AUSTIN, Texas -- Mack Brown revitalized the Texas football program, leading UT to its first national title in more than three decades. He's also a coach who once took over a North Carolina program that went 1-10 in his first season and then went 10-1 in his final season in Chapel Hill before coming to Austin. From 2001-09, Brown's teams finished in the top 13 every season and six times finished in the top six. But after losing in the 2010 BCS title game, the Horns have struggled the past three seasons. Many have wondered if it was time for Brown to step down. (He's actually only a few months older than Bama's Nick Saban.) Recently, I sat down with Brown for an extensive conversation in which the coach talked about, among other things, the direction of his program, his quarterbacks, what motivates him these days and how UT ended up getting soft.
Q: What are you most optimistic about coming out of this spring?
Brown: We're getting more speed. We're getting more depth back, which has been one of our biggest problems. When we were really good, we were two-deep so injuries just didn't wipe us out. The last three years we've had so many injuries, it's been unbelievable and it's been hard to coach. We're really trying to get it back to where we have two-deep that can play because, obviously, if don't have two-deep that can play, you're not going to play 'em.
And in this league, what's happened is we've gone to being a fastball league with tempo so much that by the fifth, sixth game, if you're playing the same guys and they're rushing the passer, they're tired. They just get worn out. What we've really worked on is getting six defensive ends, five defensive tackles and six linebackers, and trying to rotate 'em enough that you have some fresh legs in the game.
Q: Where is (QB) David (Ash) in terms of his development now?
Brown: He's so much further ahead than where he was last spring.
Last spring, I remember him walking in and saying, "Gosh, I just feel so much more comfortable from where I was [in spring, 2011] as a high school senior. I know the offense. I know the coach." But this year, he's got some confidence to really build on. The comeback win at Oklahoma State [41-36, in which Ash went 30-37 for 304 yards and three TD passes] really helped him. The bowl win [over Oregon State] really helped him. He played good against Baylor. He played good against West Virginia. He played great at Ole Miss.
I think he knows it's his team now, and he's moving forward. He really likes [new UT play-caller] Major [Applewhite.] We're doing now what he did in high school. It's a tempo offense, no-huddle. He really likes that. We huddle very seldom. Just short yardage and goal line. I think the fact that we went tempo at the end of Oregon State to win helped. [He and Applewhite] gained credibility with each other, and that was a real positive for both of them coming out of that game.
Q: With the Boise State system using lots of motion and shifts and window-dressing, did you still do as much of that now that [former UT OC] Bryan Harsin moved on [to take the head coach job at Arkansas State]?
Brown: We're running the same plays. Bryan really helped us get back on track with being tougher and running the ball better. We're just not using all of the packages -- so we'll still shift some. We'll still motion some. But we're doing it with the same players on the field because what we found out last year is when you don't substitute, they can't substitute. And that really hurt us defensively.
I felt like we really needed to do this because this league is tempo but also for our defense because if you don't see it every day, it's a mess. Oregon State just gave out, and Mike Riley said, "We couldn't rush the passer. There were just too many plays. We just gave out." [Despite a seemingly average number of plays run by Texas in the game -- 64 -- the Longhorns did have two nine-play touchdown drives in the second half that each barely took three minutes to run.]
We were seeing with our defense that we couldn't substitute. We couldn't call defenses 'cause they were snapping the ball 15 to 18 seconds. And when you set your defense, they'd change it. I think it'll help us more on defense than it will on offense.
We averaged 68 plays a game, and that was third least in the league. We want to average 85-plus, and we feel like by not huddling we can do that.
Q: Do you recall what you guys averaged the year you won the BCS title in 2005?
Brown: It was a lot. [72.3 plays per game.] In fact, the thing that skewed the numbers is that Vince [Young] didn't play much in blowouts. [UT won eight of its 13 games that season by 31 points or more.] He probably only played the first few series of the third quarter in four or five games.
What happened with us, with Colt [McCoy], looking back, he was so good at throwing it, and we had Quan Cosby and [Jordan] Shipley at receiver, that we quit running it and we got soft.
Q: In retrospect, did you feel like you got spoiled by having back-to-back great quarterbacks here in Young and McCoy?
Brown: I don't think there's any doubt. Vince was 30-2, and Colt was like 45-8 or something like that. We went on a run there.
The hard thing for Garrett [Gilbert] is, he comes into the national championship game and gives us a chance to win, but we had those four turnovers. Then, for whatever reason, it just didn't work out [with Gilbert]. And now one of the harder things with college football is it's hard to have more than one [quarterback] that is ready to go because the rest of them transfer. They just don't want to sit behind The Guy. Garrett was the No. 1 player in the country [coming out of high school.]
Q: How much did you worry about David's psyche when you have such a young quarterback and you hear how people are ready to judge him so quickly and the impact that stuff can have on someone at that age especially after you saw what had just happened with Gilbert?
Brown: You sit and talk to the guys about being the quarterback here because it is a difficult thing to do. Being the play-caller and the quarterback are probably the two hardest things here. Harder than my job because they're under pretty good scrutiny. David is a 4.0 student. He is very religious. He's never cussed. Never had a drink. In some ways, I felt like he has such strong faith, I felt like that would help him, too. Vince had a swagger. Colt also had strong faith. His dad's a coach. David's dad's a principal, so he grew up in the school business.
I think it was probably too big for him early, but David has really grown into it. He's handling the media better. David is very direct, and sometimes the media will take him wrong because they'll ask him a question and he'll give a "No." But that's David. That's the way he does me.
He's really mentally tough and smart and direct, and I think we'll start seeing that now. It's really interesting. He's won 10 of his last 13 games. He completed 68 percent of his passes. Had 19 TDs, [eight] interceptions and absolutely got no credit. It's just unbelievable. It's probably because when he started as a freshman, he didn't do as well. And he should be going into his redshirt sophomore year. Vince and Colt both redshirted.
Q: What stands out about him skills-wise?
Brown: He's 6-3, 225. He runs 4.7, 4.65 [in the 40-yard dash]. He's very strong. Got a rocket for an arm. There's really not much he doesn't have.
Q: Who were the pleasant surprises here this spring?
Brown: [Early enrollee QB] Tyrone Swoopes should've been out at the prom instead of out here playing football. He's 6-5, 240-something and not heavy. He runs faster than he looks. Kinda like Vince. It seems just like he's gaining on people. He's got a great arm. He's just got to work on his fundamentals some, but he's definitely got a chance. We knew he was talented because we've had him in camps for three years. He's quiet around us, but he really competed well.
[Offensive linemen] Sedrick Flowers and Kennedy Estelle really stepped up and played well. Defensively, [linebacker] Peter Jinkens came on and did well. [Linebacker] Dalton Santos stepped it up. As did Steve Edmond. Sheroid Evans, who was a track guy, put himself in the mix at corner. He's a long-armed, 6-foot guy who is one of the faster kids in the country. This spring, he decided to be football-only and had a great spring. He's a very physical kid and should be a pro prospect. He can really help us. We also had a couple of young defensive ends, Shiro Davis, step up. We've got more players than we've had. We've had a couple of really good recruiting years again, so our numbers of guys that can really play is back up.
Q: How does the picture at running back look?
Brown: Johnathan Gray has a chance to be really good, but I think all three [backs] are NFL players. Jonathan's faster than
Q: Do you coach at all differently than you did, say, seven years ago?
Brown: I'm enjoying the young staff. It's funny: they'll sometimes say, "Where were you when SMU went under?" I said,"Well, I was in that dressing room recruiting. I was the head coach at Tulane. I was in there trying to get some players." They're just enamored by some of that stuff. "Did you ever meet Marcus Dupree?"
"Nah, I came in right after he left [Oklahoma]."
We got blindsided by the 5-7 season [in 2010]. It caught us off guard. It was frustrating. [Wife] Sally and I sat down with the president and the athletic director [of Texas] after that season. We basically said, "If y'all are disappointed with us, we'll go do something else."
They said, "Do you want to stay?"
I said, "Yeah, we'd like to stay. We're obviously not in a great position, so it's going to take us some time to get this thing back." They were great. They said they wanted us to stay. What Sally and I decided to do was hire some younger coaches and get it back where it should be.
What I've realized is that I like building a lot more than maintaining. We did get to the point where winning seemed so easy and recruiting seemed so easy. We never were in a position where we didn't work. We never felt like we did anything different, but we missed on more kids, and I'm not sure we were looking at videos and maybe not following up as much with a kid. We were looking at stars.
We had our 10 years of 10-plus wins. Thirteen years is a long time. At that point, Sally and I had to make a decision: Are we going to put the energy back into this thing and go full-speed ahead to get it back? Or is it time to let somebody else have it?
She said, "You can do what you want, but you shouldn't back away until you're finished." And I'm really enjoying it. I mean you still have the same fights and the same problems, but recruiting's going really well. I do think we're about to get better. Spring practice was fun. I like what we're doing right now on offense a whole lot, and I like that our defense is having to see what we're doing on offense. I think we're about to be in the mix again. You usually need an older quarterback to win. Our staff's at a really good place. A number of our staff could've left this year, and they all know we're about to be good. So they stayed, which is a good message. A lot of the other schools are telling people that I'm about to retire in a year, so we have to fight that some. They [the UT administration] gave us a unanimous vote for an extended contract through 2020.
I think the young coaches revived me. I sincerely started over in my mind. I'm counting this as Year 3 instead of Year 16, and I think that makes a difference.