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 lucky that after thirteen years we can have a redo and be positive about it. We barely even publicized our spring game and we had 45,000 people show up. We’re going to have 101,000 people show up for our opener against Rice this year, and we’ve sold 87,000 season tickets. Not many people can say that. And the Texas fans have been great to me. Most of them told me to keep my head up and to hang in there. I got absolutely no negatives, which some people aren’t going to believe.
Now, the Internet and the grass roots are negative when you win, so they’re sure going to be negative when you lose. But I do feel that if you’re not careful after thirteen years in any business, or in your marriage, you get in a rut because you know all the negatives. So you’ve got to wake up. I realized that I love this job, and I love being the head coach at the University of Texas. The message of Will Muschamp’s being named “coach-in-waiting” meant to some that I wasn’t going to coach very long, but that wasn’t the message I wanted to send.
Did you feel stung by Will’s departure?
No, not at all. If he had turned down Florida, it would have put tremendous pressure on me to say, “How long should I make him wait?”
What did you do right after the final game of the season, the loss to A&M?
I went back to work. I talked to the coaches to get their feedback, and I asked the players to fill out surveys that I told them only I would read. That was done by the Sunday after the A&M game, which we played on a Thursday.
So all of that happened over that same weekend? You didn’t take any time off to eat too much barbecue or go fishing on some lake where no one could find you?
No, in fact, we didn’t go anywhere. I stayed here until recruiting started back up. I didn’t go to the [coaches’] convention. I didn’t go away for Christmas. I’d been to a bowl game every season of my life, so I didn’t know what to do with myself except work. Our biggest recruiting weekend is probably the second weekend in December, after everyone has finished playing the state championship games here in Austin. So Will called me at six o’clock Saturday night just as I was walking over to dinner, and he told me that he had taken the Florida job. I didn’t know that he was going to interview until the day before, so I didn’t think it would happen that fast. So now I’m heading to dinner with some recruits, and I’m suddenly without a defensive coordinator. I felt like the best thing to do was to be honest. I had thirteen kids and their families meeting me for dinner, and Will was going to announce his departure at 8:15 after the Heisman Trophy presentation. I walked into the dinner at 6:45 and looked up on ESPN and saw that the ticker said, “Will Muschamp accepts Florida job.” So I realized I didn’t have until 8:15, and I said to the group, “Okay, everybody come up. We have a sudden change. Good for Will and tough for some of you guys.” It happened way too quickly. I was already having to hire an offensive coordinator, and now all of a sudden I’m hiring a defensive coordinator as well. And then Will hired our football operations guy, so I’m looking to hire for that position so that we can just bring coaches in to interview.
What happened was, [assistant athletics director for media relations] John Bianco, the four coaches who were still here, my family, and the administrators all jumped on board, and we all learned the nuts and bolts about starting a search to find the best coaches across the country. I hadn’t hired a guy in three years.
During this time, did you have someone you could confide in? Or a mentor that you turned to?
No, I kept my own counsel. I kept things very quiet. I didn’t tell John or DeLoss what I was thinking. I called some coaching friends and would ask about individual coaches. I would call teams that had played against them, so for our new offensive coordinator, Bryan Harsin, I called TCU, which had played against Boise State. I had never met Bryan, and I had never met Manny Diaz either. My son is very good with the video stuff, so he could call up interviews and game films and coaching clinics on YouTube. I could basically sit here at my desk and go through all of that information without any of them knowing I was interested in interviewing them.
So you’re making major decisions about the future of the program, but you’re also having to watch the bowl games from Austin.
And recruiting and making sure that our current players have enough information so that they’re not believing the false information that’s out there. I had a full-time job. It’s easier just to go to a bowl.
Was it hard to watch TCU play in the Rose Bowl? Did you feel as if Gary Patterson and the Horned Frogs had taken your place as the highest-profile team in the state?
I don’t—I’m not—I’m not a hateful person.
But you are a competitive person.
I am. Listen, I was proud of Gary, and I was disappointed in us. I don’t think the fact that TCU did a great job hurts Texas. More than any other time I sat back and watched all the bowl games. I didn’t miss a single one. I TiVoed it if there were two on at the same time. It was really a healthy time for me. It was time for me to get back into shape. It was a time to realize that I really did love coaching. What I’ve come to understand is that we don’t have any guarantees. We’ve got to go back to work. We may have to fake a punt or block a kick and find some ways to win games. That’s a fun challenge for me. I haven’t been in that situation for a while.
Speaking of that, how has the game changed over time since you’ve been a coach?
There’s much more money. For us to make $93 million two years ago and only spend $25 million, that’s huge. When I said one time that I’m the CEO of football, people questioned what I meant by that. But this is a huge corporation, and I’m in charge of it. Money is big. The salaries are big. We’re being paid more than ever before. And there’s more scrutiny than ever before because of all of that. The new partnership with ESPN, called the Longhorn Network, is probably the biggest change in my 38 years in college football. We always thought that Notre Dame’s deal with NBC was so good. But ours is a day-to-day deal, not a weekend deal. It will provide unbelievable exposure for our program.
Just about every player who signs a scholarship with us thinks he’s going to make it in the NFL. But most of the players on college football teams sit on the bench. Morale is a huge issue because you’ve got more sitting than playing. And all of their moms like them and think they should be on the field. What makes it even tougher is that there are more outlets for people to show their anger, on Twitter and Facebook. Some of the young people aren’t ready to use things like that, because there’s no filter. They get mad and they put it out there and they can’t take it back. They can say they didn’t mean it, but it’s always out there. I’ll say this: I’m glad that I didn’t have it when I was their age.
What about the X’s and O’s? Do you have to be a different coach than you were thirty years ago?
I don’t think that any of the football part has changed. Offenses evolve, then eventually defenses catch up to them, and you see other schemes come back. Instead of running the spread, we’re running a two-back formation this year, which is as old as the wing-T. It’s all of the surrounding noise that has gotten bigger. Coach Royal tells me that he can’t imagine how much stuff you have to filter out.
With all of the change and all of the new faces, what will you consider to be a successful season this year?
I will be happy with winning all the games. I will be happy with the kids playing really hard each week. We have twelve games in the regular season, and we have a chance to win all twelve. We’re putting in a bunch of new stuff, so we should get better as the year goes on. What we’ve all decided is to keep our mouths shut and go to work. We had been winning so much that we just thought that if you put on a Texas helmet, you were going to win the game. And that was not the case last year. It was a disappointing year, but it reenergized me to get kicked in the face. Now it’s time to get back to work.