Mack Brown's UNC Legacy

Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

The one-time UNC coach leaves Austin after 16 years, although not quite on his own terms. Unfortunately, Brown's time at UNC is remembered as much for what happened after he left as for what he accomplished in Chapel Hill.

If you have tuned to ESPN in the past 24 hours looking for highlights of Marcus Paige's alley-oop to Brice Johnson on SportsCenter's top plays, you have no doubt seen the coverage dedicated to the resignation of Texas football coach Mack Brown. Brown had a heck of a run in Austin, winning a national championship, playing for another, and restoring Texas football to national prominence. From 2000-09, the Longhorns had nine 10-win seasons, but the 2010s had not been so kind, with Texas going only 30-20 in the last four years. With the temperature under Brown's seat rising, and a new AD in place, all the stars were lining up for Brown to step down. He finishes his Texas tenure as the school's second winningest coach, behind only the legendary Darryl Royal.

A quick check of the record book reveals he is also second all-time in wins at another school - North Carolina, behind only Bill Dooley. Brown came to Carolina after the 1987 season, a somewhat surprise choice to replace the droll and unexciting Dick Crum, a strong tactician who won an ACC title with Dooley's players but was not known as a great recruiter. Brown had a warmth and genuineness that really radiated throughout the UNC community. He naturally had the ability to sell stand up freezers above the Arctic Circle and immediately started repairing relationships with alumni and the state's high school coaches damaged by Crum's aloofness. He was the first to stress winning the "state championship" - that is, beating Duke, Wake Forest, and NC State in the same season. He locked down the state's high schools as much as any in-state coach has done and brought NFL-level talent to Chapel Hill in spades.

The results eventually began to show on the field. Brown's first team went 1-10 and wasn't very competitive. His second team opened the season with a big win over VMI but proceeded to lose its next ten, although five of the losses were by a combined 23 points. The 1990 season marked a change in the Tar Heels' fortunes, with a 6-4-1 record highlighted by a 13-13 tie with eventual co-national champion Georgia Tech and wrestling back the Victory Bell after a two-year stint in Durham.

From that point on, Carolina was a team on the rise. In the next six years, UNC posted three 10-win seasons and a 8-win and 9-win season. The Tar Heels became a fixture in the top 20, and then in the top 10, and all without runners on staff or agents providing benefits. Off the field, UNC was making major commitments to football in terms of facilities. The west end of Kenan Stadium was closed in to create the Kenan Football Center, which would have amenities on par with any football program in the country. It also raised the stadium's capacity to 60,000. Mack Brown was the public face of UNC's meteoric football rise both on the gridiron and off.

There was only one problem in the UNC/Mack Brown fairy tale: Carolina's rise coincided exactly with the arrival of Florida State in the ACC. In the 1990s, FSU was on top of the college football world, winning two national titles and being involved in the discussion for three more, all the while laying waste to the ACC, Carolina included. All of this came to a head in November, 1997, when UNC and Florida State, both undefeated and ranked in the top 5, met in Chapel Hill for a primetime ESPN game. For anyone who thought big-time football couldn't happen at UNC, think again. The atmosphere was electric. Imagine Zero Dark Thursday times a gazillion. The Noles dropped Carolina 20-3 in a game that wasn't really that close, and despite a top-10 finish, UNC was left out of the big bowl picture and had to settle for the ACC runner-up spot in the Gator Bowl.

What happened next is still a matter of some controversy and discord over the years. Some legends have that Brown was unhappy that UNC was left out of the big bowls despite being 10-1, or that he was unhappy at poor attendance at the final game against Duke . It has been said Brown was in a recruit's living room telling him he was at UNC for the long haul, while flying the next day to negotiate his contract at Texas. Others have countered that while Carolina was a great job, Texas is football royalty, and have used the inverse analogy: while Texas may be a very good basketball job, Carolina is basketball royalty and it would be understandable for a Texas basketball coach (not named Rick Barnes) to make that jump for the same reasons.

Whatever was the case, UNC's football fortunes a full decade-and-a-half later are still impacted by what followed Brown's departure. Rookie athletic director Dick Baddour, faced with his second high-profile coaching vacancy in 3 months (Dean Smith had retired days before basketball practice began in October), turned the program over to Brown's loyal but untested defensive coordinator Carl Torbush without any sort of real coaching search. The story goes that Baddour, a UNC graduate who worked his entire adult life for the University, was swayed by the impassioned pleas of players who felt betrayed by Brown and felt Torbush's loyalty should be rewarded. UNC responded by pounding Virginia Tech 42-3 in the Gator Bowl under Torbush, but that positive vibe would be short-lived.

The genuinely nice but woefully overmatched Torbush ran the program off the road, with a pair of 3-8 seasons sandwiching a single bowl appearance. Baddour pulled the plug on Torbush and, if you believe what Frank Beamer himself wrote just this year, the Virginia Tech coach verbally accepted the Carolina job but later backed out. It is also said that Baddour then interviewed a hot Florida State assistant named Mark Richt but was turned off by Richt's wearing his faith so openly on his sleeve (others have said Richt simply did not interview well). For whatever reason, Baddour then turned to UNC alumnus and NFL veteran John Bunting, whose only head coaching experience was at a Division III school and six seasons of misery endured.

By 2006, UNC and its fat-cats had had enough. Bunting was dismissed before year's end (though he was allowed to finish the season) and the Coral Gables Cleaner, the man who straightened out Miami, Butch Davis, was brought in and Baddour was said to have had practically nothing to do with the process. Under Davis UNC became instantly competitive and seemed to be poised for a rise in 2010 when the football unpleasantness under which the school still suffers today came to light. Davis became a highly polarizing figure and for right or wrong, his tenure cost a number of coaches, the AD (who didn't hire him), and the chancellor (who did fire him) their jobs; it also cost the 2012 team a division title and a chance at a BCS game.

So as Mack Brown leaves Texas, his legacy at UNC remains mixed. The bitterness left by his departure at the height of UNC's fortunes have seemed to keep him from being as revered as he should in the UNC pantheon (an aspersion not seemingly cast on Bill Dooley, who left 20 years earlier for Virginia Tech under similar circumstances at the then-height of UNC's ACC-era history). It is also interesting to note the missteps that have plagued the Carolina program since his departure 16 years ago. UNC has never been able to catch lightning in a bottle the way it did from 1992-97, and even Brown himself could not repeat it after 2009 in Austin. Nevertheless, Brown won with class and he did it the right way, both at UNC and Texas. UNC should be so lucky as to have someone who does it as well as he did.

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