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August 28, 2008

Muschamp, Applewhite help light fire under Texas

With Vince Young in town to see his No. 10 forever etched in the new north end zone of Royal-Memorial Stadium, it recalls one of the more memorable quotes from that 2005 national title season.

"It was the easiest year in coaching I've ever had," Mack Brown said. "I didn't have to do anything."

If Brown was comfortable back then, dancing to 50 Cent and allowing Vince to be Vince, Brown deserves credit for making everything uncomfortable leading up to Saturday's season opener against Florida Atlantic. Much of it can be traced to the hires of defensive coordinator Will Muschamp and running backs coach Major Applewhite.

In making those hires, Brown has brought in some necessary fire to jumpstart a team that lost to both its rivals last season and suffered its worst home loss in 10 years under Brown.

In making those hires, UT's head coach may also be re-connecting with the younger version of himself - the fire-breathing Mack Brown, whom Troy Aikman said "nearly broke me" as Aikman's offensive coordinator at Oklahoma in 1984.

WHEN MACK MET SALLY

A quick bit of history. The single biggest change Mack Brown made in his coaching career began in 1993. That's when Mack met his wife, Sally, after going through a tough divorce and essentially being left with his two daughters. Mack was five years into his stint at North Carolina and had a 24-28 record when he met Sally.

She convinced him to stop cussing players in practice by asking him, "Is that how you'd like someone to treat your daughters?" Sally Jessee, as she was known then, had some pretty reliable instincts. She had already survived cancer diagnosed while she was pregnant with her second son during her first marriage.

She then took a horse farm from the divorce settlement and taught herself how to develop houses on the property because she knew the real estate was valuable. She went on to become one of the most successful developers in Chapel Hill, N.C.

MACK'S METAMORPHISIS

When Mack says, "Sally was better known in Chapel Hill than I was when we met," he's not kidding. Sally also helped Mack recruit incredible talent to Carolina. When I covered the Dallas Cowboys in 2001 and 2002 for The Dallas Morning News, Greg Ellis and Ebenezer Ekuban both told me how players liked Mack but "fell in love with Ms. Sally."

So Mack quit cussing players and created the family atmosphere that has allowed him to win over recruits and their parents for the last 15 years. With Sally taking an active role in recruiting, Brown landed the likes of Ellis, Ekuban, Vonnie Holliday, Brian Simmons and Dre Bly. The defense on that 1997 North Carolina team was a monster.

"You could see the maturity coming," said ACC commissioner John Swofford, who was Mack Brown's athletic director at North Carolina. "I think the word is patience. A lot of times that comes with age. Mack, as all young coaches are, was in a hurry. He wanted the success right now. But you have to temper it. And he was able to do that more and more.

"Mack understood it would take time to build North Carolina because of where the talent was when he took over," Swofford added. "But emotionally it was difficult to have the patience, especially when you start off 1-10 and 1-10. When Sally came in and really stabilized his personal life, that just added to it that much more.

"Sally has had her own successes and a lot of aspects of success are transferable. She figured out very quickly what Mack's world is all about. Mack understood early on Sally had experiences that were transferable to his world. It's obvious that Sally's presence in Mack's life has been very significant - in the people aspects of it, the organizational aspects and the security aspect of it. They are a team, a partnership."

DON'T GET COMFORTABLE

Mack used to joke all the time if things ever got rough at Texas, he would quit because Sally was a millionaire. It was his way of saying, I don't have to put up with much because I could be at my lake house in the North Carolina mountains.

And while that security has allowed Brown to make decisions without the urgency of a coach sweating his next paycheck, it can also cause someone to become comfortable. That's why his hires of Muschamp and Applewhite are so intriguing. There's nothing comfortable or relaxed about these two. They are intense and direct 24-7.

Mack has always encouraged his coaches to get up early and get their work done so they can be home by 7 p.m. with their families. Muschamp and Applewhite don't operate that way.

"Will and Major are workaholics. They are here all the time," Brown said Thursday.

In years like this one, where off-the-field issues in 2007 have cost an entire recruiting cycle at one position (safety) and nearly another one (defensive tackle), you have to work overtime.

Texas is facing nine bowl teams from 2007 and 11 returning starting quarterbacks, seven of whom have beaten a ranked opponent and led their team to a bowl game. Against that schedule, you have to get your players to see the value of asking their position coach for one-on-one time in the film room. That could cut into family time for the coach.

Rick Barnes said he knows when his basketball players are serious about wanting to get better. As soon as practice is over, those players are still around, getting up extra shots and asking assistant coaches for help.

Muschamp has made it clear to all of his players his office is open. He made it especially clear in the weeks leading up to the start of classes on Wednesday. The players Muschamp expects the most out of spent the most time in his office.

"Roy Miller was in coach's office a whole bunch, I know that," said senior defensive end Brian Orakpo.

"Football is important to Roy, and we're going to win with guys football is important to," Muschamp said.

MACK THE CEO

Mack Brown is the ultimate CEO. That's not a knock. He knows football. But his gift is connecting with people in a positive way, whether it's his players, fans or the charities he and Sally work with. It's why he's such a great recruiter. It's why his players love him and always rally around him, no matter how dire things look. It's why he has 10 fourth-quarter comebacks at Texas. It's why he's 10-0 the week after playing Oklahoma, even after those routs in 2000 and 2003.

As hard as he tries, Brown still has to fight against making excuses. On Monday, when asked about his five freshmen listed at safety, he said, "It's a real concern." On Wednesday, he seemed to correct himself:

"We talk about our secondary, but Earl Thomas has been around a long time," Brown said. "Christian Scott has been around a long time. Blake Gideon went through 15 spring practices before he went through the 29 in fall camp. So it's not like those guys are walking in here as true freshmen. And then Chykie (Brown), Deon (Beasley), (Ryan) Palmer and Curtis (Brown) have been here for a couple years. We're not as green back there as it sounds like we are."

Muschamp never makes excuses. When he was asked about any nerves related to having two freshmen safeties on the field Saturday, Muschamp said, "We're excited. Those guys are going to play well for us."

For whatever reason, Brown has always left himself some backdoors when falling short of a conference title. It's probably from taking over awful programs like Appalachian State, Tulane and North Carolina and building them up.

There were never expectations for titles at those places. Winning was enough. Now, he's at a place where conference championships and BCS games are the bar. Ten years later, Brown is still having to adjust to that, especially when he looks around and sees everything he's paying for - like a new stadium expansion to 98,000 seats.

EDGY RESOLVE

Muschamp was a highly recruited safety from Rome, Ga., who ended up having to walk on because of a broken fibula suffered playing baseball his junior year in high school. He ultimately earned a scholarship at Georgia and became a captain. He made his name as the defensive coordinator at Valdosta State in 2000 before getting hired by Nick Saban as the linebackers coach at LSU in 2001. Saban is a notoriously tough boss. Tough on assistants. Demanding to no end. Muschamp has always demanded so much of himself, he was a perfect fit for Saban.

Brown loves that both Muschamp and Applewhite have coached under Saban. In Muschamp and Applewhite, Brown is re-connecting with his roots as a fiery, young coach. Brown is giving these young coaches his expertise at building a program because there's no one better at that. In exchange, Muschamp and Applewhite are giving Brown the edgy resolve his coaching staff and players need.

Muschamp and Applewhite sugarcoat nothing. When Applewhite was asked early in camp to differentiate his backs, he said, "That's really not my job to sit here and split them up and label them for everybody. We know what they do best, and we'll use them accordingly."

Brown this week was talking glowingly about Young, whose jersey retirement ceremony will happen 25 minutes before kickoff against Florida Atlantic on Saturday.

"I don't think anyone has ever deserved to have their jersey retired more than Vince Young with what he accomplished at this school," Brown said. "He put us back on the modern map. There's some people who thought we would never win a national championship. Now, because of he and the other guys he played with, we have a chance to win another one."

Brown says he wants another Big 12 title and another national title. To get those things, he will need incredible leadership from his players and coaching staff. He doesn't need anyone who is comfortable.

HEALTHY TENSION

Vince Young (cue the angels singing) said at a press conference before the national title game, "USC don't know how many guys we have who are gangster."

Young's quote probably made a lot of people, including Brown, uncomfortable considering the polished image Texas tries to project. But there's nothing comfortable about greatness.

A demanding, tough love attitude from players and coaches are what it takes to win titles. From August to January, no one should be comfortable. Having fun? Yes. Comfortable? Not a chance.

No one understood that like Young, who constantly challenged his teammates to get better and then went out and exceeded expectations every time he stepped on the field. Young turned receivers Limas Sweed and Billy Pittman into playmakers because he saw something in them before they saw it in themselves.

Muschamp and Applewhite don't see doubt or the possibility of failure. They just keep teaching, looking for solutions and ways to build confidence. Muschamp doesn't see young players in the secondary. He sees talent. Applewhite doesn't see inexperience at running back. He sees drive and passion.

"They all look good," Applewhite said. "It excites me as a coach to have three backs who are hungry to play."

Practices have been ultra intense. Much of the credit goes to Muschamp and Applewhite. These guys fight complacency the way UT students fight parking tickets. They see someone getting comfortable and give him a whole new set of tasks. For those reasons, Texas has a chance to play well beyond their years in 2008.




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