AUSTIN — Mack Brown knocked twice and waited patiently. When the door swung open, he was greeted by a big smile and an outstretched hand.
“Coach!” Lance Armstrong belted out to his afternoon visitor, welcoming Brown, the former football coach at the University of Texas, into his home. Brown lives nearby and was slated to be the interview subject for Armstrong’s weekly podcast. He arrived right on time.
“I got some serious ‘gotcha questions’ for you today,” Armstrong warned.
“Good, good,” Brown said. “All those days you had to stand there with people beating you up. Now you can ask the questions, huh?”
The two walked out a back door and down some steps to an underground wine cellar, where the walls are filled with 2,000 or so bottles of wine and the temperature is kept steady at 58 degrees. They sat on either side of a long farm table that’s surrounded by cowhide-upholstered chairs, each taking a place behind a microphone.
“Coach Brown, thank you for being here.”
“Thank you, Lance. Good to catch up.”
They had first met 18 years ago, shortly after Brown came to town. Then, Armstrong had just beaten cancer and was returning to cycling; Brown was in the early stages of a great run coaching the Longhorns. Now Brown, 65, works for ESPN, and Armstrong talks into a microphone in his wine cellar.
“You and I are in the media now,” Brown said.
“Well, you are definitely in the media, and I want to talk about that. But I guess this podcast is sort of . . .”
“Podcast is media,” Brown asserted.
For Armstrong, it’s also a new beginning. He calls the podcast “a gentle step out,” and it’s his first big public initiative since scandal upended his life. Even the podcast’s name — “The Forward” — evokes the idea that after a difficult few years, Armstrong is trying to focus on what’s in front of him.
“At this point I just have to move forward,” he says. “A new business has to move forward; the conversation has to move forward. Everybody knows what happened. There’s no need, I don’t think, to go back over that again.”
A quick reminder of What Happened: Twenty years ago, Armstrong was diagnosed with cancer, which he beat. Seventeen years ago, he won his first Tour de France. Eleven years ago, he won his seventh. And nearly four years ago , after finally admitting to doping throughout his cycling career, he lost everything. He was banned from competition, was dropped by most of his sponsors, ousted from the Livestrong charity he founded and is being sued by the Justice Department.
He did an apology tour making countless phone calls and at least 10 road trips, though he has no illusions of total forgiveness. “I just got to suffer this out,” he says.
And so now here he is, a 45-year-old father of five, a global icon reinventing himself. The podcast is Armstrong poking his head out of ground, checking the temperature to see whether winter is over. He started in June and is now 20 episodes in. It’s already ranked as one of iTunes’ top sports podcasts, though it’s not really about sports.
“The Forward” is an interview program that has no sponsors and no breaks. It’s just Armstrong and his guest. His interview subjects reflect the eclectic group of people who have floated through his universe. They have little in common. He’s interviewed musicians (Seal), authors (Malcolm Gladwell), politicians (Wendy Davis), athletes (Chris Evert), even a man who was imprisoned for a murder he didn’t commit.
While many podcasts are built around a specific interest, niche or subject matter, Armstrong’s is tied together solely by him and his curiosities. He’s a fallen hero who’s both wounded and proud, still a bit baffled at how spectacularly everything had come undone and using this new outlet to figure out how exactly he can pick up the pieces.
Armstrong initially resisted the podcast, suggested several times in recent years by his manager, Mark Higgins, a longtime associate. But he found himself needing something, some type of outlet or way to stay connected or heard.
“I put myself in this position, you could argue, where I just didn’t have a platform,” Armstrong said. “I went from having a sport as a platform, having a charity as a platform, and all those went away.”
This kind of undertaking wouldn’t have been possible when he was still competing. That version of Armstrong had no time or interest. Really, he had no curiosity. Back then, he was focused on the bike and on winning.
The recent afternoon in his wine cellar, he and Brown discussed the hyper-focused nature of a football coach.
“We often laugh and say coaches are mentally disturbed,” Brown said. “There’s no way anybody with any sense would put in the hours, be under the stress. . . . Coaches don’t sit around and think about being fired. It’s not in their makeup. You never thought about losing —”
“Right, right,” Armstrong said.
“And you put hours, countless hours, people can’t imagine how many hours you spent on that bike or conditioning. They can’t imagine. And no one understands the coaching world that’s not in it, really not even their wife. So you feel like it’s very lonely.”
Brown pointed out that coaches tend to lose good friends when they take new jobs and abandon college programs.
“I, unfortunately, know all too well what that’s like,” Armstrong said.
As much as Armstrong tries to move forward, his podcast reveals just how much his past influences his present. Many episodes touch on a familiar theme as Armstrong and his guests discuss transitioning away from old careers, searching for new identities.
Armstrong said he never had a post-retirement plan. He didn’t think much about life after cycling and just figured when he stopped competing that he simply would continue working with his Livestrong charity.
During Evert’s podcast appearance, the tennis legend discussed some of the difficulties about suddenly becoming a former athlete. “You have to find something you have a passion for,” she told Armstrong.
They agreed there’s a sense of entitlement that comes with being a successful athlete: “You know, enabled,” Evert told him, “people enable around you. And then after your career, it hits you. You know what? You’re just like everybody else.”
“Look at examples and stories of athletes who retire whether because of injury or just old age. It’s tough,” Armstrong said. “On every level, right? Income level goes from 10 to 1, and the wait to get a table goes from 1 to 10. These are stupid examples, but you can’t prepare — you can argue that you did a fabulous job of doing that. We can argue that my situation, I mean, my situation is just so completely different, just super [messed] up and weird.”
Many of the episodes sound like a couple of people talking over coffee or a beer. There are f-bombs, old stories, occasional name-dropping. Armstrong has no problem admitting to his guest when he doesn’t know something. He’s not a polished interviewer, but that’s part of his charm. He asked singer Jason Isbell, a recovering alcoholic, whether he ever just really wants to have a drink. And he asked longtime magazine editor David Granger whether magazines are, in fact, dead. He wasn’t being provocative. Just curious.
Intentional or not, many of the episodes feel like an exploration of self, the guest becoming a mirror of sorts for the host.
“You coach, coach, coach. And then you’re not a coach,” Armstrong said to Brown, who was forced to resign in 2013.
“That was the morning it really hit us,” Brown continued. “We leave the bowl game, we drive home. It was Alamo in San Antonio. We drive home, we got up the next morning and I told Sally, ‘We have nothing to do with the rest of our life.’ ”
“‘What are we going to do?’ ” Armstrong said.
“Yeah. That’s pretty frightening. ‘Who are we?’ ”
Armstrong remembers that period well. He cheated. He lied. He reluctantly confessed. And then — when he had no race, no fight, no cause — he sulked. For four years, he said, he mostly played golf and tried to tell himself, his wife and kids that things would eventually be okay.
Later, in an interview, he explained: “When this first happened, and Anna can tell you this, [stuff’s] going down and we’re looking at each other going, ‘Oh my god,’ and it’s getting worse and worse. I told her, ‘I need to become Lance Hansen as soon as possible,” he said, suggesting he adopt his wife’s maiden name.
He knew he could brood for only so long, that he eventually would have to find something — anything. “I got to get up every day and be a good dad. Being curled-up in the fetal position isn’t being a good dad,” he says.
Armstrong talked about divorced parenting with Evert. He talked about marijuana and spiritual awakenings with Ricky Williams, the ex-football player. He talked about privacy and Internet security with Gladwell. And he talked about abortion and women’s rights with Davis, the former Texas state senator who once held an 11-hour filibuster on the state senate floor.
But Armstrong barely discusses cycling. That’s why his 14th episode was a bit surreal.
Armstrong interviewed Ben Foster, an actor who appeared in movies such as “Alpha Dog” and “Lone Survivor.” He also portrayed Armstrong in the movie “The Program,” a biopic based on the book by Irish journalist David Walsh that portrays Armstrong in an unflattering light.
Armstrong forced himself to watch the movie ahead of time, and both men had qualms with the film.
“It blew their minds in Europe when we were doing press,” Foster said, “‘Well, don’t you think he’s a bad person?’ No, I would’ve done the same [freaking] thing. It makes sense. It’s the world. It’s the community. If you were a general in the army, that’s collateral damage. You’re getting it done. It’s not a popular concept. I would’ve done the same thing. And people don’t like to hear that. And you didn’t get tortured and vilified — the witch-hunt of Lance didn’t happen because you doped, and you know that.”
“Right,” Armstrong said.
“It happened because you were mean to some people and people love to kill idols,” the actor continued. “We love making them, but we love tearing them down. And you became an easy target. It was a culture of that, and you just did all of it better.”
“Yeah, I hear you,” Armstrong said. “It’s just hard for me. I don’t think people necessarily want to hear me talk about how it was just standard operating procedure, which unfortunately it was. When I say unfortunately, I mean unfortunately. You [freaking] think I wanted to go over there and get involved with that? No way. But you know enough to know that I was going to go over there and fight and compete, and lo and behold it was like, ‘Whoa, this [stuff] just got really messy.’ But I wasn’t going home.
“But the whole range of the story is obviously complicated,” he continued. “With the cancer component, with the rise, with that connection to so many people. So all these — cancer component, the doping, the mistreatment of others — it led to this colossal meltdown.”
“For now,” Foster said.
Even now, Armstrong knows so much is out of his control. The federal lawsuit hangs over his life like a scythe.
“If it goes the wrong way for us, we’re on the street,” he says. “Let’s hope it doesn’t go the wrong way.”
He’s no longer the pacesetter, and his future, to an extent, will be dictated by how he’s received and what the public will accept from him. He’s launched a new endurance brand called WEDU Sport that’s still in its nascent stages. It will include staging endurance-based events, coaching and content creation, like the podcast.
In his wine cellar, Armstrong’s water glass was empty, and he and Brown had talked for more than an hour. They closed by discussing the Longhorns’ national championship. Armstrong and his friend, actor Matthew McConaughey, were invited into the locker room after that game. They heard Brown tell his players not to make the day the best of their life, urging them to be safe and smart when they left the stadium to celebrate.
“Let me just tell you,” Armstrong told Brown, “half of that team ended up back at Matthew’s house that night.”
“I’m sure I don’t want any of that,” Brown said, waving a hand through the air.
“No, no, I thought that would reassure you they were in safe hands.”
“Oh, yeah, I’m sure it was great hands. I’m glad you were there, let’s put it that way.”
A couple of minutes later, they wrapped up, thanking each other. Armstrong leaned back from the microphone and exhaled. “Awesome, that was great,” he told the ex-coach.
Another episode finished, another day in the books, Armstrong pushed back his cowhide chair and climbed the steps out of the cellar, adjusting his eyes for the sharp afternoon Texas sun.