Mack Brown knew this day would arrive. He had seen this movie before, seen it with men he admired in the leading role.
Eight years ago this week, over breakfast at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York, he talked about how he had decided to take the pressure off himself. It had been a remarkable season. Texas had pounded its nemesis, Oklahoma, 45-12. The Longhorns had gone undefeated and risen to No. 2 in the nation. Four weeks hence, Brown would raise the crystal football above his head on the floor of the Rose Bowl, confetti dancing and swirling on a crisp California night.
But on that December morning, before Texas knocked off USC and ended the Trojans' 34-game winning streak on a night that would be the pinnacle of a remarkable career, Brown talked about how it would end. "Very few coaches," Brown said, "get to decide where they want to finish. And that's a real pressure point for a coach in his 50s and 60s, when he doesn't have a place to stop."
Brown, now 62, knew then where he would finish his career. He loved Texas from the moment he and his wife, Sally, left North Carolina to come to the Forty Acres in 1998. But Brown didn't get to decide when he would finish. He may find solace in knowing that Joe Paterno, Bobby Bowden, Phillip Fulmer, Woody Hayes and so many others didn't get to say when, either. He has won 158 games at Texas and 244 games as a head coach. His detractors will say he only won one national, four Big 12 South and two Big 12 championships, that he went only 7-9 against Oklahoma. But Brown moved past Hayes this season into 10th place on the career wins list. Think about that: Brown is one of the top 10 winningest coaches in the history of college football, and Texas is shoving him out the door.
But coaching decisions are rarely made with history in mind. Coaches are changed because of the now. The now that Texas inhabits is not where the Longhorns lived for the first 12 seasons of Brown's tenure. If the apogee of Brown's career took place in the Rose Bowl, when Vince Young threw for 267 yards and ran for 200 more and ended USC's dynasty, so too was it the beginning of the end.
When Longhorns senior quarterback Colt McCoy went down with a nerve injury in his throwing shoulder on the sixth play of the 2010 BCS National Championship, Alabama rolled to a 37-21 victory. Brown had no Plan B behind McCoy, not only that night but for the next four years. Texas went 5-7 the following year, and though Brown arrested that slide, the Longhorns have been merely above average since that championship game: 30-20 (.600).
The loss to Alabama rocked Brown and his staff. In 2008, Texas' only loss came at Texas Tech on Halloween night with :01 to play, but it was enough to keep the Longhorns out of the national championship. They got there the following year and believed McCoy would lead them to victory. He didn't get the chance, surely a crueler way to lose. But Brown handled even the most painful of defeats with grace, a quality he seemed to wear every day, as if it were burnt orange.
After redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Bradford led Oklahoma to a 28-21 defeat of Texas in the Red River Rivalry in 2007, Brown wrote Bradford a congratulatory letter.
"I thought he played so well against us," Brown said. "He was poised. And I'll do that sometimes. I'll just write a kid a note and say, 'Hey, looked great, congratulations, tough for us, but you played great. I'm proud for you.'"
Brown courted the national media, even as he exposed his onion-thin skin. He counted on the force of his personality, and the respect with which he treated people, to win the day. It usually did.
He even used it to win over opponents.
His expansive office at Texas evolved into a shrine to Texas football, filled with photos of presidents, championship rings and other gewgaws of his successful run. He loved being the Texas coach. He loved Darrell Royal, who personally recruited Brown from North Carolina to take the job. Brown made Royal a presence around Texas football again, and fussed over him. Brown understood the importance of the sport to his people.
"In our state, when kids are born, they want to be a football player," Brown said. "It's really important to them. It's amazing how many parents will put little helmets or little footballs in their crib the day they're born. It's the culture. It's the spirit. It's the passion. There's even been some young guys that are born out of state, and I know friends of mine, fans that have taken buckets of soil from Texas and put it under the crib because people want them to be born on Texas soil. Or they'll dust some soil underneath the kid's body in the crib. I think, what about germs?"
That passion for football, and for Longhorns football, meant that Brown didn't have to recruit so much as he had to select.
"We've got 1,500 high schools," Brown said in August 2009. "There's 375 kids who sign Division I scholarships out of Texas on the average in the last two years. And we take 22 of them."
But the way that recruiting skewed earlier and earlier into a prospect's high school career took Brown aback, and the earlier players committed, the more that Texas seemed to misfire. It didn't help when Texas high school stars Robert Griffin III of Baylor and Andrew Luck of Stanford finished 1-2 in the 2011 Heisman Trophy voting, or when Texas native Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M won the 2012 Heisman, or when little-recruited Chuckie Keeton, a Houston kid, led Utah State to an 11-2 season that year, and the list goes on.
The overriding memory I will carry from Brown's career took place at a news conference at the Newport Beach Marriott the day before the 2010 BCS National Championship. Those sessions are typically buzzless. Coaches have heard every question, and rehearsed every answer.
Someone asked: "When you're not sleeping tonight, what will be racing through your mind?"
Brown, off the top of his head and from the depth of his heart, spoke for several minutes. He spoke nearly 1,200 words. He described better than I've heard, before or since, what it's like to be a head coach.
"We're two hours different, so I'm waking up at 4 a.m. now, thinking it's 6," Brown said. "But what you're doing is you're making sure that you're going through a checklist in your mind. Are they going to onside kick to open the game? Do we? How do you punt it? How do you protect? What about your fakes? What about protection? How do you start the game?"
He continued on, shifting to the scene in the locker room before kickoff.
"What am I supposed to say? I'll have 122 sets of eyes looking at me, an entire staff looking at me tomorrow afternoon at about 2 p.m., wanting me to put some sense into how important this game is. I want you focused, I want you tough, I want you ready to play, but I want you to have fun, which gets really contradictory when they're looking at you. 'Is it important, Coach?' Yeah, it's the national championship. You're the best at what you do in the country, and you've got three-and-a-half hours to prove it. You want to respect Alabama, but you don't want to have your team where they're not sure that they think you think they can, because they have to know myself and our coaches think we can win.
"So all of those things go through your mind."
Few coaches win the games and the press conferences. Brown did both for a very long time.
He closed his answer by recalling a moment on the Rose Bowl field four years earlier, before the game against USC.
"Looking down at the SC logo and seeing the horse and the band and all the good stuff about SC that all of us grew up with, and I saw Pete [Carroll] and talked to him for a while, and I was standing there, and Greg Davis, the [Texas] offensive coordinator came up, and I thought, 'My gosh, they've got a great-looking football team. Look at those guys.'
"He just patted me on the shoulder and he said, 'Well, turn around. Yours looks pretty good, too.' I thought that was pretty good. I'm not sure that we ever give ourselves enough credit. We've got a good team, too."
That night would be the pinnacle of Brown's career. That he reached that pinnacle eight years ago is the reason that Texas is ready to move on. He surely would prefer to continue coaching. Brown may have resigned, but like so many great coaches before him, he didn't get to choose when to make an exit.