Mack and Sally Brown in Chapel Hill: “But Can He Coach?”
The nature of my work carries the blessing of getting to know and work with our town’s most extraordinarily interesting and effective people who are making the most interesting differences in our lives. And very few were more interesting, or made more of a difference in their parts of the world, than Sally and Mack Brown during their time in Chapel Hill.
Mack ended his coaching career this weekend when he retired as head football coach after sixteen years at the University of Texas in the middle of great attention. This causes me to reflect on our joyful time when he was here.
Twenty six years ago is long enough that many here don’t know that Mack, a Tennessee native, came to Carolina to succeed Dick Crum, who inherited excellent football talent from Bill Dooley and coached it to considerable success. But Crum let the talent pool run dry, and Mack arrived to find good football players in relation to the competition at the lowest level in a quarter century.
Carolina coach Brown built the UNC program into a national power while preaching about the university’s values and actually practicing them, sometimes to his own detriment. It’s a zero-sum business in which there are never enough hours to get it all done. Mack’s first marriage fell apart.
Then he met Sally Jesse, who had come from California. She was then a single mom, a visible, effective force in the local business community, and the largest residential real estate developer in town.
Sally developed Steeplechase and Chesley on Weaver Dairy Road, The Reserve, and Hunt’s Reserve, among other residential communities. She ran one of the largest and successful companies in Chapel Hill.
Sally was a community force, as well. Among her activities, she was a founding member of the board of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Public-Private Partnership, a leadership consortium created to build bridges and find common purpose among leaders at the University, the business community, leading social organizations and governments.
She helped organize and lead inter-city visits by about 125 such leaders to places like Lexington, Ann Arbor, Princeton and Boulder, among other college towns. She made every visit.
But she had never visited the football stadium in Chapel Hill. She had no idea who the school’s football coach was.
Sally says that a salesperson from WCHL called on her and suggested that she should put her spots into the station’s UNC football broadcasts. Thinking of when people might listen, Sally asked the salesperson, “What day do they play?”
But our mutual colleague Art Chansky brought Mack and Sally into each other’s lives and, suddenly, as the song says, it would never be the same.
When she went to her first game, Mack had to give her directions to the stadium. I’ve always wondered if she thought it very cool that people get to park so close to the gate!
She rounded out his life. He taught her the rules of football.
I was producing Mack’s TV show at that time. We decided to “repurpose” what he was teaching Sally and created a new segment for the show, “How To Watch A Football Game.”
Sally was impressed; not at the coaching part, where she was clueless. And she was likely not dazzled by what we thought was Mack’s big salary, because she was earning more than he was at the time. No, it was the man.
And Mack was smitten from the start and bitten by an incurable, abiding affection. The bond was immediate and lasting.
Before Mack, Sally was as quiet and self-effacing as she was effective. I had always thought of her as introverted. But Mack saw in her someone who could become not just a life partner but a real partner in selling the notion of those 125 kids on a football team as “family.”
She blossomed. And she and Mack became a mom and dad to the football team in a way that amazed those of us who knew them separately before they met.
She helped Mack connect even better with players and families. She was adopting them all as her own.
And they decided to be their own family, joining their forces and their kids. They snuck off to South Carolina to get married on a Labor Day before the 1993 season’s opening game.
And they never looked back. It was not just for show that, in Mack’s remarkable press conference on Sunday, there were as many references to decisions that “Sally and I” made as the first person alone.
A coaching spotlight draws a lot of attention, and millions of words will be rolled out by hundreds of writers over the next few days about what he did on the field. Let them tell that story.
It’s their story, the story of Sally Jesse and Mack Brown, who became one, that most of us in Chapel Hill will recall. Here, we were lucky to have Mack for ten years and Sally for seventeen. When they left here, taking their big hearts with them, they left big holes in the community.
Sally was an ally and leader in getting things done in town and made it all fun. Mack was the smartest football coach I’ve even known and the most fun to work with of any coach here. So when they left, some of the fun left, and we get it now only in dribs and drabs on visits here and there.
But I can’t quit without this “sports” note: after inheriting Dick Crum’s empty pantry, he started with the worst record in Carolina history, and his last two teams won 21 games and finished No. 5 in the country.
And there’s a lot of grumbling right now in Texas that Mack has won “only 8 games this season.” His team is 8-4 going into a bowl game. And after winning a national championship and spending a 9-year span as the winningest coach in the country, Mack’s teams have a record of “only” 30-20 in the last four years.
Consider this about career ends and coaching legacies:
Darrell Royal, a bona fide legend at Texas, was 5-5-1 in his last year and finished fifth in the old Southwest Conference. He had nearly an average of four losses in each of his last four years. He remains a Longhorn icon. His and Mack’s winning percentage at Texas is only one point apart.
Bear Bryant finished his last regular season at Alabama with a 7-4 record and got an eighth win in the Liberty Bowl. Most would consider him to be the best ever.
This matters only when we look down the road to Mack’s future status as a legendary, iconic coach. Life is not an ever-ascending curve. We don’t end it riding out on our team’s shoulders. But he will be remembered as a dynamic, charismatic coach and leader, one of those figures whose teams bring joy during the game and give hope to the millions who identify with the teams. So, whether you like the state of Texas or not, he elevated the millions who identified with Texas football.
He was as successful in his profession as he and Sally are in all the other parts of their lives. He didn’t linger after Sunday afternoon’s press conference where he announced his retirement from coaching. He went straight to his granddaughter’s birthday party, where he celebrated that occasion for hours.
And they are no different than when they left Chapel Hill, extraordinarily interesting and effective people who are making the most interesting differences in the lives of those around them. We should be happy that they came our way.
Now they go on to their next chapter, where he will likely be behind a desk or in a booth on TV, doing what the other commentators have done for him, which is telling them how they should have done it. Let the fun begin!