ONE BLAST from a manager's air horn ended practice and sent the Texas players running to the middle of the field, where they bounced off one another in a giddy scrum. This was on Thursday of the team's mid-November bye week; the Longhorns would not play rival Texas A&M in their last regular-season game for another eight days. After four punishing daily practices they would soon be turned loose for a long weekend before starting their stretch drive in pursuit of the school's first national championship in 36 years. Players danced and chanted and thrust fists skyward. "Going home!" shouted quarterback Vince Young. The prospect of freedom filled the air.
The players formed a fluid semicircle, and many of them dropped to a knee as a man in burnt-orange sweats and a white cap called them to order. "Just a few things," said Mack Brown, 54, coach of the Longhorns and architect of the eight-year rebuilding of the Texas program. Watching from a hillside behind Brown was Darrell Royal, 81, who with his revolutionary wishbone offense had guided Texas to its last title, four coaches and a hundred broken promises ago.
"Give me your eyes now," said Brown, in a slightly elevated version of the syrupy, down-home tenor that developed long ago in his native Tennessee. "When you're home this weekend, or wherever you go, and you're watching the games on television and they put up the BCS standings, feel proud of yourselves that you're 10-0 and sitting up there in the top two. But nobody on this team wants to be remembered for losing to the Aggies. And here's something else for you to think about: Some of the buddies you'll be seeing this weekend don't have the same rules we have on this team. We're going to let you go home again after the A&M game, but know who you're driving with. There's an awful lot of drinking that goes on in that stadium."
Here, a long pause. "Be careful. All of you. Be careful."
Last Friday, Texas went to College Station and beat the hated Aggies 40-29, pushing its record to 11-0 for the first time since 1983 (a season that ended with a Cotton Bowl loss to Georgia). With a win this Saturday over Colorado in the Big 12 championship game in Houston--the Longhorns beat the Buffs 42-17 on Oct. 15-- Texas can secure a place in the BCS title game at the Rose Bowl on Jan. 4. The Horns would play two-time national champion and top-ranked USC, provided the Trojans can dispense with UCLA this Saturday (box, page 50).
Brown, who upon taking the Texas job in late 1997 was called by Ohio State coach John Cooper "the Number 1 program-builder in college football," will be deservedly hailed if the Longhorns reach the title game. He will be sainted by Texas fans if he delivers a championship. And in so doing Brown, who is 81-19 at Texas, will shed a quirky, Mickelsonian burden, for it will be his first championship as a coach at any level. ( Brown's only title of any kind came in 1967, his junior year at Putnam County High, when the Cavaliers defeated Clarksville 26--7 and were crowned unofficial Tennessee public school state champions by a Nashville newspaper.)
"Mack has worked hard, created a good atmosphere for players and hired a strong staff," says Congressman Tom Osborne (R., Neb.), who in his previous life won 255 games and three national titles at Nebraska. "You knew this could happen at Texas, with the talent and the tradition, and Mack has brought together all the pieces."
One piece is relatively new. It's the one that compels Brown to face his players and tell them not just to win football games but also to be careful. It's the piece that's formed when a man has been touched by death enough times that he steps back from an all-or-nothing philosophy and finds joy simply in the pursuit of victory. The death of his grandfather. His grandmother. His father. Eleven Texas A&M students and an alumnus. One of his own players. An old and dear high school teammate. All in a five-year span. "There's no doubt it's changed me," says Brown.
He has been coaching football since 1973, after having played it since age six in his hometown of Cookeville, Tenn., a small city in the Upper Cumberland Region. He grew up in a home in which his parents, Melvin and Katherine, sent their three sons to a Church of Christ every Wednesday and Sunday and enforced a 10 p.m. curfew. "You didn't think about missing it," says Mack's brother, Watson, older by a year and now the coach at Alabama-Birmingham. The boys' grandfather Eddie (Jelly) Watson was the town's school superintendent, but he had been the high school's revered football coach when Watson and Mack were preschoolers watching from his sideline.
Like characters from a period piece the Brown boys, including youngest brother Mel, and their friends played sports year-round. "Every game invariably ended with a fight between Watson and Mack," says Kevin Tucker, a family friend. Watson was a gifted athlete who would be recruited by Western Kentucky for basketball before signing to play football at Vanderbilt. Mack was forever chasing him. "I would run all summer just to keep up with Watson, and he'd do nothing and still be better," says Mack.
On their high school football team Watson was the star quarterback, Mack the wide receiver-running back. Teammates called him Mack the Knife for his slashing style. (They called Watson "Snotwad" for other reasons altogether.) Mack followed Watson to Vanderbilt but transferred to Florida State after his sophomore season because he didn't like the way the coaching staff was handling Watson. A year later Mack blew out his left knee and was finished as a player.