North Carolina coach Mack Brown turns 70 this week, and he’s spent nearly half of his life as an FBS head coach.
Brown enters his 33rd season as a head coach in 2021, the third year of a second stop with the Tar Heels. North Carolina brings a top-10 ranking, a first-round quarterback and the expectation to challenge for an ACC championship into 2021.
How did Brown, who resigned at Texas in 2013 and spent the next five seasons as a television analyst, pull off this remarkable turn-around in Chapel Hill, N.C.? Perhaps a better question: Why is he still doing it?
After all, Alabama coach Nick Saban and FIU Butch Davis are the other two coaches who will turn 70 this season. Why not enjoy retirement?
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“I like people,” Brown said at a press conference on Aug. 5. “I like being nice. I like making people smile. It’s fun for me.”
That is the purest answer Brown can give; taken from a childhood lesson learned from his grandfather Eddie Watson in Cookeville, Tenn. Brown recalled working the fields for youth baseball and softball in the summer for Putnam Co., where his grandfather was the superintendent at the local schools. Watson stopped and talked to everyone on those fields. Brown defined Watson as “the nicest and most-friendly person I’ve ever met to this day.”
“My grandad told me, ‘A gift that you have is your smile, and a gift that you have that you can give somebody else is to remember their name,” Brown said.
That’s Brown today. Listen to one of his press conferences. In an age where the summer debate was whether or not to call a coach by their first name, Brown calls every reporter by theirs instead. When Brown arrived at Texas in 1998, legendary coach Darrell K. Royal reiterated another variation of that lesson. Brown recalled what Royal told him, too.
“You should never, ever walk by anyone no matter how young or old they are, without stopping and smiling and shaking their hand and taking a picture or signing an autograph,” Brown said. “Remember, it’s not about you. The next guy they hire is going to be doing the same stuff, but that’s a gift that you should give people.”
It’s a gift Brown has given the recruit who helped lead the UNC turnaround. Four-star quarterback Sam Howell was the first big recruit for the Tar Heels when Brown was re-hired in 2019.
Howell is the center of the excitement around North Carolina in 2021. He has piled up 7,224 yards and 68 TDs with 14 interceptions the last two seasons. Howell went for the go-ahead two-point conversion in the 22-21 loss to Clemson in 2019 and led the Tar Heels to an Orange Bowl appearance last season.
For perspective, North Carolina finished 2-9 in 2018 and 3-9 in 2017.
“The mindset of our team, obviously we expect to win every game, we’ve had that mindset ever since I got here, ever since Coach Brown got here,” Howell said. “You have to treat every game like it’s the biggest game of the year. No matter who we’re playing.
“Coach Brown knows what it takes to get to the top, and everyone knows that he knows that,” Howell said. “As a team, as a staff, everyone has bought into that message.”
Humility and experience are behind that message. The Tar Heels were ranked No. 5 in the AP Top 25 last season after a 3-0 start before losing 31-28 at Florida State. Even Brown admits, “We weren’t ready to be a top-five team at the time.”
North Carolina is 15-10 the last two seasons, and preseason hype can always backfire.
Brown’s experience at Texas, however, could offer clues as to what could come next. The Longhorns won nine games in each of Brown’s first three seasons, but a string of nine straight double-digit win years — including a national championship in 2005 — followed. Brown wasn’t building for one year. He was building long term.
“I do feel like I’m a much more knowledgeable coach than I was when I was here before or when I started at Texas,” Brown said. “I do feel like my five years out really helped me from some perspectives, looking at different things. I also understand recruiting is a huge key. You have to coach well, but without good players some people say, ‘Well, they won but they had good players.’ Good coaches have good players.”
North Carolina has better players now. Howell was part of that first class, and the Tar Heels have reeled in back-to-back top-15 recruiting classes since. North Carolina beat Clemson for 5-star 2022 defensive lineman Travis Shaw this weekend, who will become Brown’s third five-star in his first three classes. Brown talked about the need for more depth on both sides, which was exposed in the second half of losses to Notre Dame and Texas A&M last season. “Fewer plays and more production,” is one of the messages being sent to those players this season, and it comes from a winning mentality.
“I love the fact that eight of our 10 coaches have either won national championships or Super Bowls,” Brown said. “They’ve had to deal with a lot of really good players, and we’re starting to do that.”
Brown isn’t the only one dealing smiles and handshakes either. Howell has been instrumental in recruiting other players to North Carolina. Howell is helping teammates with NIL deals. Brown said Howell understands that he “doesn’t want to leave a three-year program” behind.
“That’s why we have the younger quarterbacks and he’s working with them so hard,” Brown said. “A lot of the arrogant players on your team or the superstars would say, ‘I’m not doing that anymore. I don’t have time.’ If we needed to run to the house or sit down with a prospect or be on a Zoom call, he would just tell me, ‘Coach, tell me what you want.'”
Howell’s time is now. North Carolina opens the season at Virginia Tech on Sept. 3, the first test to see if this program truly is ready for every-week consistency and perhaps that next shot at Clemson down the line.
“We have a really mature team, and we’re not letting the hype get to us,” Howell said. “I think we talked about it early on, and everyone knows the hype we have surrounding our program. It’s well deserved, but the hype isn’t going to win football games. An immature team would let that get to them.”
An immature team without a 70-year-old coach that has seen it all and seems ready for the wave of changes coming to college football.
“People are asking about the pressure and the hype, does that worry me? I’ve always felt like it’s pride,” Brown said. “How cool is it for us to come back and have so much pride in this program right now moving forward? Does it mean we’re ready to win all the games? No. We’ve got to do that. We’ve got to coach them.”
“But we’re just on a roll,” he said. “Things are good, and I’m excited about it.”
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