Commentary

Brown was a recruiting game-changer

Originally Published: December 17, 2013
By Max Olson | ESPN.com

In the heat of the greatest moment of his career, Mack Brown did something remarkably savvy and typical of his dedication to recruiting.

Just moments after lifting the crystal BCS national championship trophy in the Rose Bowl, after beating USC for his first title, Brown was asked what this victory meant to the state of Texas. "What it means to us, been a long time," Brown barked. "There's a lot of passion and a lot of pride. I'm proud of these kids, I'm proud of our coaches -- high school football in the state of Texas. We love our fans and they love it."

High school football in the state of Texas. On the biggest stage of his life, Brown remembered to give a shout-out to the high school coaches who raised his players. The gesture was symbolic of Brown's recruiting philosophy: He was always thinking ahead. No matter how history judges his final years, Brown will go down as a recruiting icon and innovator during his time at Texas.

He cared about recruiting kids who truly wanted to be at Texas. And for most of Brown's tenure, what in-state kid wouldn't?

Step into Brown's office, decorated with leather couches, trophies, rings and endless memorabilia, and good luck saying no when the man made his pitch or extended an offer.

[+] EnlargeR.C. Slocum
Brian Bahr/Getty ImagesFormer Texas A&M coach R.C. Slocum recruited against Brown but says Brown's integrity was appreciated.

"You can't say no to Coach Brown," DeSoto (Texas) High School coach Claude Mathis said. "He does a great job once you get the kids on campus and in the office."

That's just the aura Brown carried as the king of Texas football, and the foundation it was built upon was unmistakable. His wife, Sally, was a frequent presence at recruiting events, and together they sold recruits, parents and siblings on joining the close-knit Longhorns family.

But that wasn't what made Texas the go-to school in the state for so many years. Winning is what wins kids over. Chasing championships every year helped Brown make Texas a mainstay in the top 10 of annual class rankings. He was "Mr. February" until that first national title in 2005.

He even earned the respect of one of his recruiting rivals, former Texas A&M coach R.C. Slocum. They battled for recruits from 1998 to 2002 but still maintained a close friendship. There were always enough recruits to go around.

"I never worried about how Mack was recruiting," Slocum said. "I always trusted him as someone who did a great job. He's a good person, and I think that came across in the recruiting process. He was working at a great university that had a lot to sell. He was a formidable recruiter."

"There was always a civility and, I thought, integrity. I appreciated that about Mack."

Changing the game

Brown had a way of doing things the Texas way when it came to recruiting -- big and bold -- and that led to opportunities for innovation. The biggest game-changer he brought to the table was junior days, turning the traditional February open house into a marquee event known for its flurry of commitments and scholarship offers.

During one four-year span, Texas gained a total of 40 commitments off its first junior day of the year. The biggest splash came in 2010, when the Longhorns landed 13 prospects in one weekend. That instant success, at a time of the year when many staffs were still sorting through evaluations, raised the stakes everywhere else. Early recruiting gets earlier and earlier now, and Brown prided himself on trying to stay a step ahead.

In August 2012, he began accepting early commitments from juniors. Last spring, he started taking on sophomores. In August, he landed standout Reggie Hemphill of Manvel, Texas following the receiver's freshman year.

That aggressive philosophy was not without its critics, who argued Texas' 5-7 season in 2010 was in part influenced by bad talent evaluation. By landing too many commitments too early, Texas was betting on development. Some of those bets busted.

Building a pipeline

Brown knew from day one that winning the state and building pipelines close to home was crucial. Of Texas' 325 signees since 1999, nearly 90 percent came from Texas high school athletes. Rod Babers, a member of Brown's first recruiting class in 1999, hailed from a Houston area dominated by Slocum and A&M before Brown showed up. If Babers' recruitment taught the cornerback anything, it was that Brown was in for a long career of success on the trail.

Babers still tells stories of his in-home visit with Brown, when the coach complimented his mother's sweet tea and knew exactly what to say to win the meeting, including his final line of the trip. "We're walking him to the car, and he turns and says to me: 'I can't win a national title without you,'" Babers recalled. "And that was the line, man. That's why he's a great closer."

But Brown's relationship with Texas high school coaches was always paramount. One of his final hires of his first staff was Dallas Carter coach Bruce Chambers, who stayed on staff all 16 years. Visiting all of the more than 1,200 high schools in Texas was a priority. Brown's office door was always open to coaches, and they're sorry to see him go.

"They're losing a great coach and they're losing a great man," Mathis said. "He's brought so much to the University of Texas. He's done a lot for my program and a lot for my kids. I can always count on him."

Whoever the next hire is, the goodwill Brown built up with countless high school coaches over his long tenure must be matched.

"He'll have to come in and build bridges on his own," Slocum said. "He'll have to build his own credibility. Mack certainly had that. I think he treated kids well, and that was widely known. The next guy will have to find his way around those little towns and show up and do all the things you have to do."

The quarterback problem

Too many will point to quarterback recruiting as Brown's ultimate downfall. No matter how you spin it, his legacy as a recruiter did take some damage from Texas' misses in that department in recent years. Failing to seriously pursue Heisman winners Robert Griffin III, Johnny Manziel and the surprisingly interested Jameis Winston wasn't good. Getting Andrew Luck on campus and passing on him wasn't good, and there are several other current NFL quarterbacks who would've taken a Texas offer.

The problem, of course, was that Garrett Gilbert could've made up for all that. If the high school All-American (and the nation's No. 2 quarterback recruit out of Austin-area Lake Travis) had panned out as expected, Brown wouldn't have faced such criticism for whom Texas didn't take. Gilbert was considered a can't-miss prospect and would've been the Longhorns' senior starter in 2013.

[+] EnlargeRoderick Babers
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesRod Babers fondly remembers Mack Brown's in-home visit.

But what shouldn't be lost in this discussion was the fact that Texas beat out Texas A&M for three-star Colt McCoy, a relative unknown who became the winningest QB in college football history. And going into his senior year of high school, Vince Young had no intentions of playing at Texas and had taken the school off his list until Brown and Tim Brewster won him over.

Cupboard isn't empty

The Longhorns have landed 51 ESPN 150 recruits since 2009 and 77 four- and five-star recruits since 2010. Brown's 2013 roster had just as many former four-star recruits as Alabama.

His successor will inherit plenty of highly touted talent. In fact, Brown had already landed eight commitments for his next class in anticipation of many more years in Austin.

"I honestly don't think it would be the same without him," said lineman Aaron Garza, Texas' first 2015 pledge. "He's part of the big Texas tradition. When you think of Texas, you think of Mack Brown. That's what Texas football is about."

What comes next for Texas remains unclear, but this much is certain: The next head coach would be wise to adopt some of Brown's methods, especially in recruiting. He'll need to remember where his Texas toast is buttered.

"They're going to have to have a heck of a relationship with the high school coaches," Mathis said, "because if you don't, you're going to miss out on a lot of great players in the state of Texas."

Max Olson | email

Big 12 reporter

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