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Wednesday, December 10, 1997
Mack Brown's old-school outlook makes for good
fit in Austin, Texas
By Mark McDonald / The Dallas Morning News
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- On road trips, his players do not wear
earrings. On the team plane, they do not wear caps. His coaching
models are from the era of camel-hair coats and porkpie hats.
He has an uncanny knack for remembering names.
He can't keep himself from relentless chats with pharmacists,
boosters and bellhops, with mechanics and high school coaches
and red-aproned waitresses. He has a Brittany spaniel, a goldfish
pond, a '57 T-Bird and a beach house. He got his first coaching
job when he was penniless, newly married and living in a trailer.
He likes to fish, he has a bad back, and he has never coached
a team north of the Mason-Dixon line.
And, according to one North Carolina booster, "He can
This is Mack Brown, the 28th head football coach at the University
of Texas, a man born to football and born to coaching. He has
worked at the powerhouses and the backwaters of the college game,
dutifully paying his coaching dues from Tallahassee to Chapel
Hill. He has built two football programs -- at Tulane and North
Carolina -- and now he will try to rebuild one at Texas.
"Mack always wanted a shot at a program with tradition,"
says Dick Coop, a professor of educational psychology at UNC and
one of Brown's closest friends in Chapel Hill. "He wants
to be at a place where football's Number One, where the football
stadium is the place to be on Saturday. The band, Bevo, the pomp
and ceremony, the steers on the helmets -- he loves all that stuff."
X X X
Mack Brown says he finally came to understand how important
football was at Texas when he asked former coach Darrell Royal
a question. "How do you handle a losing team?" he wanted
"I never had one," Royal said.
X X X
It has been 25 years since Mack Brown has carried a football
or thrown a serious block, and he now tends to ridicule his abilities
as a fair-to-middling running back out of Cookeville, Tenn. But
he was good enough to have Bear Bryant recruit him, and Brown
still has the telegram that Bryant sent him, offering a scholarship
"Bear wanted him real bad," says Carl Torbush, who
grew up in Kentucky, just across the state line, and played football
and baseball against Brown on regional all-star teams.
But Brown's older brother Watson -- now the coach at Alabama-Birmingham
-- was already on scholarship at Vanderbilt, so Mack followed
him there. Neither did it hurt that their parents, Melvin and
Katherine, wanted Mack to become an attorney and Vandy had one
of the finest law schools in the South. (A third brother, Melvin
Jr., is an insurance agent in Cookeville.)
Mack Brown's friends say he transferred to Florida State after
two years because he felt Watson had not been treated fairly by
the Vanderbilt coaches. Mack became an occasional player at Florida
State, and on road trips he would room with another running back,
Hodges Mitchell, who had been a standout fullback at South Oak
Cliff in Dallas.
"Mack was an excellent student, very serious, always straight
up and down, and I think they put him with me to keep me out of
trouble," says Mitchell, an employee with the Dallas Parks
and Recreation Department. "He was a very loving person,
very down to earth."
Ironically, Brown spent some time in the Mitchell household
in Dallas last year -- recruiting Hodges Mitchell II, a running
back at Skyline High School. The younger Mitchell eventually decided
on Texas, where, in a nice bit of serendipity, he will now have
Mack Brown as his head coach.
The elder Mitchell recalls that during practices at Florida
State, he and Brown were virtual tackling dummies for the linebackers
of an assistant coach named Bill Parcells. "We got killed,"
Another assistant coach, Bob Harbison, distinctly remembers
Brown's running abilities. "More like trudging," he
says. "He'd catch a little pass in the flat, and he'd be
wide open, but he never seemed to gain any ground."
Brown injured a knee during his junior year and went through
several operations that effectively ended his playing career.
Suddenly, history and genetics came into play: Brown's grandfather,
Eddie Watson, was a legendary high school coach in Tennessee,
and his father was a quality player and a school superintendent.
Brown became a devoted but destitute graduate assistant at
Florida State. He was newly married, living in a trailer and scrounging
for a full-time coaching job somewhere, anywhere.
"The kid didn't have a DIME," recalls Harbison, who
arranged a dinner meeting with Bobby Bowden, then the coach at
West Virginia. When Brown, 23, sensed that Bowden wanted an older
man for an opening on his staff, he fibbed and told Bowden he
was 25. Harbison kicked Brown under the table and scolded him:
"If you're gonna lie, boy, lie big!"
"Needless to say," Brown said, "I didn't get
The job he did get was at Southern Mississippi, where he coached
the receivers for four seasons. Then it was a year at Memphis
State, three seasons at Iowa State and a year at LSU. He got his
first head coaching job in 1983, at Appalachian State, then left
after one season to become offensive coordinator under Barry Switzer
His resume was starting to read more like a Trailways schedule
than a road map to coaching immortality, although he built a hapless
Tulane program into a 6-6 bowl team in three years. It was during
the Tulane years, 1985-87, that he coaxed Darrell Royal into coming
to New Orleans to consult with him about his fledgling program.
"I can remember walking out onto the field with Coach
Royal," Brown says. "We had half a practice field that
was dusty, and I asked coach what he thought. He said, ÔWhere's
your practice field?' Then our team came out, and I asked him
what he thought. He said, ÔWhere's your varsity?'
"I knew then that we were in trouble."
Brown took over equally troubled North Carolina in 1988, and
the Tar Heels went 2-20 in his first two seasons. The folklore
says that in his second season, after a 12-7 loss to Navy at home
and in the rain, Mack Brown sat in his car after the game and
"It was awful -- as bad as it can get," defensive
coordinator Carl Torbush says of those early years. "But
Mack would go on his TV show, and the way he talked you'd have
thought we were 11-0 and getting ready to play in the Orange Bowl
for the national championship."
His gregarious and upbeat manner endeared him to the alumni,
the students and the high school coaches across the state. Basketball
was the only athletic religion on campus, that was never in doubt,
but people eventually began to notice that the football team wasn't
Indeed, Brown used basketball as part of his recruiting strategy.
Plenty of the kids he wanted had no intention of playing football
at Carolina; they just wanted a recruiting visit to Chapel Hill
so they could see a basketball game and meet Dean Smith. And the
football coaches obliged them.
"We get 'em in to watch a Carolina basketball game,"
says Torbush, "and then we steal their hearts."
The final touch: a tour of the campus in Brown's '57 Thunderbird,
a convertible painted Carolina blue-and-white. The Browns had
bought the car from a friend, developer Joe Hakan, although Hakan
said there was one ground rule about Brown and his wife Sally
taking the car to Austin.
"They can take it down there," Hakan said, "but
they can't paint it orange."
X X X
"Mack clearly understands what he's getting into at Texas,"
says one of Brown's former assistants, Sparky Woods, now at Virginia.
"He appreciates challenges, and I've never seen him back
down from one. He is a genuinely nice guy, and people sometimes
mistake niceness for weakness. With Mack, that would be wrong."
X X X
Mack and Sally Brown spent countless hours going over the designs
for Mack's new offices at the Kenan Stadium football complex in
Chapel Hill. Sally has a degree in interior design, and this was
a project she wanted to get just right.
The furniture, cabinetry and moldings would be dark cherry.
The carpet would be a mottled beige-and-Carolina blue, and there
would be plenty of windows. The best part, built right into the
cherry bookcases, would be a huge aquarium for Mack's fish.
And now he'll never get to use it. As workers put the finishing
touches on the football offices, preparing for a final state inspection
next week, Mack and Sally Brown will be thinking about house-hunting
The conventional wisdom had always been that Mack Brown would
never leave Chapel Hill because of Sally's roots here. Her younger
son Chris is a sophomore in high school, and she has been fully
occupied as founder and CEO of Marin Properties, a major land-development
corporation. She's also a key player in any number of local civic
and philanthropic causes, including heading the local United Way
and the fundraising effort for a new black cultural center on
Sally Brown had a tough time when she first moved to Chapel
Hill. She was divorced, a single mother, and she went through
a bout with breast cancer. She got into development, she once
said, "to make a living."
Her friends say she is quiet, determined and gracious.
"She's a delight -- to men and women," says Hakan.
"She's absolutely a complete woman. She does what she says
and says what she does."
She is Mack Brown's second wife. He divorced his first wife,
Debbie, a few years after they arrived in Chapel Hill. Some months
later, a mutual friend introduced Mack to Sally, and the attraction,
friends say, was immediate. Until then, despite 15 years in Chapel
Hill, she did not know where the football stadium was. Didn't
know what first-and-10 meant. Didn't know a punt from a point-after.
Sally had two boys, Mack had two girls, and they were married
in 1993. One friend now describes them as "the quintessential
'90s power couple."
X X X
In the hallway outside the North Carolina football locker room,
a huge photo mural stretches along one wall, and the centerpiece
of the mural is a big blow-up of Coach Mack Brown. Surveying the
picture on a Friday afternoon, a workman says, "I sure hope
they don't tear my wall up taking THAT thing down."
X X X
There will be a heartfelt round of farewell parties and good-bye
brunches before Mack Brown finally leaves Chapel Hill. Maybe even
a black-tie roast in his honor.
But there are some hard feelings here, too. A number of Brown's
former players are angry -- the word "betrayed" has
even been used -- and there are those in the athletic administration
who are feeling somewhat jilted.
One of those players, senior quarterback Chris Keldorf is clearly
admiring of Mack Brown's coaching talents. "Once he gets
to Texas," Keldorf says, "they'll start winning."
But Keldorf and other Carolina players were shocked and surprised
when Brown told them that Thursday afternoon that he was leaving
Chapel Hill for Austin. Three days earlier, they had been told
just the opposite.
"We were told he was staying no matter what. NO MATTER
The Brown-to-Texas rumors were flying the week of Dec. 1, Keldorf
says, but after practice that day "he denounced all those
"A lot of the guys very much feel betrayed," Keldorf
says. "In fact, that's how the whole team feels.
"This just shows that college football is all about money.
I guess he made the decision that's best for his family. It's
purely a business deal, but I'm not going to let that one decision
ruin my football career here."
Keldorf, who will graduate this spring, said he has been told
that Brown will not coach North Carolina in whatever bowl game
the Tar Heels get. He also said the team has resolved to go out
on a winning note.
"We're a team here," he says, coming down hard on
the word team. "WE got us here -- the players."
(c) 1997, The Dallas Morning News.
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