He loves being back at the ACC Coastal Division school where he used to coach, and he’s also done well recruiting the state of Georgia. Yes, Mack Brown is quite pleased to be coaching again at North Carolina.
A national championship winner at Texas, Brown returned to North Carolina in November to replace Larry Fedora, who was fired after seven seasons and back-to-back nine-loss seasons. Brown, 67, is back in coaching after a five-year run at ESPN. He told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week that “there’s absolutely no doubt” that he and his wife, Sally, made the right decision in returning to coaching.
“Because we’ve had fun and we’ve been re-energized and this is what I do,” said Brown, speaking at the Atlanta History Center before a UNC alumni event. “I’ve done it my whole life and we’re really excited about it and having fun.”
Meeting with Georgia Tech and coach Geoff Collins on Oct. 5 at Bobby Dodd Stadium will not be new territory. Brown coached against the Yellow Jackets each of his 10 years at North Carolina (1988-97) and left for Texas with a 6-3-1 record against Tech. (The Yellow Jackets’ 13-13 tie with the Tar Heels in 1990 likely was all that separated Tech from an undisputed national championship.)
He also knows Collins, having met him when he called two of his Temple games for ESPN. He also knows Tech general manager Patrick Suddes well. When Brown was at Texas, he hired Suddes from Alabama to run his recruiting department. In the interview, Brown described Suddes as a “superstar.”
“Geoff’s been there before, he knows it,” Brown said. “He’s gotten coaches that understand it. And I always think that, No. 1, the head coach had better be a fit, and I think I am at North Carolina because we had 10 years to prove that. There’s a lot of familiarity coming back, and Geoff’s a fit at Georgia Tech. He hired people that fit the area and the place, and that makes it easier to transition.”
Brown and Collins’ staffs already have squared off on the recruiting trail in the state of Georgia. North Carolina has received commitments from three in-state players in the class of 2020 that Tech has also offered – wide receiver Josh Downs from North Gwinnett High and offensive tackle Trey Zimmerman and tight end John Copenhaver, both from Roswell High. It’s nothing new for UNC to be in the state. The 2018 roster had 17 players from Georgia.
Brown said that the state of Georgia is part of North Carolina’s recruiting footprint, part of a region that extends from Jacksonville Fla., to Washington, D.C. Brown has multiple assistant coaches who have recruited the state of Georgia previously.
“There’s so many players (in Atlanta), and there were a lot here before,” Brown said. “And the schools are really good here, so the academics are really good. So we can come down here and get kids that are very interested in coming to the University of North Carolina.”
Brown said that, a year ago, he would have estimated his chances of getting back into coaching at 5 %. He had interviewed annually for jobs since resigning at Texas at the end of the 2013 season, but ultimately wasn’t interested. Last year, his wife told him that she would only go to Hawaii, the Bahamas or Chapel Hill, N.C. As the Browns liked Fedora and he seemed secure with a lengthy contract (and also because college football coaching jobs in the Bahamas are slim), a return seemed unlikely.
Still, in his work for ESPN, Brown paid close attention and took notes just in case.
“I’d go to 10 spring practices every spring, and I’d watch ’em work,” Brown said. “I’d watch drills. I’d write down what I saw, what I liked. And it was different from what we were doing. And then I would talk to every offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator and head coach before all of the Friday night (ESPN) games for three years and get their ideas.”
That’s how he knew that he wanted to run an offense similar to Oklahoma’s and that he wanted to hire Army defensive coordinator Jay Bateman. The Oklahoma scheme of coach Lincoln Riley mixes the Air Raid offense with a power running game. He hired offensive coordinator Phil Longo from Ole Miss to run the scheme.
“I felt like that’s exactly what we needed to do because we need to excite the fans and get people in the seats,” he said of the offense.
Beyond that, Brown said he has to “figure out how to get guys who are not used to winning confident enough and believing in themselves enough that they can win. That’s been a lot of fun for me.”
Brown has more measurable goals – win the opener against South Carolina (the Tar Heels have lost four openers in a row), cut down on penalties and win its four in-state games (Duke, N.C. State, Wake Forest and Appalachian State).
“And then we want to win the Coastal and then win the conference championship,” Brown said.
Brown arrives at a time of flux in the division, as Tech and Miami also have new coaches. In each of the past six seasons, a different team has won the division. Virginia could complete the cycle this fall. Brown isn’t paying much attention yet to the competition.
“What I’ve learned is we need to worry about us,” he said. “We can’t control how the other guys play and we’ve got to worry about us, and we’ve got to play to the best of our ability every week. And people have said, ‘How many times do you expect to win, and I said, ‘All of them.’ Because how dumb would I be to say, ‘Eh, I think we’re going to lose six.’ I mean, that’d be a great message to your team.”
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