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UNC Football: The Once and Future Coach

Mack Brown has walked a winding road to end up back in Chapel Hill.

South Carolina v North Carolina Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

There’s no famous sword in this story. There’s no wizardly tutor, looking out for a young protagonist as he learns the ropes of what it’s like to lead. There aren’t field trips into the natural world, like there are in T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone. There won’t be a coronation to end this one, in all probability. There’s simply a football coach and a university, on two paths that have meandered and separated, only to come back together a number of chapters later.

If there had been a wizard in this story, outside of Coach Brown’s widely documented recruiting magic, it’s still hard to imagine many differences in the path that Coach Brown’s career has taken. T.H. White’s protagonist, the Wart who would eventually become King Arthur, was transformed by his wizardly tutor into a number of creatures in order to gain a more in-depth look at the way things worked in the animal world.

Coach Brown, similarly, was turned first into a Mountaineer, briefly coaching the Appalachian State team and beginning to learn the ropes as a head coach. Next, after a brief respite as an offensive coordinator in Oklahoma, Coach Brown was turned into a Green Wave, heading to Tulane University where he furthered his education as a head coach, learning to rebuild a struggling program. This also marked the beginning of a crash course in the administrative side of things, as he served also as athletic director during his time in New Orleans.

After three years at Tulane, Coach Brown found himself turned into a Tar Heel, arriving in Chapel Hill in 1988. He took the reins of a Power Five program that had just bid farewell to a coach who had seen success turn into mediocrity toward the end of his tenure, and had left the program on a definitive downward trajectory. Slowly but surely, Coach Brown righted the ship at North Carolina, weathering the storms of his first few seasons and learning how to win consistently, with his last two double-digit-win seasons being sufficient to induce another transformation: this time into a longhorn steer.

In 1998, Coach Brown began his most successful transformation yet, applying all he had learned at his prior stops en route to a string of double-digit-win seasons wearing the burnt orange of a Texas Longhorn. In the midst of this string of success, the coach finally earned a crown, winning the college football national title in 2005 and ascending to the pinnacle of his sport. After 16 seasons coaching in Texas, nine of them ending with win totals of ten or better, the coach underwent what most people thought would be his final transformation.

After departing the University of Texas, Coach Brown was hired by ESPN as an analyst to provide college football coverage for the network, a comfy fit for an assumed-to-be retired ball coach wishing to stay around the sport that had so greatly impacted his life. Here, as in every previous stop along the way, the coach likely had more things to learn as he adjusted to being on the outside looking in, instead of his customary place on the sidelines. Here also, as in nearly every other prior stop, he excelled, sharing his intimate knowledge of the sport with audiences across the country.

All of these lessons, these transformations, have led us back to the here and now. Mack Brown is back on the sidelines in Kenan Stadium, leading his men into battle on a weekly basis and inspiring thousands of Tar Heel faithful along the way. The way the town and program have responded to the return of the leadership of Coach Brown has been a sight to see, and North Carolina won’t be going 1-10 in his second ‘first season.’ Coach Brown’s Tar Heels have already won three games, and the three losses on the schedule have all been within one score of teams that are currently unbeaten. It doesn’t take the wisdom of Merlyn to realize the effect that the return of the Mack has had.

There’s no sword stuck into a stone in this story, but there is an example of a very good leader—Mack Brown, the once and future coach.