Texas' Mack Brown: Elite Football Coach or Lucky CEO of a Loaded Program?
You'll recognize the expression "What Can Brown Do For You?" as UPS's ad campaign, intended to communicate their catch-all capability and magnanimous approach to the often-annoying demands of shipping.
It's not a bad slogan for Texas Longhorns coach Mack Brown, either. Brown is the silent sideline CEO, a do-it-aller, which makes him an increasing rarity in a sport that, more and more, calls for some specific prowess from its coaches either in or out of games.
Be it a uniquely run offense (Urban Meyer, Rich Rodriguez) or a defensive pedigree that is second to none (Bo Pelini, Bob Stoops), coaches should be doing something on the sideline (besides just letting the refs hear it when they miss a holding call).
Brown is old-school, charming, hands-off. His hellacious motivational rants are notably rare, and are directed, more often than not, at referees or other coaches rather than players.
But is he also just enormously lucky? Lucky in a way that excludes him from the more outstanding coaches of the game?
Is winning the only thing making Mack Brown a good coach? Or do the Longhorns win because he coaches?
Openness Is Intelligence
I've always felt that Brown's legacy was decided on January 1st, 2006. For two and a half years, Brown let Vince Young be Vince Young, culminating in the fourth down scamper to seal a Rose Bowl victory that will never be topped for spectacle.
Under Brown, Young was 30-1 as a starter and became the first player in NCAA history to pass for 3,000 yards and run for 1,000 in a single season. That Longhorns team was backed up by an outstanding defense, but VY consistently stole the show.
The 2005 offense was also, for the record, the most high-profile use of the zone-read option play by an athletic quarterback in history, and the play is now a staple of spread offenses, most of which had been pass-oriented prior to that point, thanks to Young.
Not that Vince Young didn't pass—he was, in fact, the NCAA's most efficient passer as a senior, and, aside from scrambling, checkdowns to his tight ends and running backs was what got kept the UT offense rolling in the 2006 Rose Bowl. But the use of the zone-read in a spread-running game was still getting fine-tuned in the lesser programs by the time Young executed it to perfection.
Now that Terrelle Pryor and the Ohio State offense have chosen to eschew the zone-read in favor of developing Pryor's pocket throwing skills (for better or worse), the 2005 offense may well be the purest example of the zone-read by an athlete born for it for years to come.
But how much of that was Mack Brown's coaching? Ah, here's where the speculation begins. Because while Tressel—with Terrelle Pryor's insistence—is attempting to put Pryor in a box, Mack Brown and his coaching staff have shown that they adapt the style of offense to coincide with the advantages of the players.
We know this not merely because of the Young example, but because of how dramatically the Texas offense has changed since Young's departure without any significant change in the offensive coaching staff. Colt McCoy can't make the same kind of reads, so the UT offense has slowly molded to a pass-heavy spread with the opportunity for a called draw play that can make use of McCoy's outstanding speed.
Part of this innovation can be credited to Greg Davis, who has served as offensive coordinator for the Longhorns since moving to Austin with Brown from UNC, and who won the Broyles Award for the nation's top assistant in college football for his efforts in 2005.
But even if it is more Davis than Brown, no coaching decision as profoundly important as how an offense is run gets approved without the consent of the CEO. And no adaptation gets made without recognizing the ability to adapt in the first place. For this, then, we can say Mack Brown does more by doing less.
You're Only As Strong As Your Weakest Link
Continuity in a program is important, especially in these shifting times. Charlie Strong's departure to Louisville could cost the Florida Gators some stud defensive recruits, and that's only the most recent example.
Besides Davis, Brown has retained the services of strength and conditioning coach Jeff "Mad Dog" Madden, an outstanding recruiter and a hall of famer at the position, as well as Bruce Chambers, a recruiting coordinator and tight ends coach, defensive line coach Mike Tolleson and associate head coach Cleve Bryant since he moved from UNC in 1998.
But continuity is no substitute for progress, which is why Brown annually addresses lackluster performances from his coaching staff.
2007 was, by all counts, a down year for the UT defense, during which the Longhorns surrendered nearly 5,000 yards and lost three games. Brown forced the resignation of co-defensive coordinator Larry MacDuff, demoted Duane Akina from the other defensive coordinator position, and went in search of an outstanding replacement.
He hired the current coach-in-waiting, Will Muschamp, from Auburn (as he'd done with Gene Chizik in 2004, when Chizik helped the Tigers to an undefeated record). Muschamp has led the Longhorns to back-to-back top ten finishes in overall defense in his two years at Texas.
And he knows how to pick them: his offensive line coach, Mac McWhorter, won the award for top assistant coach in the country from the American Football Coaches Association. Muschamp is routinely trotted out for the Frank Broyles award, given to the best assistant in college football.
But there have also been troubling instances, times when you wonder how fragile the Texas coaching situation is and whether the innate talent masks an alarming nepotism. There was the incident with Brown's son-in-law, Chris Jessie, who staggered onto the field during the 2007 Holiday Bowl and made contact with an errant ball, costing the Longhorns a turnover.
There was also the incident in the Big 12 championship, when the coaches watched as Colt McCoy rolled out and threw a long pass out of bounds. With time ticking off the clock and a timeout to spare, a lapse in communication nearly cost the Longhorns their spot in the national championship.
McCoy claimed he was unaware of the rule saying that the football must touch the ground. I've never thrown a football in a game, but I knew that rule, and the guy who has won more games as a starter than any other player in history should have too.
So what gives?
This is Texas. Mack Brown is a Christian, and he has a family. There are going to be instances of inexplicable generosity that bite him in the ass. Plus, people make mistakes, albeit big ones in huge games with obvious rules.
But whether mistakes are big or small, Brown has shown he will root them out, and on this he is unrelenting. To do this means hiring the kind of people for whom mistakes are rare
Mack Brown Wants Players That Want Mack Brown
BurntOrangeNation did an outstanding analysis of Mack Brown's recruiting approach that addresses what makes Mack Brown both an outstanding coach and a questionable recruiter.
Put simply, Mack Brown wants kids that want to play for Texas, to the exclusion of all other schools. Players that are "down to four choices" offend him, and he's serious about this point, to a fault.
Take, for example, the recruitment of OLB Jordan Hicks, who narrowed his choices down to Florida, Texas, and Ohio State, with the Longhorns as a slight frontrunner according to insiders. Waiting for Hicks to make a decision has been a chore for Brown, whose first instinct is to give away Hicks' scholarship spot to someone who wants to play for Texas unequivocally.
But can you blame him? The Texas football program is Mack Brown's church. Doubt, dissent, indecision are the Devil's playground, and Bob Stoops and Pete Carroll are the bullies who run the swings.
Texas is a state so talent-rich that going outside of its borders is often not necessary for a top-ten class. The biggest names giving us the hook 'em—Young, and also Brian Orakpo, Sergio Kindle, Roderick Muckelroy, and Earl Thomas—were all native sons. It's a point of pride to play for Texas, even as a backup—Jevan Snead's transfer to Ole Miss aside, Texas hasn't lost any of its high-profile players to attrition.
Still, this obstinacy is the sign of a very proud man, one who has gotten burned in recent years by hgh-profile defections—Ryan Perriloux, John Brantley, and Charles Scott all looked to be in the fold before signing for other programs. And the Hicks example aside, he is becoming less capable of playing the game.
This is likely the reason that he's named his successor in Muschamp. Not only does it guarantee Muschamp's loyalty at least on some level, but it provides continuity in recruiting that other programs can only hope to guarantee.
The pipeline isn't likely to shut off any time soon, and if anything, Texas becomes ever-more talent rich as football hysteria reaches more and more sections of the population. But with that hysteria comes an interest in nationwide recruiting—Rivals and Scout now evaluate players as early as sophomores in high school, and the information is public—which means that Texas will be fighting battles even for the kids that once were solid leans.
I know they like to build walls down there, but this information boom spells doom for the Texas recruiting gold mine. As the feasibility of the Texas-only strategy declines, it will be interesting to see if Brown can respond successfully to the shifting whims of his native sons.
Build a great product, run it clean, keep it faithful. The Texas program is a church, and its reverend is one of the sport's last true CEOs.
I set out on this article to question Brown's legitimacy, but you simply can't—not with that record, those recruiting classes, and the Longhorns knocking on the door of their second national championship in four years, a year removed from essentially being voted out of contention.
Winning Brown's way keeps him out of the limelight, but that's because the way he wins isn't gaudy, isn't magnificent, isn't even particular.
It involves adapting constantly, absorbing the winning characters and characteristics of the programs around him, and drawing a hard line when it comes to who plays for Texas.
And when the day comes when Brown can't do it for you any more, Texas fans can rest assured ol' Mack will be the first to know.
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