By Cody Worsham
Dale Brown smelled a prank.
Celebrities and world leaders had called upon LSU’s legendary basketball coach before, but this call in early 2006 was too crazy to believe true.
“When I got the call, a voice said, ‘Hey Coach, this is Matthew McConaughey,’” Brown recalled. “I thought a friend was playing a trick on me. Why would he be calling me?”
Turns out, McConaughey needed Brown’s help. He’d just accepted the lead role in “We Are Marshall,” the tale of the 1971 Marshall Football team. McConaughey was to play Jack Lengyel, the program’s new coach who inherited a team still reeling from a tragic plane crash the year prior that had taken the lives of many of the team’s players and support staff.
Before he could act like a coach, however, McConaughey needed to talk to one.
“There’s two things that I’m stuck on,” McConaughey told Brown, once he’d convinced him this was no joke. “One, I don’t know how to coach. I don’t know what to say, how you talk. And two: I’ve got to be a motivator. I want to come talk to you about motivation and how to be a coach. When can I see you?”
Brown let him know he’d be glad to welcome McConaughey into his Baton Rouge whenever the actor could find the time to make it to town.
McConaughey arrived the next day, with a promptness and preparedness that garnered Brown’s immediate respect.
“He came to the office with a big, long legal pad and a tape recorder and a bunch of great questions,” Brown recalled.
The meeting sparked a friendship between the two that extended after the film’s completion. McConaughey even appeared in the 2012 documentary about Brown’s life, “Man in the Glass.”
“He still sends me something once every two weeks or so something that has to do with triumph of the human spirit, something that is inspiring, something that even politically has to do with creative common sense,” McConaughey said in the movie.
Brown even sent McConaughey’s young son, Levi, a photograph of Brown with former LSU basketball star turned NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal signed by both. The photo depicts O’Neal listening intently to Brown’s instructions, and Brown’s autograph to young Levi heeded him to always listen to his parents, a detail that McConaughey did not take for granted.
“We Are Marshall” debuted to a lukewarm reception from critics, earning a mediocre 49% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. But McConaughey was widely praised for his performance, which began his transition from the “aw shucks” Rom-Com brand he owned in the early 2000s into more serious roles.
That transition culminated last week in an Oscar win for Best Actor as the lead in 2013’s “Dallas Buyers Club,” a trophy few would have pictured McConaughey ever holding when “Marshall” wrapped filming at the end of 2006.
Not Brown, whose knack for seeing potential greatness extended to the modest McConaughey.
“After he made (‘We Are Marshall’), he said, ‘It was the most fulfilled I was in any movie I ever did,’” Brown recalled.
“I said, ‘Let me ask you a question Matthew. You don’t have any ego whatsoever. You’re a sex symbol; you’re on all these magazines as the sexiest man alive. Why are you so humble?’
“He said, ‘Coach, it’s pretty simple. When I was first trying to make it in movies, I was failing. I went to Australia to sheer sheep. I slept in a sleeping bag on the wood cabin that we were in. It was always in my mind that if I make it, I’m going to be humble when I do.’”