Mack Brown's greatest coaching call? Knowing when to quit
Unlike so many other great coaches who stay too long, Mack Brown knew when to get out of the way. His legacy, and the Texas program, are better for it.
We've been waiting for someone to come along and do what Mack Brown did on Sunday, when he showed everyone the right way to end a glorious career, or at least a glorious tenure at one school. Maybe Brown coaches again. Maybe not. But his days coaching at Texas are done, and while there is much to be said about the 16 years that came before it, I'm going to focus instead on the day he said it was over.
First of all, Brown got out of the way. He left. He saw that Texas football was not as good as Texas football should be, and he stepped aside. Was he forced out? Sure he was. Mack didn't wake up last week and decide to give up the greatest job he will ever have simply because it was the right thing to do. He gave up this job because lots of Texas fans wanted him out and because some of the richest Texas boosters wanted him out and because school president Bill Powers lacked the principle and recently hired athletics director Steve Patterson lacked the power to make the meddlers stop.
Brown needed to go, but how many great coaches have needed to go and actually left? Joe Paterno didn't. He coached until he was 84, a figurehead at the end, presiding over a Penn State program he built from scratch and built so well that it was running on legacy for his final decade. Paterno needed to go, but wouldn't until the job was taken from him. Paterno stayed so long, so overly long, that he damn near coached to his deathbed. He was fired Nov. 9, 2011. He died 11 weeks later.
Bobby Bowden needed to go, but didn't. He coached until he was 80, a Florida State figurehead for even longer than Paterno was at Penn State. Bowden built the program so well and hired so well that he became the team's marketing rep while Mark Richt was running the offense and Mickey Andrews was running the defense and Chuck Amato was running the recruiting and handling the day-to-day operations. Amato left in 2000. Richt left in 2001. Florida State lost five games in 2002, and it was time for Bowden to go but he just wouldn't. Not until Dec. 1, 2009, three weeks after his 80th birthday, which came one day after the Seminoles lost to Clemson to drop to 4-5.
To be clear about this, Mack Brown wasn't Paterno or Bowden in terms of greatness or longevity. He didn't build Texas from scratch, but restored it to levels established in the 1960s by Darrell Royal. He didn't coach the Longhorns for 40 or 50 years. He had neither the power nor sentimentality that sustained Paterno and Bowden and guilt-tripped fans of both into thinking, sigh, he'll leave when he wants and he's earned that right.
Let's be clear about something else: Outside of lifetime appointments in the political arena, nobody ever earns the right to decide when he or she resigns, unless he or she owns the damn company. And since we're talking about college sports, and Penn State University and not Paterno State University (or the University of Bowden or the University of Mack Brown), the point remains: Coaches don't have the right to stay until they damn well please.
Mack Brown knew it. Maybe, to take the other side, he would have felt differently had he kept Texas rolling another decade, winning another national title or two and not hitting the slump he found himself in lately until his early 70s, instead of his early 60s. We'll never know, but we know this: Mack announced he was resigning rather than forcing whatever power play he could have forced given his 16 years there, his national title, his billionaire Texas booster (Joe Jamail) for an attorney and, frankly, the six years and $30-plus million remaining on his contract.
If Mack Brown wanted to coach Texas in 2014, Mack Brown was going to coach Texas in 2014. And who knows? Maybe Brown has a resurgence in 2014 like Paterno had in 2005, when Penn State followed five seasons of 26-33 mediocrity by going 11-1 and buying Paterno the ability to coach until 11 weeks before his death at age 85.
But enough about that. The time he left is just one way Mack Brown went about the business of leaving the right way.
The way he left? Even more admirable. Brown didn't mourn the loss of his career on Sunday. He mourned the loss of 13 young men, kids really. College students. Somebody's children. That's where Mack Brown went when he was asked what he would change about his 16 years at Texas, a tenure that ended with Texas fans calling for his resignation and Texas boosters making it happen and his bosses doing nothing to stand in the way of that.
"Two things," Brown said. "I would want Cole Pittman back. And I would want the bonfire not to have happened at A&M."
Cole Pittman was a Texas sophomore defensive end who died in 2001 in a one-car accident. That came barely a year after 12 Texas A&M students died during construction of the annual bonfire the week of the Texas game.
Brown didn't have to go there. It's sort of awkward that he did, really. He turned what was a press conference all about him and his tenure and his resignation into something hard and painful and tragic. He took the spotlight off Mack Brown and shined it on the memories of 13 college students, 12 of whom attended a rival school and died days before Thanksgiving, 1999.
"When you lose your children, there is nothing worth that in the world," Brown said Sunday. "I think about that every Thanksgiving because there are 12 families that don't have a good Thanksgiving. That will never go away."
That was Texas football coach Mack Brown's answer to the final question on the day he announced he was resigning. I can't think of a more difficult way to end that press conference. Can't think of a better way, either.
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