It’s fair to say Mack Brown returning to North Carolina has been met with a healthy amount of skepticism. You have to go no further than Stewart Mandel of The Athletic ($$) who on Friday graded the move as a C. His sentiments matched a lot of the initial feelings of the fan base, wishing that Bubba Cunningham had decided to make a splashier hire than a coach who had been out of the game for several years.
I was one of them, howling at the idea of bringing back a coach who has long qualified for AARP benefits. I didn’t get why there had to be such a rush to hire Brown with the hire coming almost immediately after the final game. Surely they could have taken the time to talk to other coaches and find that one G5 coach or P5 assistant who was ready to take on the challenge of rebuilding things in Chapel Hill.
In the two months since Brown was announced, however, it’s quickly become apparent why he is the right man for the job, and I’m fully behind the hire now. It’s tough to argue with what he’s managed to do since.
Perhaps the biggest reason why there was a rush to hire Mack: the early Signing Day in December. It was no secret that the 2019 recruiting class that Fedora had assembled prior to his ouster was, to put it mildly, weak. Bringing Mack on as quickly as they did allowed him to immediately hit the trail and start recruiting. Unlike a new face (or the previous coach) who has very little knowledge of Chapel Hill or the campus, Brown was already familiar with the campus and knew how to sell it and the program. That knowledge and work managed to flip several recruits, and land him four star quarter back Sam Howell. That’s no small feat considering the competition was a staff that had been fully in place and had worked hard for a year to bring him in.
If you follow our weekly recruitcap, you know that this work on the recruiting hasn’t stopped as there’s another signing day coming up in a couple of weeks. There’s a real chance that a class that was going to rank at the bottom of the conference now could be in the top third in the country, and surpass a certain rival down the road. That alone is remarkable for just two months’ work.
Part of the recruiting turnaround has been restoring ties across the state. One of the biggest failings of Fedora was how quickly football coaches across the state seemed to disparage the former coach, and that feeling seeped into the players Fedora hoped to get. Since being hired, Mack has been spotted across multiple high schools across the state. Those coaches, almost to make a point about how badly Fedora had treated them, haven’t been shy about thanking Brown for coming by.
One of the other areas of concern of the hire was his coaching staff. Since Brown is known as a more CEO-style coach, the coordinators he brought in were going to be even more important than it would be for a hands-on coach. Despite some early struggles, it’s tough not to be impressed with his hires. First you have Phil Longo who ran a strong air raid offense in SEC country at Ole Miss. Then you have Jay Bateman, a man who consistently made the defense at Army one of the best in the nation. Think of the athletes Army has and how good that defense was. Dre Bly came back home to pass on his wisdom as an NFL corner. Tim Brewster, who has recruited for both Florida State and Texas A&M left the Aggies to be back with Brown. Tommy Thigpen is staying on board.
Those hires made it clear that Mack knew what he was doing when he was assembling a staff. If you had any doubts about that, then this post on Twitter helped assuage those fears.
(This is a good time to remind you that you can get this wonderful t-shirt designed by our friends over at Breaking T to show just how fired up you are. I got one, and can tell you it is worth every penny.)
This Twitter post brings up another reason to be excited about Brown returning: he realized how closed off the football program had started to feel under Fedora. Between alienated alumni, a disrespectful attitude to local media, and the dome of secrecy that existed, fans didn’t feel connected to the program despite all the avenues available to the prior staff. Since the hire, the Carolina Football Twitter account has been full of videos of Mack talking directly to fans, a feature of getting to know members of the team, and chats with the new coaches.
It may not seem like much but the mere effort to reconnect with fans helps pop the balloon of arrogance that had overshadowed the program the last couple of years. Instead of this feeling that fans should want to come to games, the program instead is asking fans to become invested in programs. It’s a major shift in attitude towards the fan base, and as the football season gets closer it likely won’t be the last change you see.
So between the recruiting, the coaching hires, and the change in attitude, how is someone not supposed to be excited?
Look, I’m not expecting miracles. Next season’s schedule is set up to be a tough one, and there’s a real chance Brown will begin his first season back with only one win in his first month. The mere fact that next season will begin with a sense of curiosity and some hope as to what’s being built shows the hire was a good one. I’m only hoping for their first bowl appearance in three years, I don’t think that’s too much.
In other words, I’m firmly behind the Return of the Mack. Now let’s just hope some wins follow.
(This is also a good time to mention you can get another wonderful shirt from the Breaking T folks showing you’re on this train, too)