AUSTIN, Texas -- The most memorable mental photograph from the BCS National Championship Game frames a moment long after the confetti rained upon the Rose Bowl. Behind the end zone, outside the Alabama locker room, the air is rich with celebration. There are University of Alabama administrators and coaches' wives and parents of players, all of them feeling younger, more alive. There are writers carrying notebooks and digital recorders, professionally neutral but not immune to the excitement.
Through that giddiness rode a golf cart carrying Texas coach Mack Brown from the interview tent back to the Longhorns locker room.
Without hearing his words, you knew that Brown had been gracious. Brown is the Michael Bublé of press conferences -- he never hits the wrong note. You knew he had congratulated the Crimson Tide on its 37-21 victory. You knew the loss of all-everything quarterback Colt McCoy to a game-ending shoulder injury on the fifth offensive play of the game had not been used as an excuse.
But the public moment had ended. Brown had the left the podium. And as Brown rode past that winning locker room, lips thinned out to nothing, stare burning like an acetylene torch, there could be no doubt of what the private Brown felt.
Two months have yet to pass since that night in Pasadena. Alabama announced Tuesday that it would make its congratulatory visit to the White House on March 8. Brown has not watched the video of the game yet. He may never watch it. Syracuse basketball coach Jim Boeheim has never looked at a replay of the 1987 national championship game, which the Orange lost by one point to Indiana.
Yet the heartbreak of losing McCoy has receded. A new class of recruits has been signed. On Tuesday, the 2010 Longhorns held their first session of spring practice in pads.
And in the eight weeks since that night, Brown has seen his mother diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, a disease that is swift and sure. Katherine Brown died Sunday in Cookeville, Tenn., her family at her bedside.
Two days later, Mack sat in his office on the second floor of the Moncrief-Neuhaus Athletic Center, waiting for practice to begin. As soon as it ended, he would return to Cookeville for the funeral Wednesday.
To find the first coach who put football before family, all you have to do is find the first coach. It is what coaches do. But in Brown's case, football is family. Katherine Brown, 81, was the daughter of a legendary Tennessee high school coach and the mother of two college head coaches.
"She'd kick my butt if I didn't do right," Brown said Tuesday. "My Lord, that's why I'm here. She would be mad. She would say, 'You are not at practice, boy? What are you doing?' I am going to go practice."
His brothers Watson and Mel encouraged him to return home for practice, for the escape, for a few hours of normal. Brown sounded as good as anyone has a right to sound two days after losing a parent. The frustration and disappointment on his face as he rode through the underbelly of the Rose Bowl that night are gone. You didn't have to look closely to see they have been replaced by sorrow and fatigue. You could see the wariness of someone who has absorbed some emotional blows and knows the beating isn't done.
After the championship game, Brown made eight trips to see his mother. He made the ninth one after practice Tuesday night. Before he left Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, Brown assembled his team at midfield. He spoke for several minutes, then walked slowly toward the south end zone and made a statement to the media.
"The message I gave to the team is that I'm sad that she's gone, that it would have been selfish for us to ask that she stay because she was sick. But I talked to my mom at least three times every week for my whole life. I told her I loved her every day. We need to all reach out to our parents and say that we love 'em and care for 'em and make sure that they know that. Because we got a hard world out there."
" She never walked by a person without speaking and trying to make that person feel really good," Brown said. "And she loved her sons unconditionally. That's the way parents should be. I would send that message to all fathers. And for all of you guys out there that have a mom, make sure you hug 'em. Make sure you love 'em. Losing Mom's really tough. I'm just lucky I had her for 58 years."
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN3.com.