Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Thanksgiving Week Special from the DC Sports Division ...

Nice guys can finish first. Let's hope so, because with wins over Texas A&M on Friday and in the Big 12 Championship Game on December 3, Mack Brown’s Texas Longhorns are poised to take on USC in the Rose Bowl on January 4, 2006 for the national championship.

A lot of Mack's detractors had argued very loudly that he could not produce a team like the one he has this year: They’re good. They're fast. No, blinding fast. They're cool. They have been down late in two different ballgames on the road this year -- at Ohio State and Oklahoma State. They play defense, with an attacking style that flummoxes offenses and produces momentum-swinging turnovers. They play offense. Explosive offense. It helps to have Vince Young as QB, for sure. They make big plays almost routinely. And they play with a confidence and nastiness that reminds one of, well, the way Oklahoma used to look.

This year, Mack has been at his very best. Since he came to UT in 1998, he has been derided by some as a guy "too nice" to win. He said and did the right things. But the guy was too nice, the critics said.

Well, I am happy for Coach Brown, because I honestly saw this coming. He builds programs for the long term and in the right way. And he's far smarter than a lot of the self-proclaimed smart guys of fooball (i.e., Steve Spurrier) think.

During the last seven years, Mack has provided an effective model for building a winning organization: giving people a stake in the success, stressing a philosophy and sticking to it, leading from the front with a positive example, delegating to those who possess skills that the leader does not, learning from mistakes, and remaining true to yourself as a leader.

When Mack came to UT, he was known as a top-notch recruiter with an ability to perhaps build ties with Texas high school football coaches. Such ties were in bad need of repair in the wake of the John Mackovic era. Mack did in fact mend fences, and then he built bridges. But he did much more. He brought with him a philosophy: Recruit winners. Look for young men who have won at the high school level. Look for classroom success. Look for character, because disappointment and trials will surely come to almost all players at the college level.

Good players make smart coaches. Mack is humble enough to acknowledge this. Once he arrived, the talent began to follow. And the wins began to pile up, if not conference championships and wins over OU.

Upon his arrival in 1998, the thing he said that I just found the most incredible was his praise for UT fans. Listen, I went to school there and the fans were spoiled, golf-clappers who believed that a national championship is their birthright. A sizeable number of them were that way, at least. Mack, though, just praised UT fans and thanked them for their support. He encouraged them to "be loud, wear orange, and stay late." This was funny to me at first, because Longhorn fans just weren't the type. They are now, and Austin has thus become one of the most difficult places in the country to play.

He sought out the legendary UT Coach Darrell Royal for advice and made him welcome at all Longhorn functions and practices. All prior Royal successors had silently avoided the lurking legend, but Mack acknowledged and embraced the two-ton gorilla in the room that is DKR. As a result, the two became fast friends and Coach Royal has remained a steadfast supporter of Mack's.

Mack also sought to reinvigorate the pride in UT's long history of success, emboldening new recruits with the message that they were proudly carrying a torch borne by the likes of Layne, Nobis, Campbell, and Street.

Oh, but he was too nice to beat the smart-aleck genius from Norman -- Bob Stoops. However, that myth disappeared in a cloud of smoke this year, 45-12. The dirty little secret here was that Stoops and Co. actually had comparable and even better players than Texas. Now that Mack's crew has equalized and passed OU in terms of talent, we’ll see how it goes from here.

One of the most impressive things about Mack is that he has learned from past mistakes. No more waiting to play freshman phenoms against OU, like what occurred with Cedric Benson as a freshman. This year, frosh RB Jamaal Charles got the start and throttled OU. There is no more sensitivity regarding QB controversies, as Mack last season gave the reins to then-sophomore Vince Young, instead of alternating with restless senior and would-be transfer Chance Mock. No more holding the offensive cards to close to the vest; Mack has taken more of a role in the offense and encouraged his long-time coordinator Greg Davis to step on the gas. I mean, when you've got a Ferrari, you need to get the thing out on the highway from time to time.

Being an offensive coach, all Mack did was go out and hire two of the best defensive minds to run his defense during the last two seasons – Greg Robinson, formerly of the Kansas City Chiefs, and now Gene Chizik, who coordinated the Auburn Tigers’ nation-leading defense last season.

Mack is humble enough to change and he consistently gives his players, assistant coaches, and even fans the credit for the team's success. The result: “I love coach,” says Vince Young.

Mack’s crew knows how to coach, too. Often, special-teams play is overlooked, but knowledgeable observers know teams that return and block kicks well can win games that way. And such teams are well-coached. In this regard, almost everyone has heard of Virginia Tech’s Frank Beamer, a very fine coach. His team’s are noted for their special-teams excellence, and in fact only one team in the past five years has blocked more kicks than Virginia Tech: That would be Mack Brown’s Texas Longhorns.

What gives me the most pride as a UT alum, though, is that Mack stresses winning the right way. UT players go to class, and there’s a reason they don’t tend to make headlines for off-field antics while enrolled at UT. Character is recruited and excellence is expected.

A few years ago, I took my boys to Austin for our annual football pilgrimage. It was a great day, as the Horns won a hard-fought game over Iowa State. We went to Chili’s for the post-game celebration/analysis. We sat down to order and there was Cory Redding, the best player on the team at the time and now a defensive end for the Detroit Lions. My boys, weary of all my leg-pulling, didn’t believe me, though. So, I took them over to prove the point. When we interrupted Cory’s dinner to say hello, he pleasantly engaged both of my boys in conversation and signed their shirts and hats. I was amazed at what a nice young man he was.

Though extremely talented, he seemed very grounded, humble, and first-class.

Like his coach.

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