For the most part, this isn’t going to be an article about what UNC needs on the football side of things. Over the course of the past season, and really over the course of the past several, we’ve done enough of that by way of weekly grades that include considerations of coaching decisions, more than a few articles about Larry Fedora himself, and, now that the staff is undergoing basically a complete overhaul, several articles in the last week talking about how various writers feel about the hire (opinions range from “meh unless the coordinators are great” to “Mack is perfect”).
No, this is about what I, and I believe UNC fans at large, need from a program whose previous regime did seemingly everything possible to alienate them indirectly and, in some cases, directly. I’m a UNC fan, not, strictly speaking, a college football fan, and I am certainly not alone in this regard. I probably would have only had a passing interest in this team as it has stood for the past three years if I didn’t write about UNC sports, and so I can’t blame people who do exactly that. It’s not just about them being bad; perennially awful teams in professional and college sports have plenty of die-hard fans. It’s not just about tribalism, it’s that there’s a joy in narrative, even when that narrative is one of badness. Seriously, take any Cubs fan you knew before 2016 and tell me honestly that they didn’t take a healthy amount of pride hidden in their self-important wallowing in their team’s inability to win a championship in over a century. Larry Fedora consciously erased all possible hints of narrative from the Heels under the flimsy guise of hiding information from opposing coaches, making it very hard to be emotionally invested in anything about the team other than wins and losses. That’s not sustainable, as he found out the hard way, but it’s also not enough: You wouldn’t take seriously a fan who only knew the win-loss record of the team they claimed to be a fan of, and for good reason. To rehabilitate the experience of being a fan of Carolina football (and, put bluntly, to put blue-clad butts back in Kenan Stadium’s seats), Mack Brown and his staff have to re-inject the potential for narrative into the program. That’s what this is really about.
1. The right, and obvious, football stuff
I did say “for the most part.” I promise, this will be short. At the end of the day, as much as a writer like myself might sometimes like to pretend otherwise, a football program is about what happens on the field. I can’t in good conscience talk about the coaches without it, so let’s get this out of the way early: I’ve talked myself into liking the hire as long as it looks like there’s a long-term plan behind it, and the naming of Tommy Thigpen as co-DC seems to signal that there just might be. Thank goodness the rumors of Greg Robinson joining him as head man of the defense appear to have been premature, because that would have been exactly the opposite. Based on rumors that the first two offensive coordinator targets were David Yost and Kliff Kingsbury, both Air Raid disciples who love spreading out defenses and then running through them, I think Brown’s mind is in the right place as far as where the UNC offense should be looking to go. I like the hires who have been announced so far, and I’d already run through a brick wall for Dre Bly:
As long as the team continues to say far away from Robinson and his ilk, and continues accumulating young to young-ish coaches with quantifiable ideas and methods who can manage recruiting in one of the more fertile areas in the country who can learn from the legend at the helm while implementing their own modern takes, I’m on board. That’s a plan for a fruitful future.
Now to the interesting part. Here’s what I, and probably a lot of Tar Heel fans with me, need from Mack to learn to love UNC football again:
2. Respect the media
Larry Fedora isn’t unique among coaches for his refusal to discuss strategy beyond coachspeak like “we saw something we liked and chose to try and exploit it” or “it was something we’d been working on” or “we just had to make a play.” I don’t like it, but that’s pretty common. Guys like Sean McVay, who both recalls about every play he’s ever called and is willing to explain the philosophy behind them, are unfortunately rare. Where he is pretty unique, though, is in how very consistent his disdain for media was during his time at UNC. This most famously manifested in his refusal to disclose players’ injury status until they were out for the season, which was explained with the flimsy-at-best excuse that he was trying not to give opposing coaches any advantages. But there’s other stuff, like making up quarterback controversies and purposely giving no indication of what was happening until it was gametime. This was particularly egregious in 2017; the choice was between Brandon Harris, Chazz Surratt, and Nathan Elliott, none of whom had ever been seen in a UNC uniform before and two of whom had basically never stepped on a college football field. There wasn’t anything to hide, and yet we had to endure all season as he actively refused to tell us anything about what was going on beyond a couple of practice video snippets that were only available if you paid for them. Late in this past season, when freshmen Cade Fortin and Jace Ruder were potentially healthy enough to play a little bit, Fedora mocked the media again, pointedly telling reporters that they shouldn’t have expected any information from him. Predictably, by the end of Fedora’s tenure, basically the only people of note writing about UNC football were fans like us and people who are paid specifically to write about UNC football. And by killing larger media interest, you kill fan interest, too.
Mack Brown, having come to UNC this time after having been a member of sports media, more than likely knows this, and even before that, had a reputation for being pretty jovial with media personalities. He’s a well-liked guy in media circles, so if there’s anything I’m confident will change about the program, it’s this. A lot has been made about Mack Brown mending fences with high school coaches around the state of North Carolina. What’s been mostly unsaid, perhaps out of fear of being accused of self-importance, is that there are fences to be mended with local media as well. The media is our only access to the teams that we love. The more that coaches treat them with respect and the understanding that they aren’t simply scribes, but active participants in the production of team culture, the better the fan experience. Again, as a fan, I don’t need Mack Brown to divulge literally everything he’s doing in practice. That would take forever, be more information than I would know what to do with, and a significant amount would probably go over my head. I like to think that I don’t watch football mindlessly, though, and some acknowledgement of that would go a long way. It’s a lot easier to like something when it likes you back, and in order for Brown to create that feeling among fans, he has to first impress it upon media.
(Note: I am aware that I, too, may be accused of self-importance by being a member of sports media saying that Brown needs to make sure to respect sports media. And there could be some truth to that, but I’m just a writer and aggregator. I’m not at press conferences asking questions or giving anybody access to what’s being said, I just relay it in a hopefully better-put-together way. In the context of media that disseminates information to fans, my colleagues here and I are much closer to the fan side of that spectrum.)
3. Represent the University
My colleague Christian Schneider touched on this in his 2018 coaching review, where his first requirement of a collegiate head coach was:
Are they a good ambassador for the University that employs them?
To me, this isn’t really about having any particular ideology or even appearing particularly likeable, because those are subjective things. Comments that are widely criticized by some groups draw praise and admiration from others. I have opinions, of course, but it’s not my place to decide what people find agreeable as long as it’s not actively harmful. But at the very least, a college coach has to be aware that he or she is an employee of a university or college, that their job is not bigger than their employer just because they get put on TV.
This is about more than not knowing about two of the campus’ most famous landmarks. This is another place where this article will slightly intersect with the football side of things, but without giving too many details, one of UNC’s recruiting misses this cycle was allegedly due in part to the recruit being impressed with NC State’s business school. NCSU’s MBA program ranks 92nd in the country, according to US News. UNC ranks in the top 20. And for undergrads, UNC is 8th, and NCSU comes in at 91. What I mean to say is, if you can’t convince a kid that UNC’s business school is a better choice than State’s, you aren’t representing the University. Ditto for going on record as a CTE denier when you work at a university that is among the world’s leaders in research about the effects of repeated sub-concussive impacts to the head. Like Christian said, I’m not asking for another Roy Williams. It’s laughable to expect a coach with the enthusiasm for the school of an alumnus. But I think it’s fair to expect the knowledge and pride that one would find on an admissions brochure.
This stuff matters for recruiting, yes, but it also matters for fandom. Of course, not every UNC fan has had the privilege or opportunity to attend the university. But Carolina as an experience (if you’re idealistic), as a brand (if you’re cynical), is more than what happens on the gridiron, or the hardwood, or the turf, or any other sporting surface. It is all of that, and one of the best institutions of higher education in the world, and the site of cutting-edge research and writing on just about every subject known to man. My colleague Jake Lawrence wrote last week that “For his part, Mack knows every nuance of Chapel Hill and the university.” I am, in the interest of full disclosure, too young to remember Brown’s tenure in Chapel Hill and haven’t paid attention to him while he’s been on television, so I have no idea if that’s true. I hope it is. A coaching staff who conveys, and thus joins the fandom in, an investment in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as a collective, makes the team engaging and grounds it in a sense of community. Being a Tar Heel is an identity unto itself. The sense of removal from this identity played a huge part, in my opinion, in fan apathy towards the football program in recent years, and reclaiming it will make rooting for UNC football not only more enjoyable, but part of a shared identity. And that’s really what sports are about.
I am a Tar Heel through and through, and that means I am a fan of UNC football. Those two things had become increasingly separated through the program’s steady dissociation from fans and the university. Coach Brown, if you’re reading this, it’s time that gap was sealed shut.