Meet the Utes' new star assistant coach: Utah football, hoops programs have embraced 8-year-old with leukemia

Published: Sunday, May 4 2014 2:38 p.m. MDT

Young Mac Brennan, who is fighting leukemia, helps Utah assistant coach Dennis Erickson call signals during a football scrimmage at Rice-Eccles Stadium Saturday, April 12, 2014, in Salt Lake City.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Mac Brennan isn’t your typical college football coach. He’s far from it, as a matter of fact. Mac, an 8-year-old from Salt Lake City, is assisting Kyle Whittingham at the University of Utah.

“He’s on our coaching staff now. He’s been officially anointed to coach. The NCAA may come down on us, but we don’t care,” Whittingham said. “He’s going to be the 10th countable assistant coach. He’s doing a great job and he’s a tough, tough little guy. We’re elated that he’s with us.”

Mac, who is battling leukemia, is the Utes’ assistant running backs coach — working closely with fellow assistant Dennis Erickson.

“It’s been a lot of fun for me,” Erickson said. “He’s been real sick, as we all know, and he wanted to coach.”

Erickson spoke to Mac about assisting in spring ball and the offer was accepted. Once things got started, Mac began helping out — offering his opinion and letting Erickson know who should be playing. He evaluated every practice and they spoke often.

“Because of this we’ve become very close,” Erickson said. “He’s fighting a hard battle, but he’s winning it. So it’s great to have him out.”

Erickson isn’t the only one who feels that way.

“Our whole team has kind of adopted him, I guess you could say, and embraced him,” Whittingham said.

When leukemia treatments prevent the second-grader at Indian Hills Elementary from attending school, he accompanies his parents to work. His father, Kyle, is a senior associate athletics director at Utah. His mother, Beth, is the coordinator of football academics.

“Best ever, right? If you can’t go to school, if you can’t be with your friends, you get to do this instead,” Beth said.

It gave Mac something to do, she added, and allowed him to be outside as much as he wanted to be when attending school wasn’t an option.

“So the timing ended up being perfect. Spring practice starts and Dennis came up to him shortly after he was diagnosed and said, ‘Hey, when spring ball starts, you’re going to help me pick the starting running back,’” Beth said. “So he followed through on that.”

Mac went on to pick up many of Erickson’s mannerisms while coaching this spring, leading some to call him a “mini-me” of his mentor. Mac took his responsibilities very seriously.

“He’ll tell you exactly what he thinks and where you stand,” Whittingham said. “He’s not shy about that at all.”

Beth noted that the players refer to Mac as "Coach."

“He tells them what to do,” she said. “He throws his hat off if he’s mad at them. He’s got it all down.”

Being able to coach, explained Mac’s father, has given the youngster real purpose to his day and something to think about. Kyle said his son planned for practices and looked at film.

“It gave him that purpose that’s been taken away with cancer taking away school from him,” he added. “Plus, the interaction ... the guys are just great to him.”

Mac’s relationship with the 67-year-old Erickson, though, has been especially meaningful.

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