Mack Brown earned the moniker Coach February while in charge of the Texas Longhorns football team because of his ability to close a deal. Brown arrived from North Carolina in time for the 1998 football season, and his biggest victory was off-the-field as he convinced Ricky Williams to return to campus for his senior season while signing the top-ranked recruiting class in the country in the 1999 cycle.
Defensive back Rod Babers was part of that 1998 class that laid the foundation for future success at Texas. Babers was one of the best prep cornerbacks in the country with offers from Florida State, Penn State, Texas A&M and numerous others. Brown walked into Babers’ house as the Houston Lamar product was making a decision and did what Brown does best: Read a room.
“Mack would be a great poker player or a politician. He is insanely good at figuring out what matters most to a person. My mom wanted me to become the first person to graduate college. Mack guaranteed her that when he was on my couch. I knew then that my mom was sold on Texas,” Babers recalled. “As he was leaving the house, Mack turned to me and said ‘Rod, we can’t win a national championship without you’ and that’s all I needed to hear.”
Brown posted winning seasons in 15 of his 16 years at the helm. His recruiting prowess eventually led the Longhorns to a national championship with Houston native Vince Young leading the charge. Brown prided himself on making Texas the home for the state’s top players. He immediately thanked the Texas high school football community after raising the BCS trophy.
“Most players would love to stay (in their state) if they had the right opportunity and story,” said Drew Kelson, a former defender on that national championship squad. “Mack wants players to know that home will always be home and that the university is there to help after football. No one goes to Alabama hoping to move their mom there after college. It’s about being a legend where your parents already live.”
Brown is now back at North Carolina and continues to build on his reputation as an elite recruiter. The Tar Heels’ current 2021 class is ranked second in the nation, only trailing Ohio State. Brown flipped four-star quarterback Drake Maye, a North Carolina native, from Alabama in March. Thirteen of his team’s 14 pledges play high school football in North Carolina. The man believes in owning his immediate territory.
“Mack knows how to keep the best guys at home,” Kelson said. “He connects great with families and he doesn’t recruit out of desperation or have negative things to say about players even if they are entertaining other options.”
Babers thinks it’s Brown’s ability to assimilate into a culture.
“Mack knew what mattered to people in Texas, so he became one of us even though he’s from Tennessee,” Babers said. “He does a great deal of research about a place and what makes the people in that place tick. He’s a chameleon. He can remember little tidbits about a person or someone’s name after meeting them one or two times. Those things make people feel special. He’s great at making you feel like the most important thing. I even talked to Sally (Brown) as much as Mack during recruiting.”
Head coaches constantly speak about building a culture within their program. Brown’s culture was never about fear or coercion, said former defensive end Tim Crowder. Instead, he focuses on family, winning and fun.
“First, Mack is a genuinely good person. He is the same person all the time, whether it’s at a practice field or a team dinner. He’s honest and his actions prove that.”
Brown can undoubtedly rely on his past success to help recruit at North Carolina. The Tar Heels floundered in the two decades that Brown was in Austin or on television. The long-time ball coach wanted to scratch one last coaching itch at the university that helped launch his head coaching career. The skins he put on the wall at Texas still help him on the recruiting trail.
“Mack has the advantage of high success recruiting and winning at Texas with the added time on the sideline to build the hunger and know exactly how to do everything better this time around,” Kelson explained. “Mack knows how to pick the right place.”
The right place for Brown is back in North Carolina. His old players remain faithful to him as a man and a coach because of one simple fact.
“You have never heard a former player say that Mack lied to him,” Crowder said. “He hires coaches with that same character. Recruiting, and playing for a program, is about trust. He doesn’t break that trust.”