Back when Mack Brown was starting out…

Let’s go back 38 years to the fall of 1975. I was learning on the job as a sports reporter at The Hattiesburg American. It was my first full-time newspaper job. I still wasn’t shaving more than once a week.

Mack Brown, who will coach Texas against Ole Miss this Saturday night, was learning on the job as the wide receivers coach on Bobby Collins’ first staff at Southern Miss.

It was Brown’s first full-time coaching job.

I was 23; he was 24. We got to be friends.

He played tennis; I played golf. He tried to convert me, correctly saying I’d get a lot more exercise in much less time on the tennis courts. Besides, he said, assistant football coaches, who aspire to be head coaches, have far too little free time for golf.

So we began a twice weekly game of tennis that began at sunrise. I guess it was tennis. It should have been called: Mack wins. I never won a set, and I didn’t win many games. The talent differential was as  enormous as it was predictable. He had been a three-sport high school star and then a starting halfback at Florida State; I had been a second-string point guard at Thames Junior High.

In retrospect, I think the games I won, he let me win. You’d have to know Mack to understand. He’s that nice a guy.

In fact, to this day when people ask me if I ever expected him to be this successful as a head football coach, this is my answer: I knew he had the brains. I knew he had the ambition, because he told me so often. I just thought he was too nice a guy to make it big in such a cut-throat business. I honestly didn’t think he could be mean enough. (His firing of Manny Diaz this week may indicate otherwise.)

Obviously, Mack Brown has succeeded wildly at several places. Texas pays him more than $5 million per year to coach football.

Attention to detail

Bobby Collins and Mack Brown were then – and still are – filled with mutual admiration. Brown has told me more than once that Collins is the best football coach he ever worked with. Collins stressed the fundamentals – blocking and tackling – almost to a point of tedium. Brown was the wide receivers coach at USM. Collins loved to run the football, and in the veer-option attack, the wide receivers had to block. Collins always has said he was appreciative of Brown’s attention to detail, how he insisted his receivers block or else view the game from the bench. Brown, Collins said, was as nice as they come off the field, but was a tough, demanding coach on it.But what Collins loved most about a young Mack Brown was his recruiting ability. Collins praised Brown’s ability to connect with recruits and their families once he got to the home visits. In Brown’s three years at USM, he recruited many of the players who would help Collins turn the USM program into a consistent winner. “He was relentless as a recruiter,” Collins has said of Brown.

Apparently, Brown has remained so to the point he has earned the nickname of “Coach February,” because although he might lose a game or two a season, he almost never loses a February recruiting battle either. His Saturday adversary, Hugh Freeze appears to be right there with him.

If you were to approach Collins these days – most likely on the first tee of the Hattiesburg Country Club – and congratulate him on being such an astute judge of young coaching talent, he probably would tell you he hired Mack because : 1) he was a nice kid; and 2) and, mostly, because he came cheap.

Working the phones

Former USM coach Jeff Bower played one year at quarterback under Brown and then served two years as a graduate assistant with him.

“Mack connected with everybody; his ability to communicate was obviously his greatest strength,” Bower says. “He was demanding on the field, but he won everybody over with his personality off it. I remember back then, he really worked the phones and it served him well then and still does.”

When Brown left USM to go to Memphis in 1977, he said he took the lateral move because he was trying to learn from as many head coaches as possible in his journey to becoming a head coach himself.

It opened a full-time job at USM. Mississippi Sports Hall of Famer Jeff Bower took it.

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Looking for a place to watch Ole Miss-Texas, we’ve got just the spot.

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