Exclusive Q&A with Longhorn Legend Mack Brown on the past, present & future
Five years after resigning as Texas coach, Mack Brown reflects on his time here — and embraces the present.
"It would be wrong of me, not knowing that I won’t coach again, to say I won’t coach again. I’ve got the energy — in fact, I’m rested, and I’ve seen more football in the last four years than I did when I quit."
By Tom Buckley
It’s been almost five years since Mack Brown agreed to step down from his position as the Texas head football coach — but it feels like an eternity. His successor has already come and gone, a new coach and administration is in place, and Brown has moved on to other things professionally, namely his position as a studio analyst and color commentator for ESPN and ABC.
Except he really hasn’t moved on. How could he? Brown coached the Longhorns for 16 seasons, amassing 158 wins, second only to Darrell K Royal at Texas. Moreover, new athletics director Chris Del Conte issued a statement in April welcoming Brown “back into the fold” and gave him a new office adjacent to the team meeting room in Moncrief-Neuhaus, the football facility.
After Brown’s resignation, the University appointed him as special assistant to the president, which came with responsibilities like helping with fundraising, public speaking on behalf of Texas, and visiting classes as a guest lecturer — all while serving as an under-the-radar sounding board for coaches, and not just in football. Men’s basketball coach Shaka Smart, for example, has often sought out Brown for advice on how to succeed at Texas.
As such, Del Conte’s public statement seemed motivated more by his desire to recognize and respect what Brown accomplished at Texas — something rarely touted locally — and to invite him to be more actively involved in the football program. For his part, Brown appreciated the comment but took it in stride.
“I think Chris just wanted to tell people he wanted me back around football more,” Brown said. “Because I’ve been careful, I’ve been quiet.”
That may come as a surprise to those who remember Brown as rarely at a loss for words — and someone who always seemed to have just the right words for the occasion. But his tenure at Texas was overshadowed by his sudden departure — and the messiness that surrounded it. So much so that he’s felt the need to tread carefully, to not overstep his bounds, to not be as vocal, except when on the ESPN set in Bristol, Conn., where he’s encouraged to make bold statements.
It seems only fitting, then, that this year has served as a redemptive moment of sorts for the former National Coach of the Year. In December, Brown was inducted into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame, where he won the national championship in 2005. And in January, he was told he’d be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame this December, just the third Texas coach — Royal and Dana Bible are the others — to be honored as such.
But that’s really just window dressing. For Brown, relationships have always been paramount. He continues to advise his former players, who routinely seek out his — and his wife Sally’s — counsel and friendship.
“Words won’t do justice for what coach Brown was to UT and its program,” former Texas defensive tackle Frank Okam said when Brown stepped down in 2013. “His legacy won’t be measured in wins but in the lives he touched.”
And in the way he carried himself.
“As class acts go, Mack Brown belongs on the front row of the team photo,” ESPN’s Gene Wojciechowski tweeted. “In time, even his critics will appreciate how good of a coach he is.”
Brown spoke with Horns Illustrated in May at his new office in Moncrief-Neuhaus.
You look relaxed, Coach.
Mack Brown: I’m sleeping better. Maybe I should just say I’m sleeping. [Laughs]
And yet you’re keeping awfully busy.
Brown: I’m fortunate that Texas allows me to work with the University in the spring and do ESPN/ABC as an analyst in the fall. It’s pretty clear-cut: “Go do your stuff during football season, then come back and help us in the spring.” A coach misses coaching, so the TV stuff lets me stay involved. I get to talk to coaches, text coaches, see all the games on Saturday. I’ll see 24 games and comment on what’s happening. That helps me stay current.
Then in the spring, I’ll help [UT] President [Greg] Fenves or Chris Del Conte or any of the coaches with whatever they need. Before I came here for this interview, I had breakfast with [former Longhorn player] Quan Cosby — just to catch up with him. I’m around all the current coaches, trying to help with any questions they might have, helping with fundraising when Chris needs me to, going to speaking engagements for the University, teaching some classes as a guest lecturer. I probably did too much this spring, in fact, and given that Chris has asked me to do some additional things, I may need to cut back next spring.
What do you envision as your role with Tom Herman?
Brown: Tom worked for us as a graduate assistant — he’s a good friend — but just as with [former UT coach] Charlie [Strong], I feel my role should be one in the background, and if he needs anything, he can text me, call me, or come by and see me. I don’t need to be in his business. I don’t need to be visible. That’s how coach [Darrell] Royal was for me. He was good, but he wasn’t pushy.
Tom spent a year here and was in our staff meetings, so he knows what we did. [Former UT offensive coordinator] Greg Davis knew him better than I did, because Tom worked with Greg about every minute of every day. He thought Tom was very bright.
From here, Tom went to Sam Houston State, then Texas State, then Rice, then Iowa State. And we stayed in close touch with all of those moves. Then I recommended him to [coach] Urban Meyer at Ohio State, which is where he was offensive coordinator before he took the job at Houston.
Tom’s bright and he works hard, and he’ll do here what he did at Houston — he’ll win over time. He just needs to put his name on it.
So you see your role more as a mentor.
Brown: When I was hired at North Carolina, Dick Crum was very gracious and got out of the way. And when I got here, John Mackovic was very gracious. He and I met — he told me some things he liked and some things he would have done differently — then he got out of the way. As much attention as this program gets, it’s important the head coach be the head coach, and that there’s one voice. And if Texas wants me to stay around, then my help should be behind the scenes, because it doesn’t need to clutter what’s happening with the new coach.
I met with Charlie, but it was tougher because I was still coaching guys on that team two weeks before Charlie got here. Still, I made it very clear that I wouldn’t talk to any of those players unless it was about life after football, because that wasn’t my job anymore. They had one voice; they had a new head coach. I wanted to be clear with everybody that I wasn’t coaching here anymore, and I wasn’t trying to involve myself or be accused of tampering or suggesting anything unless I was asked a direct question. I purposely stayed as far out of Charlie’s business as I could, especially publicly, unless he needed me.
After I resigned, Sally and I thought it was wise to go the Carolina mountains. I didn’t read anything about what was happening here. I didn’t want to hear if people were critical of the players we had. I was proud of them. You can go in those mountains of North Carolina, and you can isolate yourself.
Then you became a studio analyst. How difficult was it for you to offer commentary on Texas?
Brown: I promised ESPN, which I had to do, that when I’m there in the fall, I’m not rooting for Texas. I’m a college football analyst, so I have to say what’s out there and what’s real, and that’s pretty sensitive when you’re trying to work for a place and still be fair if things aren’t going well. It’s easy if they’re going well.
It was a lot tougher that first year [following his resignation], because it was my team that I’d left, and I knew all the kids. But I’m fine now. I rarely do interviews in state, because of Tom and the University. Tom’s the coach — he should be doing the interviews about Texas football, not me.
Describe your role at ESPN/ABC.
Brown: For the last three years, I’ve covered a Friday night game, which means I’ll head to campus on Wednesday. The next morning, I’ll meet with the home team — three players usually, the offensive and defensive coordinators, and the head coach. That afternoon or evening, I’ll meet with the away team at the hotel — same thing. Then on game day, at 9 a.m., we have an hour-and-a-half production meeting and decide exactly what’s important and relevant in this game and what we plan to talk about.
I’ll head to the stadium about 3 p.m. for a 7:30 or 8 p.m. game, and I’ll usually do Paul Finebaum’s show, SportsCenter, and a couple of radio shows — they have a list leading into the game. Then we’ll do pregame stuff, then the game itself. I’ll go to bed, get up at 4 a.m. to catch a flight to Hartford, Conn., then it’s a 45-minute drive to Bristol. I have to be on the set at noon.
I probably won’t do all the Friday night games this year — I’ll do some, but not a full 12-game schedule. I’ll be in-studio for all the Saturday games — from noon until 10:30 p.m. The next morning I’ll do three or four hits on SportsCenter.
Calling the games is fun for me because that’s the head coach on the sidelines deal. I can sit there and say, “Here’s what I’d do and here’s why I’d do it.” That’s stimulating.
Coaching is in your blood. How difficult was it for you to resign?
Brown: It didn’t end like everybody would want it to end, and most of the time it doesn’t. But we had a wonderful 16 years here — as Sally says, it was four presidential terms — so it’s longer than most people make it in Texas.
I thought we had it fixed — I thought we had it turned back to 10-plus wins. Coach Royal used the analogy that when the BBs get out of the box, you have to get the BBs back in the box. The BBs were out of the box when we got here; we got them back in the box. Then they got back out of the box, and this place is so crazy with attention and rumors, some people don’t necessarily want you to make it, so it’s much more difficult.
We were starting to lose recruits because of rumors — that last year we lost six recruits who were among the top recruits in the country because people were talking about whether I’d be the coach or not. So it got to where it was healthier for everybody that I move on.
But the primary people at the university have been great to me and very respectful. They want me around, and I like being here. When I was selected for the Hall of Fame this year, Chris Del Conte threw a party for all of the coaches, staff and players from those 16 years. He didn’t have to do that.
Was it awkward to announce your resignation but still have to coach the Alamo Bowl?
Brown: Honestly, my mindset was focused on Oregon, and we got a pretty tough draw in that game with [quarterback Marcus] Mariota coming back.
After the game, we got in the car to drive home. Sally and I looked at each other, and she said, “You know, we don’t have anything scheduled for the rest of our lives.” And that’s strange when you’ve been doing something for every minute of every day.
ESPN called and offered me a job, and I took it. When I got home, Sally said, “What will you be doing?” and I said, “I don’t know.” And she said, “Well, how much are they paying you?” And I said, “I didn’t ask.” Then she said, “How long’s the contract,” and I said, “I didn’t ask that either. He just told us to take six months off, go have some fun, and he’d call me in June.”
So I said to Sally, “Alright, you’ve got six months — whatever you want to do.” That was a mistake — she wore me out. And in June, ESPN called and said I’d be doing their ABC show and gave me a three-year contract. They stood by their word.
When Steve Patterson left as athletics director, you were rumored to be a potential replacement.
Brown: That was more speculation than anything else. There were a number of boosters who would’ve liked for me to consider the position, but I think [former athletics director] Mike Perrin was the right choice when it happened. And Chris has so much Big 12 experience, I’m confident he’ll do a great job. There are a lot of things to do here now — what with the south end zone and the new basketball arena.
Looking back at your coaching career at Texas, was the ’09 loss to Alabama in the national championship game the most difficult?
Brown: It was, and I don’t think I handled it well. I was always upbeat, positive and bounced back fast, but that one really got me. And Sally and I both had our mothers die within 20 days of that game.
I thought we had a great chance to win, and I didn’t go a good job of bragging on that team — they were 25-2 [over two seasons], and I was mad over the two losses — for them, and disappointed because I knew how hard it is to get there. The year before, they’d lost with 3 seconds left to Tech or they would’ve played for the national championship. So we lost opportunities for back-to-back national championships in ’08 and ’09.
Then we had to start over, and I don’t think I bounced back very well — I had a hangover from the loss. As I look back, I didn’t think I did, and I shouldn’t have, but I did. I wasn’t as upbeat with that team. We beat Rice badly in the opening game [in 2010], and I jumped on ’em, because I was still mad. “Come on! You’re better than that — you should have beaten them worse than that!” Instead of my usual, “We’re here to win. Great win. Got some things we need to fix — let’s go work on them.”
I’m not sure I did as good a job of leading that team as I did in some other years. You don’t go upset a top-10 Nebraska, then come back and lose the next week to Iowa State — not if your message and your coaches’ messages are consistent. I didn’t have a consistent message that year.
Were you ever tempted to cheat?
Brown: No, because my granddad told me to always do what I knew was the right thing to do. I went overboard, constantly telling the staff, “If you ever knowingly and willingly cheat, I’ll fire you that day.” You should be able to win at Texas without cheating.
I want to be a great father, husband and grandfather, and I didn’t want Sally or our kids to ever read in the paper where I’d lied or cheated. That’s my family name, and how can I ask them to do things right if I didn’t? Also, I had great respect for [former athletics director] DeLoss [Dodds], and DeLoss was Mr. Compliance — he made sure everyone was going by the rules.
There’s a lot of cheating in college sports right now — football is as bad as basketball. That’s not who we are, and if that kid took money to go somewhere else, he wouldn’t have been a good fit here. People have asked, “So how did you get all those great players if you didn’t cheat?” Well at that time, 99 percent of those players were in state, and we had it going … it was the cool place to be. We were winning games, so we didn’t need to cheat.
Given the cheating that goes on in college sports, how do you reconcile being an analyst for a system that isn’t always honest?
Brown: It’s difficult, because in my job there’s a line I have to go to — then stop. Unless you’re willing to take on the coaches who are cheating and prove it — which is very difficult to do with our modern system — then you might as well not talk about it. If you can’t prove it, you really can’t say it.
I’m hopeful that since basketball took a major step last year, maybe football will too. Coaches know the coaches who are winning fairly and the ones who are breaking rules, and the good guys need help. They all hope the system will change and the people who are cheating will be fired.
Who do you consider your professional role models?
Brown: Coach Royal. He took complicated things and made them simple — he really helped me with that. I’d say, “Coach, do you think I should do this?” And he’d say, “No. That’s really stupid.” Conversation done.
Joe Jamail. He was the smartest man I ever met. I talked with him almost every night, especially after coach Royal had passed or when he was struggling mentally. I’d ask him questions or discuss complicated things going on with us legally. I trusted him; he was my lawyer.
DeLoss Dodds. He had a settling effect in that this can be a crazy place, and he dealt with so many different dynamics for 32 years, but he always stayed level — he was never too high and never too low. If we lost a game, he knew to leave me alone, because I was miserable and needed to fix some things. If we won the game, he’d usually walk by, pat me on the shoulder, and say, “Good job, coach.” And that was the same after the national championship or after beating Rice. I learned to appreciate that. He told me if I needed something, to tell him why, because he had bosses who needed to know. And he said, “Don’t ask me for things you don’t need. If you need something to win or you need something for student athletes, I understand. But make sure you need it before you come.” So I asked for very little. And when I did, he knew I needed it, or I wouldn’t ask. He was the one who told me, “You’re not very fun to deal with in the fall, so I’ll see you in the spring. You’re nice in the spring, but your attitude changes in the fall.” And I said, “I totally understand that, and Sally would agree.”
It must have been difficult for you when he stepped down in 2013.
Brown: He was the guy I trusted, who hired me, and one of the reasons I came here. He had control of things, and he was positive we were doing things right, and that we’d be back on track. When he was gone, things were never the same. I didn’t have anybody in the administration to talk to. And when false rumors began circulating, there was no one to say, “None of this is factual.”
What about a personal role model?
Brown: My granddad. He was the love of my life, and I went fishing with him every day. He was the superintendent in charge of recreation, and I ran all the summer league programs. We hung out all the time.
One day, we sat down and talked. He said, “What do you want to do?” and I said, “I want to be a college football coach and win a national championship and either work for TV or be an AD.” And I actually was an AD at Tulane.
My grandmother said one time, “You need to be a doctor or a lawyer, because there aren’t that many Mickey Mantles and Roger Marises out there.” This was back around 1961, when those two were so popular, and my dad owned a sporting goods store that had Mantle and Maris jerseys hanging in the window. But as soon as she walked out, my granddad said, “Boy, you go out and do what you want to do, because if you’re happy, you’ll do it longer. You need to go coach.” And that was it.
Do you think you’ll coach again?
Brown: Right now I’m happy with the TV work. I miss the parts of coaching you’d think I’d miss, which is about 90 to 95 percent, but then there are those two or three things I don’t miss — a kid getting in trouble, a kid getting hurt and changing his life, losing. I don’t miss losing. But in TV, you don’t win, so that’s where it’s different.
People say, “Well, are you ever going to coach again?” or “Will you say you’re not going to coach again?” and I say, “[Former NFL coach] Dick Vermeil waited 17 years, then came back and won a Super Bowl.” So it would be wrong of me, not knowing that I won’t coach again, to say I won’t coach again. I’ve got the energy — in fact, I’m rested, and I’ve seen more football in the last four years than I did when I quit.
I’ve always been honest with ESPN. So many coaches go there for a year and leave to go back into coaching. That’s what ESPN expects and I didn’t want to be that guy who just took a job. I’m going into the last year of my contract — I had a three-year contract, then they extended it two more years — but ESPN has always said that if I found a coaching job I wanted, they’d let me out of my contract.
Apart from the losing, what were the toughest moments of your career at Texas?
Losing Cole Pittman. That was a tragedy I’ll never forget my whole life — it changed some things in my life.
And the bonfire collapse at A&M … we lost 12 kids whose parents will never feel the same about Thanksgiving again.
What comes to mind when you recall the national championship win in ’05?
I sent for Coach Royal and asked for him to be out there with me in the middle of the field, but he said, “No, it’s your time.” And then I’m walking off the field, and the equipment truck has “3 National Championships” written on it, and I see [Darrell Royal’s wife] Edith Royal up on a ladder with adhesive tape putting a 4 over the 3.
When we got into the dressing room after the game, Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush came to the door and asked to see me. They said, “We didn’t get to see you on the field. Congratulations — you have a great team.” For young guys to be that classy was really cool.
Do you think of yourself as a Texan now?
We’ve been here 20 years. Like Coach Royal said, “You’re not from here, but you’ve been dipped and vaccinated, so now you’re a Texan.” I’ve coached longer at Texas than at any other place; we’ve lived here longer than any other place together. We have great friends here. We have two sons and two grandkids here. We love everything about Austin — the restaurants, Texas sports, Texas itself. We’re involved in the community.
But we’re also fortunate that when we go to our house in the mountains of North Carolina, we’re North Carolinians — it’s the lake, trout fishing and our friends in North Carolina, and that’s who we are when we’re there.
We have two wonderful places to live. In fact, Sally said, “We love Chapel Hill so much that when we left Chapel Hill, we didn’t leave … we just moved to Austin.” In fact, North Carolina is having a celebration in August for the Hall of Fame selection like we had here at Texas — with the players and coaches coming back.
What has the Hall of Fame selection meant to you?
It was another thing my granddad said he wanted to see me do. I asked why they announce the selection a full year before you’re actually inducted, and the representative made a great point: first, it gives the Hall publicity. But more than that, it gives me a chance to thank all the staff, coaches, administrators, players and friends who helped it happen, because football is the ultimate mass numbers game … it’s like moving military. So when you get the recognition as a head coach for winning games, there are a lot of people to thank. And it’s been great for me to thank all those people. Because most of the time, you’re finished, and you kind of go away — you don’t always get to thank the many people who helped you.
So this has forced me, in a fun way, to call people, write them, text them, email them and say “Thank you.” It’s the ultimate compliment for our teams’ success and a great opportunity for me.