LOS ANGELES -- When Texas decided to change football coaches after finishing 4-7 in 1997, two candidates quickly rose to the top of the list to replace John Mackovic, who had suffered his first losing season in six years in Austin.
Gary Barnett was one of the hottest coaching commodities in college football, having led longtime Big Ten doormat Northwestern to its first Rose Bowl in nearly half a century. Mack Brown had his supporters, too, having turned around the fortunes at Tulane and North Carolina.
According to those familiar with the search process, Barnett was the clear favorite.
But in the course of two days of interviews - with Barnett in Chicago and with Brown in Atlanta, where he was attending an Atlantic Coast Conference coaches meeting - the feelings changed among athletic director DeLoss Dodds and two men influential in Texas football: legendary coach Darrell Royal and Texas Rangers owner Tom Hicks.
"When you move from one coach to the next coach in a program, there's a tendency to change some, and Gary and John Mackovic, there's a lot of similarities," Dodds said this week. "Mack's personality was more like Darrell Royal - more tradition, more football family, a Southern guy. The comfort level was just there with Mack."
Especially with Royal, who has long been treated as something of a deity in Austin. Royal met with Dodds and Hicks in Atlanta, where they talked with Brown before bringing him before the search committee. Though they were intending to go back to Chicago to have Barnett meet with the committee, Brown was offered the job on the spot.
"I wasn't the first to say, 'I think we've found our man,' " Royal said yesterday. "Someone on the committee said, 'I believe we've got our guy.' ... The thing that impressed us is that he brought his wife to the interview. I thought it was a brilliant move."
Eight seasons later, a decision that was later second-guessed is now being celebrated, and a coach whose penchant for losing big games - particularly to hated rival Oklahoma five straight years before this season - is one win away from claiming the school's first undisputed national championship since Royal did it 1969.
Brown and second-ranked Texas (12-0) will get that opportunity tomorrow night when they meet top-ranked Southern California (12-0) in the Bowl Championship Series title game at the Rose Bowl. Brown knows that some believe he needs to win to change his image, but he doesn't think it matters.
"Winning this game will change some people's minds, and others move on," said Brown, 54. "What I've learned about this game ... is it doesn't change your life personally, and next year at Texas they'll expect us to win another one regardless of whether we win this one or not.
"If we're 0-2 next year after winning this one, some people will want me fired and they'll say I can't coach. I've got a 22-year record as a head coach and some people have made their decision on who that person is, and that's OK ... We're at least making progress. Five or six years ago, we needed to get to the neighborhood before we started winning championships. We're in the neighborhood. We bought a house."
A blowout with irony
There was some irony in the last stop the Longhorns made before pulling into the driveway. It came in Houston during last month's Big 12 championship game, when the Longhorns stomped Colorado, 70-3. It turned out to be Barnett's last game coaching in Boulder.
"One of the real difficult things for me was that the score got out of hand," Brown said. "I wanted us to win the [Big 12] championship [but] you never want a coach to be embarrassed or to fired on the other side."
Brown has been in that position. During Brown's first two seasons at North Carolina, the Tar Heels finished 1-10 each year and Steve Spurrier, then coaching at Duke, labeled Brown and his brother, Watson, then coaching at Rice, "The Lose Brothers."
But even with nationally ranked teams at North Carolina and Texas, Brown was regarded as a top-notch recruiter who couldn't win the big one. Some in Austin even kidded that tough-minded basketball coach Rick Barnes might have been better suited than Brown.
Dodds said that Brown's reputation, and the criticism he received, was not totally deserved.
"When he was at North Carolina, the team he couldn't beat was Florida State, and those were Florida State's best years," said Dodds. "He came to Texas and Oklahoma was kind of the Florida State [of the Big 12] because they were having the best years they ever had. I don't see where he couldn't win the big ones; those two programs were just better programs.
"What I saw Mack do at Texas is take a program that had been a storied program, and a program with great tradition that had really dropped off, and he built that program back to where it was very solid. In my mind it wasn't a question of will he ever win the big one, it was that he will win the big one, [and it's] just a matter of when he's going to do that."
The turnaround for the Longhorns from being one of the most successful programs in the country - they averaged 10 wins a season over Brown's first seven years - to one that has a decent chance to topple the Trojans began here a year ago, on the same field.
For Brown, who had lobbied hard and successfully for a 10-1 Texas team to get the invitation to Pasadena instead of Cal, it marked the beginning of a personality transformation that continued full tilt into the spring, and eventually into this season.
"Just going out there and winning that big game and finishing as a team, I mean, it helped out a whole lot," Texas quarterback Vince Young said of the Longhorns' 38-37 win over Michigan in last year's Rose Bowl. "Coach Brown, he was already changing at the time. But now, he's just silly. Just seeing him having a good time and loving the job that he's doing, it almost brings tears to my eyes to see a coach dancing like that."
Enjoy the moment
A seven-year contract extension, signed last season and paying Brown an estimated $2.1 million a year, certainly helped. Dodds and others close to Brown told him to relax, and Brown took it a step further to get to know his players better, to the point where he downloaded 150 rap songs on his iPod and actually listened to some of the lyrics.
"I really started enjoying myself more last year," Brown said yesterday. "I felt going into last year that we weren't as good a football team, and I wasn't really sure where we'd go. But when Sally [his wife] and I talked to older coaches who had gotten out of coaching, it wasn't about the wins, it wasn't about the championships, everyone said they wished they would have enjoyed it more while they were doing it."
The change is noticeable to his players.
"I just believe that he's not worrying about winning anymore," Young said. "He's just worried about whatever it takes to keep us happy - to get us prepared for the next level, for the real world that we're going to be seeing in a little while. For him to go sit down and listen to the music we listen to, we all respect that a whole lot."
In turn, Brown has told his players to enjoy themselves as well while they are here, admittedly taking a page from Pete Carroll's coaching manual at USC that states a championship-caliber team doesn't have to be run like a military operation.
"The thing that I learned about USC that I thought was there and I know about our team is that they're not going to be someone else here," Brown said. "We thought that was one of the keys to this week. You are who you are. We've told our guys we want you to smile."
The Longhorn Nation that once hoped Spurrier might come to town if Brown returned to North Carolina, as rumors had it a couple of years ago, has put its collective arms around Brown. It has been something Royal has done ever since that day in Atlanta eight years ago.
Brown said that Royal is one of the reasons he's still coaching the Longhorns.
"On the bad days he's been able to step up and say, 'Hey, I got whipped worse than that, don't be poutin' around me, stick your head back up and get back to work,' " Brown said.
Even yesterday, the old coach was defending Brown.
"They kept writing about how Mack hadn't won a conference championship - that's done, that's handled," said Royal, who won the first national championship in his seventh year at Texas, 1963. "Then they talked about it's been so many years since the national championship. They have a chance to get over another hurdle and I'm pulling for him 100 percent. That'll put an end to that conversation."
Rose Bowl No. 1 Southern California vs. No. 2 Texas, tomorrow, 8 p.m., chs. 2, 7 Line: USC by 7 1/2