Mack Brown stepped onto the Longhorn team bus one afternoon in 2005, held up an iPod and announced he was listening to 50 Cent. He would sample other rappers that fall, and whether he loved the music or not was irrelevant to his players. “It was his way of trying to relate to our team,” former UT running back Chris Ogbonnaya said. “He’s from Cookeville, Tennessee, so it wasn’t something he was used to. I think he understood that players were evolving, and he had to evolve as a coach and a person. We always appreciated it.”
Stories like that come up again and again from the some of the people who know Brown best. They say his human touch is largely responsible for his being one of college football’s most successful coaches. Seven years after being shown the door at Texas, Brown is back at Chapel Hill and back in the middle of the college football conversation after leading North Carolina to Saturday’s Orange Bowl. The overmatched Tar Heels ended their season with a 41–27 loss against Texas A&M.
Brown spent ten seasons with UNC before arriving in Austin in 1998, and now, at 69 years old, the coach is crafting a second act with the Tar Heels that is more impressive than the first. “You can look at his North Carolina team and see some of the same stuff you saw at Texas,” Ogbonnaya said. “Those guys are playing hard and having fun, and they know they’ve got a coach that cares about them as people first. Coach Brown is the real deal.”
Brown led a Longhorn football renaissance during sixteen seasons in which he went 134–34, winning one National Championship in the 2005 season and playing for another in the 2009 season. He took over a UT program in 1998 that had exited the national stage, having finished outside of the Associated Press Top 25 in ten of the previous fourteen seasons. Brown pushed every right button in Austin. He brought legendary coach Darrell Royal back into the program and preached a simple mantra: “Come early, wear orange, be loud.”
The Longhorns had nine straight ten-win seasons under Brown, along with six top-ten finishes. By the time he departed, Texas was regularly drawing 100,000 fans for home games. His magic began with out-recruiting almost everybody, and how he did that still resonates with former players. (His recruiting touch still works, according to Rivals, which ranks Carolina’s 2021 class seventeenth in the nation. That number wouldn’t impress at the football powerhouses of the SEC or Big Ten, but at a traditional basketball school like UNC, it’s a significant improvement.)
“When he offered me a scholarship, he told me not to answer right away,” former UT offensive lineman Dallas Griffin said. “He said, ‘Go home and think about it. This is a serious commitment. If we’re committed to you, we expect you to be committed to us.’” What amazes Griffin to this day is that even at their first meeting Brown seemed to know almost everything there was to know about him. “He builds relationships with the high school coaches,” Griffin said. “He builds relationships with the family. Believe me, this is unique among coaches.”
And the bond Brown builds with his players endures. “He’ll randomly like a picture of our kids on Facebook,” Griffin said. “Sometimes, it’s (wife) Sally doing it. … Go talk to pretty much any of his players, and you’ll hear something similar. As to who he is as a person, he’s got great character. He’s a man of his word.
“He does the right thing, not sometimes, but always. I’d say, to him, character is more important than winning, but if you’ve got great character and great athletes on your team, you’re going to win a lot of games.”
Listening matters too.
Texas was 48 hours from opening the 2005 season when Brown finished a team meeting by asking: “Do y’all need anything?” From the back of the room came the voice of quarterback Vince Young: “We need to wear black socks for the game.”
Sounds like nothing, right? Only it was a big deal. Texas players had worn white socks forever. “Back then, it taboo to wear black socks with our uniform,” Ogbonnaya said. “It wasn’t traditional.”
Brown paused. “Is that what y’all want to do as a team?” he asked.
Nods all around.
“Yeah,” another player said, “we’d love to do that. We think it’d be cool.”
Brown listened, but promised nothing. That Saturday, when the Longhorns showed up at the stadium, there were black socks of various lengths in every locker. It seems silly to think the Longhorns won the National Championship that season because of black socks. To Brown’s players, though, that gesture reflected their coach’s commitment to them and helped rally the teammates and coaching staff around one another.
ESPN’s Dave Flemming worked with Brown in 2015 on ESPN’s Friday-night college football broadcast. On the day before the game, when the two of them were scheduled to meet with the head coaches from both teams, he was struck by the number of assistant coaches who stopped by for a word with Brown. Some of them knew him. Others had a mutual acquaintance. A few simply wanted to stop and say hello.
“Here’s the thing,” Flemming said. “Mack would remember names, dates, spouses, you name it. He would make every one of those guys feel important. I would ask him, `How do you do it?’” Brown would shrug and smile. He would say that he likes people. He especially likes football coaches.
“He’s a genuinely likable guy that happens to be a football coach,” said Matt Jackson, a longtime Houston sports radio host. Jackson—a University of Houston graduate—admits he was inclined not to like Brown even a little bit back in 2004 and 2005, when Jackson served as a temporary guardian for Ogbonnaya, a star running back at Houston’s Strake Jesuit high school.
Then Jackson sat in on a couple of Brown’s recruiting pitches. “I can’t imagine anyone having anything negative to say about him if they’re ever been behind the wall and spent time with him,” Jackson said. “He’s just so down to earth. He puts you at ease. And he’s not talking football. He’s asking you about your life and what’s important. I promise you, he cared more about Chris the person than Chris the football player.”
Flemming remembered Brown forming similar bonds with their ESPN coworkers. “Mack knew the name of everyone on our TV crew—and that’s a lot of people,” he said. “We might have about forty regulars each week between the truck and our camera crew, and Mack tried to remember everyone and call them by name. I think it speaks to a main reason why he’s so successful. Mack is so genuinely nice to everyone that we all want to do our best to help him in return. He was new to television when we worked together, and he had the entire crew doing whatever they could to help him look good and improve.”
Flemming loves one story in particular. At halftime of their second game together, Brown expressed frustration that he was unable to direct the cameras to his topic of the moment. Flemming pointed out the “talkback button” that allowed Brown to communicate with the producer. Mack said he didn’t want to use it for fear of distracting Flemming from his play-by-play job. “He thought that if he talked, I might hear it also, and it would trip me up,” Flemming said. “It’s almost impossible to do a game telecast without using that button, but for six quarters he just grinned and bore it because he didn’t want to be rude to me.”
And this from Flemming: “When a big, exciting play would happen, he would reach over and grab my arm. It was like he was as thrilled for a young player he didn’t even know to have a great moment as he was when Vince Young galloped into the Rose Bowl end zone. He couldn’t help himself.”
And one more: “Mack is just so optimistic. We did the Alamo Bowl together when TCU played Oregon. Oregon led 31–0 at halftime! 31–0!! We came on camera to start the second half, and Mack said something like, ‘Dave, this game isn’t over. TCU can get back into this game.’ I’m guessing I practically rolled my eyes on camera at that—I thought he was crazy. TCU came back and won in triple OT 47–41 in the biggest bowl comeback in history.”
When Brown returned to the sidelines for Carolina last season, the Tar Heels went 7–6 after winning five the previous two seasons combined. This season, they beat three ranked teams—number 19 Virginia Tech, number 23 North Carolina State, and number 10 Miami—on their way to 8–4. UNC’s 62–26 victory over Miami to end the regular season was Carolina’s first over a top-ten team since 2014 and the largest margin of victory against a ranked opponent in school history.
Carolina was fourth in the nation with 556.6 yards of offense per game. Running back Michael Carter’s 1,245 yards was the fourth highest in the nation.
Before the Orange Bowl, Brown told his players that the game was both an honor and a possible stepping-stone. “This is a huge accomplishment for our program and for our team, and now we’ve got to play well because we want this to be who we are,” Brown said last week. “We want this to be every year, and not something that’s so unique for us.”