I was not a UNC football fan growing up. We were firmly a basketball family, and a lot of that just had to do with when I grew up. I’m a child of the 80’s, and by the time I was paying attention to sports UNC had already started to sink under Dick Crum. I can tell you stories of watching big games for the basketball team in the 80’s, but not one from football. At all.
That changed under Mack Brown. After a couple of horrid seasons to start his career, Brown brought excitement to UNC football that hadn’t existed before. He talked about winning the state championship, truly wanted to beat the rivals down the road at Duke and NC State, and started to bring in talent that made the team competitive. His rise coincided with the explosion of cable, and all of a sudden UNC football was on TV during the fall. As a blue blood college program, UNC basketball filled the airwaves during the winter even during that time, but UNC football was shunted aside until Mack Brown started.
1992 was Brown’s breakthrough season, compiling an 8-3 record in the regular season and getting an invite to the Peach Bowl in the brand new Georgia Dome. It was a top-25 primetime matchup on ESPN against Mississippi State, and UNC pulled out a 21-17 win in front of a boisterous crowd. Brown was carried off the field, and finally UNC football looked like it would get fans excited.
Four months later, Dean Smith won his second title. Football? What’s that?
Thing is, after 1992, Brown would go to a bowl game in every season he remained in Chapel Hill. Two Gator Bowls (three if you count ‘97, we’ll get to that), A Sun Bowl, and a CarQuest Bowl. Brown had quickly made UNC football appointment watching. The advent of ESPN2 created more opportunities for watching the team, and by the time I walked onto campus in the fall of 1997, Brown had seen to it that the athletic department would spend some significant money on UNC Football. That closed in end zone by the Bell Tower is thanks to Brown’s success in the mid-90’s.
1997 was going to be a special year. I summed up the ‘97 football season before the start of the season so I don’t need to again, but know that 1997 was an amazing time to be on campus at UNC for sports. Between the chances that UNC Football could actually be in the hunt for a national title, to Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison coming back for their junior seasons in basketball, I think it’s fair to say no other year has felt so strong athletically when classes began.
I was in the Marching Tar Heels during my time at UNC, and several moments stand out to me that year. One of them was prior to an outdoor practice. At the time, the band practiced on Navy Field, the turf field used by the football team and for field hockey games. Our practice was right after the team was done, so there would be times when we would have to warm up outside the gates while football finished up. One night, as we filed in, I was stunned to see Mack Brown standing next to the band director, Jeffrey Fuchs. Fuchs called us all to midfield, and Brown spoke to us for about five minutes. He thanked us for our hard work, for what we did during the games to keep the crowd entertained, and encouraged us to keep at it as it looked like it was going to be a special season.
While I was at Carolina, no other football coach did that. Neither did Bill Guthridge nor Matt Doherty. It’s fair to say that made an impression on me.
So, when Mack first said he was going to stay at UNC following the 1997 season and then up and left for Texas, I was livid. This was a new feeling for a lot of Carolina fans, because we were used to our coaches either staying for their careers or being let go. The big coaches didn't just leave for other jobs. He spent all this time selling us on how much Chapel Hill and UNC meant to him, and then all of a sudden he’s going to just take the money and run? When the Tar Heels went on to win the Gator Bowl, I joined the chorus of fans pointing to the booth where the new coach was sitting and cheered “TOR-BUSH! TOR-BUSH! TOR-BUSH!”
You know the story from there, Torbush ran a great defense but couldn't run the program. John Bunting had a couple of moments but couldn't sustain it. Butch Davis started to build the program then lost control and was summarily dismissed. Larry Fedora was a Group of Five coach who found early success but couldn’t sustain it once he lost his good coordinators, among other things. Quite simply, Carolina has not gotten anywhere near the consistency and heights that Mack Brown set for the program in the mid-90’s.
A lot of fans still have anger from that move in 1997 and voiced it when Brown was brought back, essentially blaming him for the malaise that hit Carolina Football since he spurned the Tar Heels for Austin. I’m no longer one of them.
My opinion started to shift a couple of years later when Dean’s Domain came out by Art Chansky. In it, he cites a struggle between Brown and Dean Smith in the naming of a new athletic director after John Swofford’s move to the ACC office. Brown had his choice, Dean had his choice, and Dean’s choice in Dick Baddour won. This happened before the ‘97 season, and that, combined with Dean’s retirement taking the spotlight away from his team combined to build some ill-will for Mack, at least according to Chansky. I was still happy with the direction of the athletic department at the time, but it at least introduced the idea that UNC wasn’t completely innocent in how they handled Brown. How much of it was true? Considering the date of the book, probably more of it than not since I suspect Brown was Chansky’s unnamed source.
Not long after graduation, I moved down to Texas and experienced their football culture first-hand. I never went to a game in Austin, but seeing the passion that fans had, seeing that stadium filled, and seeing that Austin had a culture in football that Carolina had in basketball helped me understand what the appeal for Brown would be. I made good friends who were Texas fans, and I watched them win a national title with Vince Young living in the state. By that point, I was happy for Brown. I was still upset at how he left, but by this point Bunting’s teams were falling flat and I had an appreciation for just how hard it was for Brown to do what he did in Chapel Hill.
The initial handling of the NCAA scandal shed a light as to why Brown had wanted an AD that wasn’t the choice of the basketball coach. In this day and age, you need to see the bigger picture, especially when football brings in more revenue, by far, than basketball. By this point, Brown was finishing his tenure at Texas and had made inroads back in Chapel Hill, reaching out when Fedora was hired to offer advice. After he left Texas, it almost felt like Brown moved back to Chapel Hill as he was frequently seen around campus and at events.
I think that's when I finally got over it. I’ve been to Austin and understand its appeal. It would have been easy for Brown to ride off into the sunset there, and I found it telling that he was trying to be very visible in Chapel Hill. In a way, he seemed to be seeking forgiveness himself, and a number of people were willing to get over themselves and accept it. If the people who give a lot of money to the program can welcome him back with open arms, I can as well.
It’s not like he’s the only person who first spurned Chapel Hill and then came back. Look no further than the head basketball coach as someone who was thought to have burned a lot of bridges, only to come back. Roy Williams was forgiven pretty quickly, basically just three years after he created chaos by calling a press conference to announce he was staying at Kansas. The basketball program was in a desperate shape, and that he ultimately made the “right” choice in our minds allowed us to forgive his transgression.
If we can forgive Roy so quickly, what's the hold up with Mack? He’s clearly shown that despite the move to Texas, he still had a piece of himself in Chapel Hill that meant something. Two decades have provided us with a lot more information than we had when he left, making us aware that UNC could have done more to keep Brown and ultimately, Brown left for a place that at the time would show him more love.
There’s an important distinction here, by the way. This isn’t an argument that rehiring Mack was the right call. My colleague Jake makes that argument and it’s worth a read. You can forgive Mack for him leaving and still think this isn’t a good move, especially if he can’t get a great staff to serve under him. My meter of skepticism has run the gamut these past few days with each new rumored interview and hire, but none of that skepticism includes anger for ‘97.
I mentioned a load of memories from 1997. There’s one other one that will always stand out: November 8th, 1997. UNC versus Florida State. Standing in the alleyway between the old field house and the stands, preparing to march pregame. The stands were full before we even lined up, and this included a set of temporary stands they set up to effectively close the horseshoe of the stadium. The roar of the crowd and the anticipation in the air, it was an atmosphere that hasn’t been replicated since.
Mack Brown brought that to Chapel Hill, and it’s tough to stay mad at someone who gave you some of your best memories. So, if you’re still angry at him for 1997, ask yourself why. Think about what we know now and if it’s really worth holding a grudge. Chances are, you’ll realize it’s not.