“Let’s pretend that a certain magazine writer believes that this season is UT’s best chance to win the national championship in more than thirty years," a certain magazine writer says to Mack Brown. "How would you answer that?"
"First, I’d say that the writer probably doesn’t know enough about football," Brown replies, with all the humor of an undertaker. "Since I don’t know how good the team is going to be, I know that no one outside of this business can know. I also know that’s the kind of hype that sells magazines." The coach and the writer consider each other for a moment, then a slight grin creeps across Brown’s face. "Second, I’d say that we’ve got more experienced depth than we’ve ever had since I’ve been here."
For the head coach of the University of Texas football team, winning the national championship is a bit like studying the sun. It’s always burning down on you, but you can’t look directly at it. During Brown’s hiring process, in December 1997, UT regent Tom Hicks said he was looking for the guy who could bring home the national title. That frankness makes sense at a university that began paying its head football coach more than its president way back in 1937, and the search committee unanimously agreed that Brown was the man to do it.
After four seasons in Austin, he has rewarded the school by winning 38 games and losing only 13. That marks the program’s most productive stretch since the period between 1969 and 1972, which just happens to include the school’s last two national championship teams. Brown is coming off a season in which the Longhorns won eleven games and finished with a top-five ranking for the first time since 1983. He enjoyed another recruiting period in which he won his second unofficial national recruiting title, and when the preseason polls are announced, UT is sure to be in the top three. ESPN’s Ron Franklin—a former broadcaster of Longhorns games—picked the team to be number one.
But Brown is at the point in his career where being known as one of the best coaches in the country is less important than proving that he is the best. Fairly or not, at the University of Texas, you are not thanked for winning eleven games. You are criticized for losing the two that kept you out of the national championship. "Some of the alumni and former players want to win so bad that it’s a little unfair," says James Street, who was the starting quarterback for the Longhorns’ 1969 national championship team. "But Mack knew that when he came in. Nine wins a season just isn’t going to cut it."
Well, those alumni and former players should take heart. When the Longhorns hit the field on August 31 against the University of North Texas to open the season, Brown will be coaching the team that has the best shot at winning it all in 2002. "I think Mack has the chance to have the best team that he’s had," says Darrell Royal, who coached UT to its three national titles, in 1963, 1969, and 1970. "It’s not a done deal, but we’re a contender. The program is up, and we’re jellyrolling." Translation? This could be the year. Here are five reasons why.
ON A STEAMY JUNE MORNING, Brown is cooling off in his office overlooking the south end zone of the Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. The room is large enough to seat 75 of his closest friends, and with its dark-wood blinds and paneling, it would assume the air of Vito Corleone’s office if it weren’t for the decor: Longhorn heads and Longhorn sculptures and Longhorn-hide pillows and Longhorn-hide chairs and Longhorn-hide rugs and burnt-orange leather couches. The fifty-year-old has just returned from running his football camp for elementary through high school kids, his cheeks are flush, and he’s wearing the distinctive smell of sweat. His graying hair, which is normally parted from left to right, is running in the opposite direction. The more he tries to smooth it with his hand, the more unruly it becomes.
"The national championship is the goal for every program in America at this level, so I’m not ashamed for us to talk about it," he says. "We talk about it in the off-season, but we talk about it as an end-of-season goal. We do not mention the national championship with our team after the season starts." As for winning it, he takes the pragmatic approach. "Our goal is to win the opener, and that’s the hardest game of the year because you haven’t played," he says. "Then our goal is to win the Big Twelve South Championship. Then our goal is to win the Big Twelve Championship. Then our goal is to win a bowl game. If you win the Big Twelve and you win your bowl game, the national championship takes care of itself. So what we’ve said to our players is, ’Don’t be afraid to talk about it, but understand that you’ve got a lot of steps on that ladder.’"
Brown has been climbing that ladder for most of his life. He grew up in Cookeville, Tennessee, where his grandfather, Eddie "Jelly" Watson, was one of the most successful high school football coaches in the state. Brown played baseball, basketball, and football at Putnam County High School, and he was a good enough running back to have been recruited by Paul "Bear" Bryant at Alabama. But he chose to go to Vanderbilt, then transferred to Florida State, where he earned two letters. He moved his way up the coaches’ pecking order at various programs, working as a receivers coach, a quarterback coach, and an offensive coordinator. He took his first head coaching job, at Appalachian State, at the age of 32, guided the team to its first winning season in four years, and promptly left to become Barry Switzer’s offensive coordinator at Oklahoma. Once again he left