brown says Duvall hasn’t missed a Thursday practice in the 13 years the coach has been at Texas. Brown chats occasionally with Montgomery and Duvall, but his eyes don’t leave the field. If he sees something that needs correcting, he interjects. “Coaches need to understand I’m paying attention,” Brown says. “And players need to know I’m watching.” Several times during practice, he reaches for the pencil and paper in his back pocket. Mack Brown loves taking notes. During games. During practices. Watching film. Watching other games on TV. His restless mind is always sifting information and deciding how it can apply to Texas football. In his office, Brown keeps a bound notebook of practice plans from preseason camp. On the back of each day’s plan, he has covered the blank white page with notes. It could range from tiny details (wanting to know why a player is wearing one sock high and one low) to program-shaping decisions (recruiting and future schedules). All his thoughts for the day are poured out in small, neat cursive. “He sees the big picture,” Muschamp says. “Offense, defense, recruiting, public relations, alumni relations. He’s always going to say the right thing, whether it’s in front of the team, a group of young people or a major corporation. He has a phenomenal way of communicating to all kinds of people.”
At the end of practice, the communication to the players is direct: Curfew is 10:30. “Stay in,” Brown says. “You’ve worked way too hard to screw up now.” Then it’s time for more fun. At the culmination of a long run-up to the first game of the year, Brown wants his players relaxed and confident. Toward that end, associate athletics director of football operations Cleve Bryant has set up a basketball competition inside the bubble. A portable goal has been wheeled in, and the defense will take on the offense — two players and one position coach from each side. The competition is close through the first two shooters — tackle Kyle Hix and running backs coach Major Applewhite for the offense, tackle Kheeston Randall and secondary coach Duane Akina for the defense. But then the last shooter, end Eddie Jones, puts it out of reach for the defense. When Jones swishes his third 3-pointer, the defense erupts and charges Jones, who runs away half in celebration and half to protect himself from his swarming teammates. From there, the Horns go into the team meeting room for a video montage — some comedy, some football, some reaffirmation of the week’s motivational messages from staff to players. The players, still in their practice shorts and shirts but no cleats, are boisterous and jovial. They quiet down when it’s time for Brown to stand up and reach for the notes in his back pocket. He tells his players the following:
A Miami Dolphins player lost a $50,000 earring at practice and had teammates helping him search in the grass for it. Lesson: Now you know why we don’t want you wearing earrings to practice. And we’d hope you would spend your money wisely if you make it in the NFL — like, not on $50,000 earrings. An update on the debacle at North Carolina. Lesson: See how devastating selfish decisions can be to a team’s goal of success? And this is why we’re paranoid about agents and runners. Only a few thousand tickets remain for the Rice “home” opener in Houston’s Reliant Stadium. Brown is buoyant over the orange-intensive crowd his players will see and reminds them of the statewide reach of the program. “How many of you are from H-Town?” Brown asks, counting hands. “We do not want to go back to H-Town and stink it up.” To travel and play with class. To never get outhit. To lead the nation in effort.
“Do we think you’re going to play well? Yes,” Brown said. “Why? Because we’ve seen you play well every day in practice. Do we know you’re going to play well? No. That’s why we’re anxious. “We’re very proud of you. We thank you for busting your tail every minute of every day. And we can’t wait to watch you play.” With that, Brown dismisses the players to the training table — freshmen will get a serving of blue rice to devour — and the assistants to the recruiting trail. He will go home to watch the opening games of the college season on a three-TV setup — pencil and notepad next to him at all times.
“I try to make my job look really easy. If something arises, take care of it and keep smiling.”– Mack Brown
Friday, Sept. 3
HOUSTON — Mack Brown is standing on the grass in Reliant Stadium. It’s midafternoon, and his Longhorns are walking through a few plays in sweats. Twenty-four hours from now, they will play Rice here in the season opener. The coach, dressed in black slacks, black blazer and burnt orange golf shirt, grins broadly. This wasn’t the plan at all. On the three-hour bus ride to Houston, Texas assistant athletic director of football operations George Wynn got a phone call from the hotel where the team was scheduled to stay. A blown generator had started a fire. There suddenly was no room at the inn. At least no air-conditioned room. Wynn began working on relocation immediately. While peppering Houston-area hotels with calls about vacancies, he asked Brown to stall for time. “He said, ‘Give me until 3,’” Brown said. “George is good.” Hence the impromptu walk-through of sorts. Brown’s original plan was simply to have the players stroll across the surface of Reliant, get a feel for the building and the locker room, and picture themselves beating Rice here the next day. Now they had to fake a miniature practice. The players are oblivious to the logistical scrambling going on, which is precisely what Brown wants. He and most of his staff have been together forever, and the staffers instinctively assume the upbeat, calm demeanor of their leader. “That’s why it’s so important to have an experienced staff,” Brown says. “This could’ve been a huge distraction. The kids don’t need to worry about hotels. We do.” After about 10 calls, Wynn learns that the Westin Galleria can house more than 100 unexpected guests that night. And provide them an entire floor of meeting rooms. And a buffet dinner and breakfast. But it will take some time to pull everything together. Luckily for Brown, there is an available prop to help stretch things out at the stadium. Former Texas offensive lineman Kasey Studdard — a member of the Houston Texans and one of a national-best 40 former Longhorns on NFL 53-man rosters at the start of the 2010 season — is here to greet the team. Brown asks him to speak. “One of the most passionate Texas players we ever had,” Brown says by way of introduction. “He was ready to play every game.”
Among those who hugged Studdard at the stadium was Brown’s wife, Sally. Her Friday ritual: handing out homemade chocolate-chip and peanut-butter cookies to every player and coach. “Everyone here thinks that what they do makes the difference between whether we win or lose,” Brown says with a smile. “For Sally, it’s the cookies.” While eating cookies on the bus, Brown is sending out a flurry of texts. He’s wishing good luck to college coaching friends, networking with Texas high school coaches and communicating with his staffers who are out recruiting. Most of the Longhorns assistants went out Thursday night, scouting games and visiting high school coaches during the day today. They’ll scout more games tonight. Brown is in close contact with all his assistants, getting player evaluations and getting a read on how targeted prospects are feeling about Texas. Brown is among the top recruiters in the game for two reasons: He has the natural people skills to excel at it, and he works at it constantly. “There isn’t a day goes by that we don’t talk about recruiting,” offensive coordinator Greg Davis says. In the staff meeting room adjacent to Brown’s office, there are two big whiteboards. One contains the team’s depth chart. The other is the recruiting board — who has committed and who is targeted, by position and by year. One look makes it clear that the Longhorns are way ahead of most rivals in the talent procurement game. “Outside of football,” Brown says, “everything we do is team-building and recruiting.” There are three signs above the depth-chart board. The first says “Write Your Recruits.” To the left of the board is a list of principles that make up the Texas recruiting profile: ability, plus a background in a winning program; good family values (usually including at least one strong male role model in the player’s life); a core GPA of 3.0 or better; leadership skills within the team, school and community; confidence and happiness; toughness and competitiveness; and it certainly helps if the player “likes Texas!” This morning, the video from Thursday’s post-practice basketball contest was e-mailed to everyone on Texas’ recruiting list. The individualized e-mails also wished players good luck in their games that weekend and reminded them to tune in Saturday to see the Longhorns. But before the Horns can get to game time, they have to get checked in at their new hotel. It takes a couple of hours for Wynn and the hotel staff to get rooms assigned, so players make use of that time to cruise the Galleria mall, which is attached to the hotel. A team trip to the movies is canceled because the theater is located closer to the original hotel. Instead, the evening consists of a voluntary team chapel service (attended by about 45 players), dinner and meetings. At dinner, Brown tells the players he appreciates them handling the “sudden change” (a football term) of hotels well. In the unit meetings, Brown sits in the back, mostly listening as his coordinators go through video to make sure the players are mentally attuned to formations and keys. “I need to have a presence,” he says. “I’m there more to be seen than anything else. I walk in, listen, say something so they know I’m here, and that’s it.” In the defensive meeting, Muschamp shows a mixture of Rice and Kansas offensive video because the Owls’ new coordinator, David Beaty, was with the Jayhawks last year. Muschamp quizzes his players on what their responsibilities are in different sets and says the Rice game plan is unknown enough that Texas probably will keep its defense fairly basic early on.
“Let’s get our cleats in the dirt and be ready to play,” Muschamp says. Muschamp wants his defense to establish one thing right away: Texas is there to hit hard all day. Brown, who ran an NFL-style preseason camp of light hitting in scrimmage situations to avoid injuries, strongly reinforces that. All through August, Brown chided tacklers who took running backs to the ground. He chastised them for invading “the cylinder” of protective space around quarterbacks. “Light … them … up,” Brown says. “I will not mention the cylinder tomorrow, guys. I will not mention staying up.” When the meetings are done, Brown retires to his room to watch Arizona play Toledo and to fire off a few more texts — some for motivational purposes, some for recruiting. Mack never sleeps long. The eve of his 37th season as a college coach will be no different.
“I started playing football in fourth grade. For 51 years, I’ve been involved in football. I’m old as hell, aren’t I? That’s a lot of opening days. Lot of opening days.”– Mack Brown
Saturday, Sept. 4
HOUSTON — Fifty-one opening days, and the butterflies are still there. “When they’re not,” Mack Brown says, “it will be time to quit.” The joy, wonder and anxiety of opening day are what he wants his Texas players to appreciate before leaving the Westin Galleria for Reliant Stadium. Brown is a football romantic at heart. So, in the final team meeting before the buses roll, Mack lets Kenny Chesney do most of the talking. He plays a long, goose-bump-producing video of Chesney’s ode to football, “The Boys of Fall.”
“This is a dream for you,” he says. “This is a dream for your coaches. This is a dream for me. You’ve wanted this day. Enjoy it. “I always sit here and wonder, ‘Would I rather be coaching this team or that team?’ No question, I want to be coaching you.” With that, the meeting breaks. The players pass through a cordoned-off section of the Galleria — to the shock and curiosity of shoppers — on their way to the buses. They get a police escort to the stadium. Among those greeting the bus is a Brown favorite, former Longhorns running back Selvin Young. He played a few years in the NFL and now has opened two restaurants in the Houston area, Bobby Q’s. Young has contracted to feed the team after the game, and he’s thrilled to see his old coach. “I’ve been trying to live off everything he’s taught me,” Young says. “I still hear half of it in my ear.” Today, Young will hear a lot of Texas cheer in his ear. This Rice home game is anything but. Brown has been lobbying for weeks for Texas fans to buy tickets, and he was thrilled to hear that the game sold out at more than 70,000. You can barely locate any pockets of blue among the burnt orange. But although lacking a home-field advantage, the Owls have a clear emotional edge. For many, this is the biggest game of their lives. And they have zero pressure. That’s why Brown privately predicted a difficult start earlier in the day. He has relentlessly projected enthusiasm, confidence and excitement to his players, while suspecting that this might not be as easy as everyone thinks. “You figure Rice will have a trick play to start, will make a play or two, will be so excited to play,” Brown said after breakfast this morning. “So you figure the start of the game will not go well, and you have to regroup and go from there.”
The prediction was prescient. Rice got the ball first and unveiled a starting quarterback and an offensive set that were different from anything Texas had been expecting. And on the second play, Rice ran a successful reverse to Michigan transfer running back Sam McGuffie, who had split out wide as a receiver. Taylor McHargue completed four straight passes, and the Owls moved into the red zone before Texas stiffened and held Rice to a field goal. When the Horns get the ball, it is time to showcase their rededication to power football. After years of watching Vince Young and Colt McCoy operate as primary runners out of the shotgun, the Longhorns will put the quarterback under center more and pound the football with their running backs.
That’s been discussed so much since last spring that Brown would love to counterprogram the opener. “The kid in you wants to come out and throw it every play in the first quarter,” he said earlier. “Just to mess with everyone.” Texas doesn’t mess with anyone, running off-tackle on the first play and sticking with its advertised game plan. But when the Horns cannot convert a goal-to-go power series from the 1, anxiety ripples through Reliant. Brown had emphasized to his squad the cautionary tales of power teams that weren’t ready for their opener — USC on Thursday night, Florida on Saturday morning — and now it looked as if the Longhorns might join the list. But they tie the score at 3 on the first play of the second quarter, then vault to a 24-3 lead with a flurry of big plays. Sophomore quarterback Garrett Gilbert, making his first start, looks solid. Rice’s only response is a fluke 47-yard deflected scoring bomb on the last play of the half from scrimmage. Throughout the half, Brown had been making notes. But the first order of business in the halftime locker room is to get fluids into the players while the coaches quickly meet in private. “Zero-zero, men, let’s go,” defensive end Sam Acho says. “They got a couple lucky plays, that’s it.” The room is split between offense and defense, and when the coaches come in, the coordinators go to work. Greg Davis is quietly analytical on his side. Will Muschamp is not. “They got one fluke, and they hurt us with the zone read,” Muschamp says, stewing on two quarterback runs for good yardage. “That’s it. Just do your [bleeping] job. Assignment football. Do your [bleeping] job! “You’re playing your ass off. Let’s go.” Brown addresses the team briefly before the return to the field, and he keeps his thoughts big-picture because the coordinators and position coaches have covered the X’s and O’s. “Fellas, good first half,” he says. “I didn’t see the emotion I wanted to see, on the field or on the bench. You’re not having enough fun. Let’s have more fun. Let’s put emotion into this thing.” The emotion never fully takes hold. Texas plays a middling second half, scoring 10 points and giving up a late touchdown by the second-team defense after a fumbled punt deep in Longhorns territory. The final scoreboard says 34-17. The margin should have been about three touchdowns bigger.
As he jogs off the field, Brown is weighing all that when a man and his son, dressed in orange, stop him and ask for a picture. How they reached field level is anyone’s guess. And rest assured, Brown does not want to mess with a picture when he’s trying to figure out what to say to his players. But, as usual, he stops, smiles and accommodates. He understands and embraces the public demands of his job as well as any coach in the country. After a brief quiet moment in the locker room, the veterans start jumping and shouting in unison: “Ain’t no party like a Longhorn party cuz a Longhorn party don’t stop!” Pretty soon the whole team is jumping and celebrating together, and everyone remembers that victories are to be celebrated. “Congratulations on being 1-0,” Brown says. “That’s important. Give yourself a hand.” But after that, Brown shifts into critique mode. “I didn’t see as much fun as I thought I would,” he says. “We’ve got a little arrogance about this bunch right now. I shouldn’t have said this could be the best defense we’ve ever had because right now we’re a long way from that. I talked about the physical run game; we need to stop talking about that. “This isn’t a 10-win team right now, much less a championship team. We need to get better for next week, not down the road. We won’t beat Wyoming playing like that.” Then, as usual, Brown goes in to meet the media and plays a different tune. One thing you will never hear from Brown are harsh public comments about his players. He’d rather swallow a hand grenade than criticize anyone individually. That’s both personal belief and recruiting experience. He knows it plays well with the mamas. “Really excited to have won the opener,” he tells reporters. “There will be an upset today as we look around the country, and it scares you to death.” Brown acknowledges that there is “a whole season of things we need to fix,” but notes that the bottom line is victory. “We’ve got to be careful sending a message that winning isn’t enough,” he says. “That’s a bad message.” Then Brown is gone to the bus. There is satellite TV onboard, so he’ll watch Oregon State and TCU on the ride home. When he returns to Austin, the Rice game video will be waiting. Even after 51 openers, there’s no going to bed before watching the film.
“Mack is the ultimate leader. We haven’t lost a whole lot of ballgames, but if we do, it’s all on him. He doesn’t point fingers, takes total responsibility. That to me is what a leader does.”– Cleve Bryant, associate athletics director for football operations
Sunday, Sept. 5
AUSTIN — Texas is 1-0, but there was a momentary postgame ache for Mack Brown as he settled onto the team bus. “I felt really sad,” he says the next afternoon, sitting in his office in the Moncrief-Neuhaus Athletic Center. “I always call Mother right after the games. This was the first time in a long time I didn’t have her to call.” Katherine Brown died in February at age 81. She was the nurturing influence in Mack’s life, the encourager who counterbalanced his demanding dad, Melvin. And she taught Mack a lot of his legendary people skills. Brown is almost bereft of the machismo that permeates his profession. He doesn’t need the cameras to focus on him leading the players out of the tunnel at the beginning of a game, so he jogs out behind them. And he doesn’t need the power trip of ripping any of the people under him in public. “The perception is we never yell at anybody and smile at everybody,” Brown says. “We are really hard on the kids. We just don’t need everybody to see us do it.” Same goes for dealing with his assistants. The afternoon staff meeting is the only time Brown shuts us out of anything. He said he needed to get on his coaches for some of Texas’ first-game sloppiness, and he was going to do it behind a closed meeting-room door.
That’s Brown’s way. In public, whatever goes wrong in Texas football is his fault. Whatever frustrations exist, they’re usually kept submerged. “I hate panic guys,” Brown says. “We’re supposed to fix things. Fix crises, stay positive, move forward.” The fixing of whatever went wrong against Rice begins in the video room with the team this afternoon. Although Brown stressed to his players and the media that winning the first game is the important thing, he also knows that the performance against Rice isn’t good enough for Texas and what it wants to accomplish. “We play to a standard,” Brown says, often. He also coaches to a standard of top-down accountability. It’s on display later in the afternoon when the team assembles to watch film of the Rice game. Assistant Duane Akina, who is in charge of the Longhorns’ punt-return team, talking to the room as a whole: “I promise you, this will not look this way next week when we turn this thing on. You’ve got too much heart and desire and pride.” Assistant Mike Tolleson, stepping forward to dissect video of the Texas punt team: “I have obviously screwed this unit up right here. It is all on me. I promise you, it will get fixed.” Everything on video is meticulously graded by Brown’s assistants. Players are given numerous awards for the Rice game, including “player of the game” belts similar to heavyweight boxing champion belts. Linebacker Keenan Robinson, who had an interception and a fumble return for a touchdown, is proudly carrying his belt over his shoulder around the complex. After the team video review, players meet with their position coaches to go over the video of their specific performances. In the quarterback meeting, offensive coordinator Greg Davis points out one major complication in the Rice game — the NFL stadium painted the college hashmarks 2 yards too narrow. That fouled up the Texas receivers all game in terms of figuring out how wide to line up.
Davis also points out to sophomore Garrett Gilbert some of the underappreciated plays he made in his first college start. On a third-and-17 in Rice territory, Gilbert checked down and threw a short completion instead of forcing something deeper into coverage. “Because of this completion, you allowed Coach Brown to kick a field goal,” Davis says. “It’s important that you do what the defense tells you to do.” “Good play,” Davis says a moment later, when Gilbert throws a ball away under pressure. At the end of the video, Davis announces that Gilbert had zero N.O.S. plays — short for “not our standard.” In Texas’ 50-yard facility a little later, every player who had an N.O.S. has to come to the center of a circle of his offensive teammates one at a time and lead them all in an up-down — diving to the ground on his chest, then bouncing to his feet — for each N.O.S. he had. After walking through all the plays they didn’t execute well against Rice, the players head outside into the stadium to run — sprints for those who didn’t play much, a relaxed jog for those who did. Coaches, meanwhile, are monitoring body language and attitude — looking for players who might be pouting about playing time, or some who might be more banged up than originally believed. “You have the guy who played, and played well,” Brown says. “You have the guy who played and didn’t play well. And you have the guy who didn’t play. “You’re dealing with a lot of stuff.”
“Nothing sits on his desk long. He is not a guy who thinks, ‘If I wait long enough, this will go away.’ If there’s a problem or potential problem, it is addressed immediately.”– Greg Davis, offensive coordinator
Monday, Sept. 6
AUSTIN — Today is Mack Brown’s wedding anniversary, which makes no sense at all. What football coach gets married in September?
It happened rather abruptly, back in 1992. Brown was the coach at North Carolina. He was divorced and trying not to constantly ruin the laundry and burn the breakfast for his two daughters. He’d been dating Sally Larson, a highly successful real estate developer, for quite some time. Marriage was inevitable, but seemingly not imminent.
But Brown’s daughter Barbara began saying she was going to move in with Sally. A coach who finds solutions to conundrums quickly started figuring that he and his kids might as well move in as a team. So one day he told his staff he was leaving the Carolina football facility at noon to get married. They stopped at Burger King for lunch, then drove just across the North Carolina border to a wedding chapel in Dillon, S.C. You can get married there in 10 minutes, and you can get back to your coaching job later that afternoon. “Pretty romantic, huh?” Brown says with a smile. What the wedding lacked in romance, the marriage has made up for in strength. Once a complete football know-nothing — she’d never even been to a game until she started dating Mack — Sally Brown is a full partner in Texas football. She is a source of wisdom and support, viewing his job through the fresh perspective of someone not immersed in the minutiae of it. And Mack loves having her around the facility and around his players. Mack has asked Sally whether she wants to go out for an anniversary dinner, but she knows better. She knows he wants to watch Virginia Tech play Boise State, coached by two of his good friends in the business, Frank Beamer and Chris Petersen. So they settle on dinner at home and a lunch date for the next day. In the meantime, there is heavy work to be done in the Texas coaches’ offices. Monday is the players’ off day, other than for a handful who are asked to appear for the Longhorns’ weekly media luncheon. For the coaches, Monday is game-plan day. That means hours spent in a darkened room. They all watched Wyoming video separately Sunday night. Now they’re watching it together, scrutinizing the tape and deciding how to attack the Cowboys.
In the offensive staff room, coordinator Greg Davis sits at the head of the table with clicker and laser pointer at the ready. Receivers coach Bobby Kennedy and running backs coach Major Applewhite sit to his right. Line coach Mac McWhorter and tight ends coach Bruce Chambers sit to his left. All of them chime in with their observations and opinions. Brown occupies a seat in the corner. “My job is to simply say ‘Why don’t we do this?’” Brown says. “I’m the bad guy. They roll their eyes when I leave.” The wall behind Chambers and McWhorter is covered with diagrams of Wyoming’s defensive alignments. The wall behind Kennedy and Applewhite is steadily being filled in with plays the Longhorns think can work against the Cowboys. On the table between them sit notepads, water bottles and a tin of Copenhagen. On a shelf behind them is a jumbo container of animal crackers. Davis works the video. He and other assistants rattle off research statistics that have been culled by Texas graduate assistants. When facing a certain formation in its opener, Wyoming’s right defensive end lined up 93 percent of the time on the outside shoulder of the tight end. McWhorter reports that the Cowboys’ defensive line twisted 36 percent of the time in their first game, an increase over last year and a major increase from their game against Texas last year. There is a mountain of detail being discussed, an avalanche of esoterica. The terminology is completely foreign. It is a humbling reminder of how much more complicated football strategy is than most outsiders believe. For a strategy wonk such as Davis, this is heaven. Monday is his favorite day of the week. “It’s the beginning of the puzzle,” he says. Brown points out that Davis gets to the office at 7 a.m. on Mondays. The other assistants all laugh at that. “I was here at 5,” Davis says. By Tuesday morning, Davis will have a “ready list” of plays to present to the staff and players, and the formations they can be run from. This will be the game plan for the week, though it likely will be streamlined after practices Tuesday and Wednesday by throwing out plays that aren’t working well. Texas carried 76 pass plays into the Rice game, and not quite that many runs. The numbers probably will be similar for Wyoming. Brown and Davis have worked together for 18 years, dating back to their stint at Tulane in the 1980s. Mack trusts Davis with the play calling, keeping his eye more on personnel and big-picture decisions during a game. “I won’t call a play,” Brown says. “My place is to say, ‘Major, this back is running hot. Think about using him.’ Or, ‘We’ve crossed the 40. We’re four downs.’”
Down the hall in the defensive staff room, coordinator Will Muschamp is doing the same thing with assistants Duane Akina, Oscar Giles and Mike Tolleson. Brown, whose pedigree is offense, will spend more time Monday with Davis than Muschamp, but he does pay a visit to the defensive room. Muschamp says that by Tuesday he will have a breakdown by personnel and down-and-distance of everything Wyoming does. Texas did a summer scout on its first four opponents — going over 2009 game film and breaking down tendencies. That is melded with the information available from Wyoming’s first game. “We broadstroke it together,” Muschamp says. “Then we break up individually and hit the fine details by position.” Beyond game planning, Brown and his coordinators have one other major duty on Mondays: meeting with the media. Everything is bigger in Texas, and that includes the fan base and the media coverage.
Few coaches handle that obligation as smoothly as Brown, who has a thorough understanding of how to create an advantageous relationship with the media. On Sundays, he meets with media relations director John Bianco — who, like most of the coaches and support staff and secretaries, has worked with Brown since he arrived in 1998 — to discuss the primary talking points coming out of the previous game and heading into the next game. By the time Brown sits down Monday — first with the broadcast media, then separately with the writers — he has a printed list of items he wants to cover. And by the time Brown is finished delivering his message, many of the media questions have been answered before they were asked. When Brown is done — including a seven-minute side trip to a nearby phone for his spot on the weekly Big 12 teleconference — Davis and Muschamp have their turn. Some coaches don’t let their coordinators talk; Brown has no problem with it, though. He makes an effort to spread the credit and attention to his lieutenants — which is probably one of the reasons for his remarkable staff continuity. “Most of this thing,” he says, “just runs itself.” That’s a bit of a duck statement — what looks smooth on top of the water is the result of strenuous effort beneath it. When Mack Brown goes home for his anniversary dinner and turns on Boise State versus Virginia Tech, he will have his pad and pencil out, making notes on Texas versus Wyoming.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been around a coach who is more inclusive than Mack.”– Fred Akers, former Texas coach
Tuesday, Sept. 7
AUSTIN — Rain from Tropical Storm Hermine is coming in torrents. It is a miserable day for football. Unless you have an indoor facility. For that, Mack Brown is supremely thankful. “There are coaches at some schools today who have no idea what to do,” he says.
With no such worries, Brown is free to conduct a brisk but thorough 9 a.m. staff meeting. He quizzes trainer Kenny Boyd about injuries and about who will be available for practice. He asks ops guys Cleve Bryant and George Wynn about the possibility of adding signage in the stadium commemorating the Big 12 South Division championship — a suggestion of friend and booster Bill Duvall. He reads notes from games he watched that weekend. From the Navy-Maryland game, the first half of which ended with clock mismanagement by the Midshipmen, Brown asks offensive coordinator Greg Davis the minimum time needed to line up and run a play with no timeouts at the end of a half or game. (Answer: three seconds.) From the Tulsa-East Carolina game, decided on a Hail Mary pass, he wants video clips shown to the players to remind them that no game is over until the final play. He also wants upset clips of Jacksonville State beating Ole Miss and North Dakota State beating Kansas, reinforcing that an unfocused Tuesday practice can lead to a Saturday disaster. To Davis, Brown says he wants emphasis on short-yardage running, the one-minute drill and maintaining balance in play calling. To defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, Brown says he wants to stress creating turnovers, to make players aware of the talents of Wyoming’s quarterback and receivers, and to “continue to work to get the best guys on the field.” On special teams, he wants to re-evaluate personnel in some positions — especially the wings on the kickoff return team because Rice sky-kicked repeatedly to keep the ball away from Texas’ fast deep men.
“Let’s work with each kid to make sure we’re playing with energy, passion and toughness,” he says to the entire room. “We didn’t have any bench enthusiasm, and I’m so tired of that. Everything this week will be about energy, desire, purpose.” Brown asks Wynn to get towels to the bench players to wave in an effort to generate more sideline juice. In a sudden light moment, Brown notes that this is the birthday of equipment manager Chip Robertson. “How old, Chip?” “Double nickel,” Robertson responds. After a few moments of fun at Robertson’s expense, Brown asks the coordinators to run through their practice plans. Then he is down to his last two topics: recruiting and motivation. Brown has a list of all the recruits who did not open last week’s e-mail with video from the Thursday basketball contest. He wants follow-up calls with those players, and he will drop them a handwritten note. On the motivation front, locker-room signs are discussed. Wyoming coach Dave Christensen said last year that TCU’s defense is quicker than Texas’. “Use that,” Brown says. And in the offseason, ESPN analyst Andre Ware picked Wyoming to upset Texas. “We’ll have that all week,” Brown says. Brown wraps up the meeting in 30 minutes. Later in the day, he will remind his assistants to text athletic director DeLoss Dodds, thanking him for their indoor facility. But for now, he returns to an office that looks more like a museum. There are gifts and tribute from everywhere — four pairs of Longhorns-themed cowboy boots, Longhorns putters, a model airplane, a collection of coins from generals. There is an aquarium. Not one, not two, but three slide-show photo galleries are in constant motion. The knickknacks are endless. Brown is a collector. But if there is one thing he collects most, it is music. An iPod sits in a docking station on Brown’s desk, and it is legendary. There are nearly 10,000 songs on it, from every conceivable genre. He uses it as a bonding device. “I thought it would be cool that if anybody walked in, I could say, ‘What do you want to hear?’” he says. “And I’d have it.”
Think it might be an effective ice-breaker with a recruit who comes into Brown’s office if the 59-year-old head coach cued up some Drake? Brown says country music is his favorite, but — just like with the stack of different Bibles on his desk and the rosary hanging from his computer — he wants to appeal to people from all backgrounds. Music was one of the key pieces in Brown’s building a relationship with Vince Young. When the talented quarterback arrived at Texas, they were worlds apart. The first time Brown yelled at Young, it didn’t go over well. “I’ve never been yelled at by a white man before,” Young explained. “I’m going to be white,” Brown responded. “And I’m probably going to yell at you again.” In other words: adjust. But Brown did some adjusting, too, learning to appreciate Young’s love of hip-hop and dancing. The relationship worked out pretty well, with Brown and Young sharing the stage in the Rose Bowl after winning the 2005 national championship. Of all Brown’s gifts, his ability to relate to seemingly everyone might be his greatest. Watch him, and you see why people say he’d be a natural politician. On this day, Mack has lunch with Sally at a place called Hoover’s, not far from campus. It is a home-cooking kind of place, and Brown digs into his fried catfish and cabbage with gusto. But he graciously indulges fly-by visitors. Owner Alvin “Skip” Walker is a former running back … at hated rival Texas A&M. Brown doesn’t hold it against him. The two have known each other for years and talk football for quite a while. Walker says his old coach at A&M, Emory Bellard, is in poor health. Brown vows to write Bellard a note. Then a man tentatively approaches the table and hands Brown something that requires explanation. Turns out it is a cross carved out of deer horn. The man says that he once gave one to Colt McCoy and that he’d like Brown to have one. It is odd, but endearing. Brown responds with characteristic charm. “How about if I keep that in my back pocket or on my desk the rest of the year?” he says, making the man’s day. On the way out of the restaurant, Brown smiles and says hello to everyone he passes. Greeted by an awestruck look at one table, he claps a hand on the man’s shoulder and says, “Mack Brown. What’s your name?” This afternoon at practice, while heavy rain pelts the bubble at the indoor field, Brown hosts former coach Fred Akers. There aren’t a lot of visitors at Longhorns practices, but former players and coaches are welcome. That’s part of Brown’s 13-year effort to connect with the prodigious Texas tradition, rebuilding bridges that had been burned by previous coaching staffs. One of Brown’s smartest moves after taking the job was to strike up a deep friendship with the program’s patriarch, Darrell Royal. Brown seems to have memorized everything Royal has ever told him, quoting him on a daily basis. Akers says that when he succeeded Royal, some boosters did not warm to the regime change. He said the same happened to his successor, David McWilliams, and again to John Mackovic. Since Royal retired in 1976, Akers believes only Brown has gotten everyone on the same page. “It’s awesome when you get all the power and intelligence and willingness of Texas together to try to be No. 1,” Akers says. “Mack got ‘em all.”