I LIKE HAPPY PEOPLE,” says Mack Brown, the head coach of the University of Texas football team. “I really do. And I like my staff, and I want positive people around. I don’t want negative people around these kids. I tell ’em, ‘If you don’t like it here, leave. If you stay, be upbeat, positive. I want you to have some fun.’” Brown has a warm, honest face, with friendly eyes. At 54, he is six feet tall and in good shape. He looks like what Opie Taylor might have looked like all grown up if Ron Howard had kept his hair. On this March day in his office, he is wearing khakis, loafers, a white sports shirt dotted with little burnt-orange Longhorns, and an optimistic smile about his team’s chances in 2005. But Brown is always optimistic. “This is the best coaching staff we’ve had,” he says. The high school coaches’ clinic he had put on earlier that month, he said then, was the “best clinic we’ve had.” Even though that winter’s recruiting class had failed to meet expectations, “really,” he said at the time, “that’s a good thing.” A word he often uses is “fun.” “This is a fun time,” he’ll say, or, as he said about his players at spring practice, “It is fun to coach and fun to watch them right now.”
Brown should be having fun. In his seven seasons at UT, he’s done almost every single thing right. He has won seventy games and taken the Horns to seven bowl games, winning four of them, including January’s thrilling Rose Bowl, where UT beat Michigan on a last-second field goal. Brown has the best winning percentage among Horns coaches since 1922; indeed, over the past nine years, no college football coach except Florida State’s Bobby Bowden has won more games than Brown. He has scored several top recruiting classes, bringing the country’s best talents into a clean, well-run program. And he’s brought back the fans, the alumni, and the boosters who had become disenchanted with almost two decades of Longhorns pigskin mediocrity. Ticket sales went from $8.3 million in 1997, the season before he arrived, to $20 million last year, a season that saw the football team net $37.5 million overall. Brown has even made Bevo hip. After years of being out of style, UT is now the number two university in the country in merchandising sales.
It’s been a long time since so many people outside Texas bought orange T-shirts or cared so much about the Horns. And around the Forty Acres, Brown gets the credit. “He’s the closest thing we’ve had to Darrell Royal since Darrell Royal,” says Houston lawyer Joe Jamail, one of UT’s biggest boosters. Athletics director DeLoss Dodds adds, “He’s unified our folks, and he’s put a new face on recruiting. And he’s done it with class.” To reward Brown, last year the administration paid him more than any other coach in the country—$3.6 million, a base salary of $2 million plus a $1.6 million gift for staying at the university. In December, UT gave him a raise, a ten-year contract worth a minimum of $26 million. Nobody begrudges Brown the money; he earns every penny. At least for 364 days and 21 hours a year.
It’s those three missing hours that drive the faithful crazy. Every October the Longhorns travel to Dallas for their biggest game of the year, the annual Red River Shootout with archenemy Oklahoma. But for the past five years, the Sooners and their coach, Bob Stoops, have humiliated the Horns, blowing them out (63—14 in 2000) and shutting them out (12—0 in 2004). Not only are the defeats soul-destroying, they keep UT from winning the Big 12 South Division and, ultimately, from getting to a national championship game. For some Horns fans, the streak, as well as Brown’s reputation for not being able to win other big games (he’s 3-10 versus top ten teams), stirs a deep worry. Maybe, this nagging thought goes, Brown isn’t the chosen one, the one who will lead them back to championship glory. Maybe he’s just a great recruiter, a great salesman, a charmer who goes after, in his words, “nice kids who graduate.” A great guy but not a great coach. Maybe he’s not tough enough, fiery enough. Maybe he’s too damn nice.
Brown, of course, has heard this before, and his reaction is just what fans have come to expect. “My first thought when I heard that,” he told me in his soft Tennessee accent, “was ‘What a great thing to say about somebody. “Too nice.”’ If that’s the worst thing anybody ever says about you when you go lay down to die, that’s probably pretty good.”
ON APRIL 2, the last day of the Horns’ spring practice season, under the shade of four sprawling oak trees on a worn patch of grass just east of Darrell K Royal—Texas Memorial Stadium, a bunch of fanatics gathered to drink beer, eat barbecue, and talk UT football. They were tailgaters, and they formed an island of orange in a sea of black asphalt, dozens of people wearing “Longhorns,” “Texas,” or “Rose Bowl Champions” T-shirts; their numbers would grow fivefold by the seven o’clock kickoff of the annual UT spring game. Meat smoked in a pit, and three large coolers held Bud Light, Coke, and water. Two Longhorns flags flew in the breeze, as if there were any doubt who was encamped here.
A parked white van had its back doors open, revealing a TV showing a DVD of the Rose Bowl game played just three months earlier. Diane Walters sat in a chair watching the game, while Jerry Clark tended the meat on the grill and James Lyle wandered among clusters of fans, drinking beer and chatting. On-screen, quarterback Vince Young threw short passes to his tight ends, and running back Cedric Benson pounded away at the line. Every time the camera cut to Brown on the sideline, he looked tense and worried,