To rise again, you first have to fall. And to fall, you first have to rise, which, since he took over as the head coach of the University of Texas, in 1998, and until last year’s disastrous season, Mack Brown had been doing steadily, smoothly, and with the aura of inevitability that surrounds multinational corporations and top-tier Hollywood stars. He won one national championship and led UT to another. He enjoyed a streak of nine seasons with ten or more wins. He established himself as one of the greatest recruiters of all time. He earned a higher winning percentage than Darrell Royal, for whom the university’s stadium is named. And he never had a losing season with the Longhorns—that is until last year, when he dropped seven games. It was a humiliating experience, Brown’s worst record since 1989. The low point was a wheels-off-the-wagon loss to Iowa State, a team that finished the year with only five wins.
So now comes the “rise again” part, right? Brown, who turned sixty on August 27, knows that much is riding on his team’s performance this year. In the off-season he shook up the program, hiring six new coaches, including offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin, who was at Boise State, and defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, who came from Mississippi State. And he’ll have to contend with the added pressure of an unprecedented, and highly controversial, agreement with ESPN to create a 24-hour cable channel called the Longhorn Network. Based in large part on the success of the football team, the deal is worth $300 million over the next twenty years. Of course, even without the round-the-clock coverage, you can bet that this season, the eyes of Texas will be on Mack Brown like never before.
Nine years ago I interviewed you in this office for a story in which I made the case that UT was poised to win its first national championship since 1970. I missed by just a few seasons. Today you’re at a completely different moment in your coaching career, so how would you describe what to expect?
When I arrived here, in ’98, it had been nearly thirty years since the program had won a national championship. So we asked the question “Is it realistic to win a national title? We think it is, but is it really?” Then we did win one, in 2005. In ’08 we were third with a chance. Then in ’09 we were back in the title game again. So there was no question in my mind that we could win another national championship. But with the slide last year, the setback allowed us to make some hard reevaluations. Some of the coaches resigned. Some left. It really was helpful to have the chance to start over.
Today we’re obviously further along than in 1998. The expectations are much higher. Our expectation is to get Texas back into that top five. And that puts us in a position to play for a national championship each year. The short-term part of that is that we need to keep our mouths shut. We’ve told the kids, “Don’t talk about conference championships, and don’t talk about national championships.” We’ve got to get back to a bowl game, and we’ve got to get our swagger back.
And you don’t have any doubt that you’re the person to do it?
When Will Muschamp left to take the Florida job, in December, I was back in it for the long haul.
I did some checking, though, to find out who was the last coach who won a national championship, had a losing season after that, and then came back several seasons later to win another national championship.
Was it Coach [Bear] Bryant?
No, it was Ohio State’s Woody Hayes, way back in 1968. But college football is a different game today than it was back then. Do you think a program would show a coach that much patience?
I think your job security depends on your bosses, and I’ve got great bosses. [UT president] Bill Powers and [athletics director] DeLoss Dodds believe in what we’re doing, and they know that we’re running an honest program. There is absolutely no panic. They have allowed me to run the program the way that I want and they have essentially told me that I can stay as long as I want. I do think we have some time to get back to where we need to be. And I think we’ve earned that right given how successful we’ve been.
At what point did you realize last year that the team was in trouble?
I didn’t handle the opener against Rice well. Coach Royal once told me that when the wins are a relief and the losses are devastating, then you’re in trouble. That’s what happened to me last year. We beat Rice, but I didn’t give the kids any credit. We had a young team starting over after a national championship game, and I should have said, “We’ve got some things that need to improve,” but instead I acted like a fan. I was mad that we didn’t play better. But the game that really got me was the loss at home against Iowa State. After that game, I told the players and the coaches, “I don’t trust either one of you right now.”
Did you ever feel like you couldn’t trust yourself?
All the time. You have to constantly evaluate yourself, and you say, “Anything that isn’t working is my fault.” I think any time that you’ve won ten-plus games for nine years and then it’s not working, you have to go back and figure out what you missed. We had always been able to pull it out, but last year we didn’t. So that’s why we’ve made changes. We’ve basically changed 75 to 80 percent of who we are and what we’re doing to get a new start.
You’re essentially the head coach of a new program.
That’s right. But I feel