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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 out-Texas Texas."

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 to know.

"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 to Alabama.

"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," he says.

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."

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 at Oklahoma.

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 cried.

"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 half-bad, either.

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 in Austin.

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 campus.

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 WHAT."

The Brown-to-Texas rumors were flying the week of Dec. 1, Keldorf says, but after practice that day "he denounced all those rumors."

"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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