On Saturday night, the news broke that Larry Fedora was on the precipice of being released. On Sunday, he was fired. By Monday morning, the rumors of Mack Brown returning to Chapel Hill were confirmed. Today, the hiring was made official. There were plenty of hot takes flying around social media, television, and radio when the news was announced. The consensus among most of social, local and national media was one of confusion or laughter. Some fans were, and are, downright angry.
Brown supposedly left a Texas program in decline. It’s never sexy to go back in time. Some think North Carolina needs a young gun to come and build for the future. Others still have hurt feelings over Mack’s perceived integrity issues when he left UNC. There are plenty of reasons why this could blow up in North Carolina’s face.
Whatever the sentiment, there is one undeniable fact. Considering the state of the North Carolina football program today, at this very moment in time, Mack Brown is the absolute best hire for North Carolina.
To be fair, I’m a bit ahead of the curve and have been processing this for months. During the beatdown in Greenville I mentioned this possibility to my fellow staff members here at Tar Heel Blog. It was largely met with laughs and ridicule. Based on the belief that UNC was going to finish the season strong, I never considered it to be possible. Then rumors were floated that the two parties had been in contact at some point during the season, but I mostly shrugged. Brown and the school had begun to heal old wounds with a ceremony back in the fall. An open dialogue seemed natural as the season spiraled out of control.
It wasn’t until I personally witnessed the Daniel Jones Show in Durham that I began to believe it was an actual possibility. The frustration, finger-pointing, and miscommunication displayed by the players was disheartening and infuriating at the same time. After doing a few radio segments with WCHL in Chapel Hill, and talking to others with ties to the school and athletic department, I became convinced it was going to happen. By the time the news was announced, I concluded it was the only move UNC could make.
As the old UPS commercials used to ask, “What can Brown do for you?”
The answer? Everything.
State of the Program
To understand why Mack makes the most sense, there has to be an understanding of where the issues lie. The problems with this program are not on the field.
The offense is on track to return all 11 starters. If quarterbacks Cade Fortin and Jace Ruder stay through the coaching change, 2018’s main weakness is addressed. The defense this year had enough talent to remain competitive in 9 of the 11 games. Of the nine losses, five were decided by one possession and two of those went to overtime. The play-calling was suspect, as it always was, but often times that can be fixed with staff changes. We saw what good coordinators can do in 2015. So, if you believe the program was “close” in that regard, you have a case.
Instead, the program is in shambles on the inside. Discipline issues off the field (selling shoes) ruined any momentum the team had accrued through the spring and summer. A lack of discipline on the field (ill-timed penalties, skirmishes against Duke and State) pointed to a rudderless ship with no direction, leadership, or respect for authority among the players.
Damaged relationships with high school coaches on the recruiting scene (60th in current rankings), increased ridicule from the media for odd comments (thoughts on CTE, “forgetting” the 2014 loss to ECU), and overall lack of fan interest (we all saw that stadium on Saturday) simply added fuel to the fire. Put together, these all point to larger, systemic deficiencies. Whatever culture that may have existed in the run-up to 2015’s success is non-existent now.
Simply put, this coaching change is about more than just wins and losses. The program doesn’t need new boats for a fleet, just a new captain to chart a course correction. Mack Brown is the one coach who can step in immediately and stop the bleeding .
Some will think “repairing relationships” means “recruiting”. That is definitely a problem area, specifically inside North Carolina. As evidence, I point you to this tweet by Brant Wilkerson-New of the Greensboro News & Record.
Mack Brown's last team at Carolina in 1997 had 64 in-state players on the roster. This season, the Tar Heels had just 38 from North Carolina. N.C. State's roster features 61.— Brant Wilkerson-New (@BrantGNR) November 26, 2018
What can a guy who has been away from coaching for five years have to offer? Why should he be expected to fix this? It’s fair to question if players remember Mack Brown at Texas, much less at UNC. Many do not.
However, their coaches and parents do. That will make a difference when Brown and his staff are trying to get traction in high schools. Coaches who don’t have prior experiences with Mack are going to listen, simply because he’s new. In football, coaches and parents still have a large impact on their sons and/or players. The players will be more willing to come if the adults give their blessing.
For his part, Mack knows every nuance of Chapel Hill and the university. That’ll already be an immediate improvement to the situation now — Larry Fedora didn’t even know there was an arboretum on campus, and admitted to having not “been anywhere on this campus” last summer to Jones Angell and Adam Lucas. Those factors, combined with Brown’s unmatched ability to sell, persuade, and build, should result in improved recruiting before the February signing day.
Unfortunately, recruiting relationships are not the only fences that need mending. The university still has a small, overly dramatic, completely immature segment of the fanbase that is angry over the treatment of Butch Davis (If this is you, grow up). Combine that with the damage done by the previous administration’s leadership, the NCAA investigation, and now two dismal seasons, it is not just high school players and coaches that have to be wooed.
Brown will have to hit the fundraising, breakfast, and dinner circuits to regain goodwill and replenish the coffers that have been depleted over new facilities and Fedora’s buyout. There is not another coach who can effectively reach out to every disenfranchised segment of the UNC fan base from the moment they step on campus.
Rebuilding the Culture
Mack Brown was never known for his tactical acumen. That’s fine. With the right staff hires, and those are critical, that “weakness” is smoothed out. What he does better than almost anyone in the country is build a motivated, team-oriented, familial culture.
No program is perfect, and his time at Texas was occasionally marred with legal troubles and off-field conduct by players. That is different, though, than a team-wide scandal where players knowingly violated NCAA rules to make some cash. I’ll wait while you look for NCAA violations that come close to the scale of last season’s shoe incident during Mack Brown’s tenure at Texas. (Hint: You won’t). Discipline on and off the field, should improve.
The one thing North Carolina has that carries through all sports is the Carolina Family. Some think it’s hokey, but that is their problem. Since Mack left, North Carolina has had five different coaches. None of those five have been able to adequately reach out and heal old wounds left by the different regimes. A few here and there carry the torch for their prospective eras, but there has never been the continuity seen in other sports around campus. Brown has the history, the personality, and the clout to fix that. Besides, the athletic department is already littered with his former players.
Mack Brown doesn’t need money. North Carolina does not have a lot of money to spend. Despite being arguably the premier job opening in the country, the coaching pool this year just isn’t very deep. If the Heels were going to pry away a “big name” from another P5 school, it would cost at least as much as Fedora’s contract, which clocked in at approximately $3 million a year. That doesn’t include staff or other buyout clauses.
Instead, Mack will come for below market value. The majority of the money available and/or raised for salaries will be used to hire top-shelf coordinators and staff. Maybe those coordinators agree to a “head coach in waiting” scenario, maybe they don’t. That’s irrelevant. The important part of this move is to get talented coaches on the sideline to stabilize and bring results.
By the time the Mack Brown experience comes to a close, money is available for a long-term splash hire. UNC has remained relevent. A full rebuilding period has been avoided. Everyone is, at a minimum, satisfied.
To believe Mack is the only person for this job, it’s important to understand the coaching landscape. Mostly, who else could do everything mentioned? A few names have been thrown around. None of them exciting. All of them, ultimately, a coin flip.
Scott Satterfield at Appalachian State was a fan favorite. Two consecutive Sun Belt titles (and playing for a third this weekend), a .676 winning percentage, and familiarity with the state seemed attractive. However, going into the Group of 5 barrel is always risky. That’s where Fedora came from — with a similar winning percentage in a tougher conference, and a Top-25 ranking — and that was when UNC was undesirable.
Jeff Brohm (Purdue) and Matt Campbell (Iowa State) were my preferences. Power 5 experience should be a requirement for UNC right now. Alas, availability, mutual interest and cost all have to align.
Ryan Day, the offensive coordinator at Ohio State, would have been interesting. Urban Meyer’s coaching tree has had success and pedigree matters. Do you trust the UNC job in its current form, with a first-time head coach? (See: Carl Torbush and John Bunting)
Perhaps most importantly, who can walk into the Kenan football offices right now, assemble a staff and start work? With any active coach there would be 2-6 week wait. North Carolina football cannot wait that long if it wants to implement a plan to stabilize. Right now, a reclamation project is preferable to a rebuild.
Age and Texas
Perhaps the most damning excuse used against Brown is that his tenure ended in disgrace at Texas and the game has passed him by. That doesn’t fully add up.
Texas’ record was 25-14 in his final three seasons. They finished in the top half of the Big 12 each year (the Division model had been scrapped), and went to three bowls. At Texas, that’s underachieving. North Carolina would take those results and run. In the world of college football, success is relative. If he exceeds those results, they may just build a statue in his honor.
The other common argument is that, yeah sure, he was “successful” but he didn’t have results that matched the talent. That may be true, as his recruiting classes in 2009-2013 were 6th, 2nd, 4th, 2nd, and 17th. After years of UNC being ranked in the high 20’s and low-30s, is “not performing to the level of a top-5 recruiting class” your main concern for the football program? They already haven’t been performing to the standards of a top-30 recruiting class, so where’s the risk?
Mack at 68 is still a better coach than 95% of other coaches. At Texas he was going against Bob Stoops (Oklahoma), Mike Gundy (Oklahoma State), Bill Snyder (Kansas State), Mike Leach (Texas Tech), Gary Patterson (TCU) and Art Briles (Baylor). That’s, uh, slightly tougher than facing off against Dave Doeren, Pat Narduzzi, Paul Johnson, and Justin Fuente.
I’d argue the game didn’t even “pass him by”. Maybe he did become a little complacent after 16 years, nine 10+ win seasons, six division titles, two conference title, two national championship games, and one title. That’s not unusual. He was also saddled with an inept athletic director, never found an adequate replacement at QB after Colt McCoy led them to the championship game in 2010, and arguably held onto his defensive coordinator Manny Diaz too long.
Those are all fixable or non-issues at the moment, and not exactly indicative of a man whose football IQ has fallen off a cliff.
Nobody really knows if this is going to work. How long does Brown plan to stick around? What kind of offense is he going to implement? Is he committed to results or is this just to feed an oversized ego? There are plenty of reasonable questions that don’t currently have answers.
Success hinges on hiring a top-notch staff with a clear long-term plan, setting and maintaining reasonable expectations, and Brown’s willingness/ability to adapt to the game today. Those factors will emerge over the next weeks and months.
A reasonable person would expect coordinators to salivate over working for a Hall of Fame coach, knowing they can compete for (or be guaranteed) the head job in the next 3-5 years. Brown didn’t last 30 years in the profession without being able to adapt. Nobody expects national championships at North Carolina in the near future.
If those conditions are met, this will prove to not be a knee-jerk reaction or a panicked decision. It may just be one of the most shrewd and forward-thinking decisions that North Carolina football has ever been involved with.
Correction; I originally wrote that Mack had won six conference titles at Texas. He actually won two conference titles and six division titles. This has been changed to protect the guilty (me).