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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.
Mack went into college coaching immediately upon graduation in 1974, bringing with him the same intensity that drove him when he was a player. Nine years later he became the Appalachian State coach, at 32, and produced the school's first winning season in four years. He left after one season to become the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma in 1984, then took over at Tulane and in his third season guided the Green Wave to its first bowl game in seven years. He moved to North Carolina in '88 and had three 10-win seasons, capped by a No. 6 ranking in 1997, the Tar Heels' highest finish since they were third in 1948. He went to Texas and began chasing history and Oklahoma as he had once chased his older brother, catching neither and beating himself up with every loss.
"I was too hard on our players and too hard on myself," Brown says. "For whatever reason, I've always had this obsession with being perfect. I wanted to win every game. I wanted every kid on my team to be happy. I wanted to please everybody. And that's a pretty miserable existence."
His passions had begun to shift in the spring of 1997, when two grandparents and his father died in a four-month period. Then, on Nov. 18, 1999, tragedy struck at A&M during the building of the ritual bonfire before the Texas game; Brown, who was driving to work when he heard the news, pulled to the side of the road and wept for the victims' parents. Fifteen months later Texas defensive tackle Cole Pittman was killed when his pickup truck rolled over as he drove to Austin from his hometown of Shreveport, La. On a day when he had expected to welcome his players for the start of spring practice, Brown instead told them of a teammate's death. At the urging of Pittman's father, Marc, Brown spoke at Pittman's funeral.
Less than a year after Pittman's death, in 2002, Mike Phillips, one of Watson's and Mack's teammates at Putnam County High, died of cancer. Phillips, 51, owned a service station in Cookeville and back in the day was a plugger who caught a touchdown pass in the Clarksville game. He was in the Brown brothers' core of friends who every year attended a Texas game (and a UAB game, as well) and hung around for hours afterward, making the same old high school stories seem better with age. It was one of Phillips's last requests that Mack speak at his funeral too, so that's what Mack did.
"I remember hearing Coach Brown talk that day," says Phillips's son, Jimmy Mack, who had been given his middle name for the coach and former teammate his dad admired. "It was comforting to hear his voice. It made me feel good about my dad to know he had friends like that." In a town where almost everybody wears Volunteer orange, Jimmy Mack, now a high school senior, walks around proudly clad in Longhorn burnt orange.
The accumulated impact of all these deaths altered Brown's perspective on life. "You learn that losing a football game, a big football game, is a tough thing," says Brown. "But it's not like losing a loved one. I made a decision: Start having fun or quit coaching."
THERE IS little doubt that the players who have entered the program in the last five years have noticed the subtle transformation in their coach. "He's relaxed, not uptight," says Young. "He'll get on you if you drop a ball or make a mistake, but he jokes around, asks about your family or your girlfriend."
Before this season began Brown downloaded songs by rappers 50 Cent and Mike Jones onto his iPod, making him a source of media humor. Young sees it for something more. "We asked him to do it," he says. "Yeah, it's funny watching him try to rap, but maybe when he listens to those songs, he can understand a little bit of why we act the way we do."
Linebacker Derrick Johnson, who last April was taken 15th in the NFL draft by the Kansas City Chiefs, says, "He tells you, 'Life is bigger than football.' Then he says, 'Just go out and play and don't worry about things.' Guys want to play for a coach like that."