CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — BUBBA CUNNINGHAM HAD his kids over to the house in November for a family get-together. They’re all in their 20s and, because their dad is the director of athletics at North Carolina, they’re all huge Tar Heels fans, prodding for information on the future of the football program.
UNC was wrapping a second straight dreadful season, with a few public relations nightmares on the side, and Cunningham was leaning toward a coaching change. That wasn’t the big news, though.
Cunningham had spent some time with Mack Brown at the College Football Hall of Fame earlier in the year, where Brown was being inducted, and he was amazed at the way the 67-year-old coach worked the crowd. Brown could still charm them, and the litany of former players — NFL royalty, college stars, big names from Brown’s time at Texas and his decade at North Carolina — all gravitated to Brown. They loved him.
A few weeks later, Brown was invited back to UNC, where he was introduced at halftime of a Heels basketball game. The crowd roared. It had been 20 years since Brown last coached in Chapel Hill, but he was still a beloved figure.
And so an idea took root for Cunningham, rattling around in his head throughout another lost football season, slowly growing into a fully realized vision. He wanted to bring Mack back.
The response from his kids was resounding.
“Don’t do it.”
“It can’t work.”
Cunningham saw all the charm, the history, the gravitas of a Hall of Fame coach roaming the sidelines. His kids saw a guy five years removed from his last coaching job looking to start a renovation project after most guys in this profession are eyeing retirement.
Cunningham pulled the trigger, returning Brown to Carolina blue for the first time since 1997. Then came the job of selling everyone else on the idea that this was a progressive decision, not a nostalgia tour.
“That’s when I realized, guys my age, they’re going to think it’s great,” Cunningham said. “Fans between 35 and 55, I’m going to have some work to do. And the 25-35 group, I really have a big challenge.”
THERE’S A REASON for the skepticism surrounding Brown’s return to North Carolina. Other icons have tried it — Johnny Majors, Bill Snyder, John Robinson, Bill Walsh and, in the ACC’s recent history, Bobby Petrino — with mixed results. None of those coaches were away as long as Brown, nor as old as Brown is now, upon their return. He’s in uncharted waters.
At 67, Brown is the fourth-oldest coach in FBS and the oldest leading a Power 5 team (by three months over Nick Saban). When last he coached a college game (at Texas in 2013), Twitter was still capped at 140 characters, Snapchat was in its infancy and UNC’s incoming freshmen were in seventh grade.
Times have changed. UNC is betting Brown can keep pace.
Mack Brown explains why he returned to coach at UNC and expresses the excitement he feels to help the players win and grow as individuals.
The first test came on Day 1 with his team. A beleaguered group of Tar Heels filled the team meeting room to meet their new coach. They knew Brown, of course. They’d seen him on TV as an ESPN analyst, mingled with him when Brown visited campus from time to time. But now he was at the front of the room, introducing a new era for a team that had won just two Power 5 games in two years.
What was there to say? This team was beaten down, and Brown’s hire felt like a nod toward the past, not hope for the future. So Brown started asking questions.
What happened to turn an 11-win team four years ago into a lost cause in the ACC Coastal?
“Guys my age, they’re going to think it’s great. Fans between 35 and 55, I’m going to have some work to do. And the 25-35 group, I really have a big challenge.”
UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham
Brown had his own ideas. He has since lamented the lack of depth, the voids on the recruiting trail, and his staff is currently evaluating tape on every injury — and there were a lot of them — suffered by a UNC player over the past two seasons to figure out how to stay healthy.
But the players had their thoughts, too. Slowly, they began to speak up.
The cafeteria food was too greasy. The players’ lounge lacked much in the way of entertainment. The locker rooms needed a facelift.
Got it. Done. Fixed.
A meeting Cunningham figured might last 10 minutes went on for an hour. Brown was here to help, and the players were thrilled.
“There was an immediate change, a positive outlook,” lineman Charlie Heck said. “You could feel the energy he’s bringing. People have gotten that encouragement to spark some life into the team, and that’s been huge.”
Before the meeting wrapped, however, Brown reminded his team that all those things he promised would come with a price tag.
“We’re going to give you everything that we possibly can within NCAA rules,” Brown told them. “Here’s what you’ve gotta give us — your effort, a good attitude, and mental toughness. And then, you’ll develop confidence. Then you’ll learn to finish. That’s how you win games.”
TIM BREWSTER HAS MADE THE rounds since he first worked with Brown at UNC in the 1990s, from head coach at Minnesota to championship-winning recruiting guru at Florida State, but North Carolina always felt like home, so that’s where he built his dream house.
Brewster and his wife were relaxing in the pool there, enjoying a beer and talking wistfully about a day when they might really retire and enjoy the place full time, when the phone buzzed. It was Brown. Brewster answered.
“We’ve got unfinished business,” Brown said.
By the time Brewster, who was on Texas A&M’s staff last year, hung up the phone, his wife had already pieced together the details, and her eyes welled with tears. They were going home.
Getting the band back together was an easy decision for Brewster, but that didn’t mean he knew if the old guard could still make great music. He loved Brown, but recruiting is a tough game, and building a program takes energy. Brewster had longed to return to UNC, but he didn’t want this to be a way to ease comfortably into retirement.
“I hadn’t been with Mack in a long time,” Brewster said. “I wondered where his head was at. Where’s the juice at?”
It was, after all, the recruiting that rankled fans the most during those final years at Texas. Or, more specifically, recruiting quarterbacks. Brown missed out on Jameis Winston and Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III and Johnny Manziel and Baker Mayfield, all of whom thought higher of Texas than Brown seemed to think of them.
Brown hates this critique. He landed his share of talent, but injuries and bad luck kept that potential from blossoming at Texas, and plenty of other folks missed out on Manziel and Mayfield, too. He’s quick to note that the past two Heisman winners were transfers. Recruiting a great QB clearly isn’t an easy job.
“I think everybody that doesn’t end well has quarterback issues,” Brown said.
If there was concern that Brown had lost his touch, however, that first recruiting trip offered an answer for Brewster. Brown and Brewster cruised the backroads of North Carolina without a GPS. They knew the routes by instinct. They’d pull into a driveway, knock on a door, and a switch would flip. Brown wasn’t a 67-year-old looking to reclaim his glory days. He was a magician.
“Nobody in America works a home like Mack Brown,” Brewster said.
UNC’s 2019 class finished 35th in ESPN’s rankings but managed to snag some big-name talent, including luring four-star QB Sam Howell away from Florida State. So far, the 2020 class looks far better, poised to become the Tar Heels’ best haul since 2013.
By the time they returned to campus after that first road trip, Brewster’s doubts were assuaged. No, this wasn’t the same guy he’d coached with two decades before. This was a new Mack Brown, a guy with all the old charm and wit and insight, but with a drive and determination that inspired something Brewster hadn’t felt in a while.
“It’s a whole lot of passion and love and a burning desire to make this place great again,” Brewster said.
BROWN’S LAST SEASON AT TEXAS ended with eight wins. In Austin, that gets a coach fired. In Chapel Hill in 2019, it would be a minor miracle. Still, the echoes of those final seasons with the Longhorns linger for Brown.
Truth is, by the time the administration at Texas provided his pink slip, Brown was ready to move on, too. Coaching had stopped being fun. The losses were devastating, he said. The wins, simply relief.
There are things he regrets, of course.
Brown laments being labeled a CEO. The critics said he was aloof, out of touch with what was happening inside his locker room. What he meant, however, was that his fingerprints were on everything.
That distinction was crystalized early at UNC.
Brown noticed the ketchup bottles in the lunch room weren’t being refilled often enough, so he had a talk with the staff. He hated that only two of the elevators in the football building were furnished with bright Carolina blue welcome mats, and even those were only unfurled on the weekends. “We recruit every day,” he told the maintenance crew.
Brown’s rulebook is thin, but what’s inside is strictly enforced.
Late for a meeting? Get locked out of the meeting room.
Want to wear a hat inside the building? Just be sure to take it off when you meet a visitor. After years of banning the color due to its ties to rival NC State, red is welcome in the building again. But when it’s time to dress for practice, there’s a mannequin in the locker room dressed each day by staff. The players have to match it down to the smallest detail. Socks pulled up, the right color sneakers on, thigh pads tucked under their shorts. Any deviation earns Brown’s ire — directed at both the player and his position coach.
The point Brown wants to make is that there’s no need to overthink the things that don’t matter, that won’t lead to more wins. But how players act, how they prepare, the image they present to the world, that matters, and it has Brown’s full attention.
Brown said he’s the type of person who can’t walk by an uneven picture frame without straightening it, and that’s the type of attention to detail he’s trying to instill at UNC now. There are lots of things that take up too much time and simply don’t impact the wins and losses, Brewster said. Inside Carolina’s offices, they’re called “rat turds,” Brown is working to keep those off everyone else’s schedule. That’s what a CEO does. But a CEO also watches for all the little details.
“It’s all part of our process,” Brown said. “And it’s really important to me.”
BROWN’S OFFICE IS A HISTORY LESSON on a Hall of Fame career. On the shelves, there are photos of Brown with three different presidents. There are framed images of Ricky Williams and Vince Young and Colt McCoy, all coached by Brown at Texas. There was a break-in in the office a few years back, so Brown keeps his national championship trophy, bowl rings and a stash of Air Jordans in the back room, but every recruit gets the tour.
Brown’s past is his introduction. It’s what piques everyone’s interest. But now that he’s here at North Carolina, he’s eager to move on, to showcase all he has learned from five years in the broadcast booth, visiting Lincoln Riley’s practices and sitting in Scott Frost’s meeting rooms. He has returned with a new offense — a spread with a power running game he likens to Oklahoma’s. He brought in Jay Bateman from Army to coach the defense. It’s complex, but it comes with a proven track record of elevating the talent on the field.
It’s not that Brown has something to prove here at Carolina, because what’s left for him to prove? It’s that he can’t wait to test out the new ideas he has been cataloging while he was away.
“He’s a different dude,” said linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen, who played for Brown at Carolina 30 years ago. “He’s Mack 5.0. He’s new and improved.”
A FEW WEEKS AFTER BROWN WAS hired, Cunningham got a text from one of his kids. He’s in a group chat, and the messages fly across his screen routinely. This one stood out.
“I think it’s going to work,” it read.
Cunningham made the hire with a different demographic in mind. He needed the boosters, the money men, the season-ticket holders, and Brown could deliver on that.
“Our ticket sales were decreasing, and I could tell the support was decreasing,” Cunningham said. “So you needed someone that could quickly instill a positive energy and enthusiasm, and that’s where Mack became the choice. There were a number of younger coaches, up-and-coming coaches, coaches you think can be successful, but Mack came in with instant credibility to the people I thought mattered most.”
But just a few months into this great experiment, even his skeptical kids are coming around. No, they don’t remember much of Brown’s first trip through Chapel Hill, but they’re excited about what the second stint might bring.
“I don’t know about how old he is,” Brewster said. “All I know is, every day he wakes up and his chili’s hot. … The vision is so crystal clear about what we’re going to do here. We know exactly how this thing is going to fall.”
Mack 5.0 is the best of both worlds. He comes with all the gravitas of a Hall of Famer, and yet he’s desperate to show the world he’s something else, a different guy than the one it last saw fading into the shadows at Texas.
It may sound crazy. But spend a few minutes talking with Brown. He has this way of making people believe, of selling them on this plan that doesn’t sound so far-fetched once he’s sketched it all out in vivid detail. That’s why he’s here. The past looms large for Brown, but it’s his vision for what lies ahead that has Carolina fans believing again.
“I’m a lot smarter than I was when I left,” Brown said at a recent event for boosters. “My body’s not as good, but my mind is better.”