Bill Little commentary: A moment in time
Oct. 23, 2009
Bill Little, Texas Media Relations
For a man who has a healthy respect for history, this has been a week of irony for Mack Brown. It isn’t something he has had time to dwell on; rather it is a footnote in a season driven by a will and a desire to make 2009 something very special for Texas.
The fact is the most important thing in Mack Brown’s life right now (aside from his family and his faith) is how his Texas Longhorns football team will play against the Missouri Tigers Saturday night in Columbia. Records, save for those that reflect the performance of his players and his teams, mean little to Mack.
Long before he acknowledges that he is tied for 13th as the winningest college coach in history, he will tell you that Colt McCoy needs just five more wins to achieve more victories as a starter than any quarterback in NCAA history.
The number of wins for Mack, 207, is but a milestone on a journey that began as a head coach 26 seasons ago. And as the Longhorns coach toils at the mid-point of his 12th season at Texas, the number doesn’t matter. The fact that he’s tied for 13th on that all-time chart is not significant to him. But the man he is tied with is.
Jess Neely was in the twilight of his career in college athletics when he, as athletics director at Vanderbilt University, made a trip to Cookeville, Tenn., to look at this running back whose brother was already enrolled at the Nashville school. Neely was already a legend, having had success at Vanderbilt, Clemson and Rice before retiring from active coaching after 40 years in 1966. He had returned to his alma mater, Vanderbilt, to finish his career.
And when he walked away from that job at Rice University following that season of 1966, Jess Neely’s football teams had won 207 games.
So when his friend Joe Jamail called him with that piece of information after the 2009 Longhorns had notched Mack’s 207th win against Oklahoma in Dallas, it was a touching moment for the Texas coach.
“He was probably one of the biggest reasons I went to Vanderbilt,” Brown remembered with a wistful smile. “He was a great man and a great coach, and it is an honor to be even mentioned in the same sentence with him.”
Actually, with one more victory, Mack will displace Neely as the 13th winningest coach, and the late Coach Neely will drop to 14th. Virginia Tech’s Frank Beamer, who has 224 victories, and Brown will then take aim on the top 10, which is anchored by Woody Hayes who is ninth with 238 wins and Bo Schembechler who has 234. Hayden Fry is eleventh with 232.
When Mack headed for Vanderbilt, his older brother Watson was already on the Nashville campus. Neely, who in those days could travel as a recruiter, was actually doubling as the Commodores’ golf coach. Injuries and disillusionment with the coaching staff at the time later caused Mack to transfer to Florida State for his final years before knee problems ended his career. By then, Neely had retired for good.
As the Longhorns travel to Columbia, it is interesting that Neely’s name should surface, because the Missouri series triggers memories of Longhorns past, and Neely was an important part of the mosaic that was the Southwest Conference at the time.
The Longhorns’ series with Missouri is one of its oldest collegiate matchups, dating back to a resounding 28-0 Mizzou victory over the Longhorns in their second season of 1894. That Tiger win, by the way, was the first loss in Texas history.
No discussion of Texas and Missouri, however, will ever be complete without a conversation about the immortal Bobby Layne and the 1945 Cotton Bowl game. Layne was responsible, either running, throwing, catching or kicking, for every point scored as Texas won, 40-27.
About that time, Jess Neely was carving a strong niche in the Southwest Conference, much of the time at Texas’ expense. In the mid 1950s, Neely was responsible for the construction of the 70,000-seat Rice Stadium, which was the showplace for football in the Southwest at the time. And for a while, Texas and Rice traded wins annually, with the Owls winning in Houston, and Texas winning in Austin.
Times have changed significantly of course, and those days are a distant memory.
What is not distant, however, for Mack Brown is his healthy respect for the roots of the college game. He grew up watching with his family the success carved by guys like Bear Bryant at Alabama, Wally Butts at Georgia, Bobby Dodd at Georgia Tech, and Darrell Royal at Texas. In fact, Bryant’s Alabama was probably No. 1 on his wish list at one point during his high school career.
But all of that changed when Watson Brown went to Vanderbilt from the foothills by the mountains in middle Tennessee. Then, the prototype Southern gentleman, the guy with the suit, the hat, and the deep drawl came to visit and watch him play – and the boy from Tennessee decided to stay home to go to college and be a Commodore.
That is why Mack Brown got a lump in his throat when Joe Jamail told him about what his 207th victory meant. Long ago, the boy and the old man had bonded, and now, 40 years later, in a moment in time, they were linked again.
History will simply blink, because soon Brown will move on to the next plateau, but for Mack Brown, memories are most of all about people. The games and the records are part of the calendar in a time cast of life.
The most important thing in the sport of football and his job this week for Mack Brown is beating Missouri.
But when he finally reaches whatever milestone he chooses to stop at, there is no doubt that he’ll remember that phone call from Joe Jamail, and how he felt when he realized that he was tied in all-time victories with a man like Jess Neely. And it won’t be because he, Mack Brown, did something…instead it will be the humility he felt in that moment when an all-grown up boy matched his body of work with a person whom he respected so much.