Mack Brown’s formal introduction as North Carolina new/old football coach last week wasn’t exactly a press conference.
It was more like a pep rally.
The only things missing were the cheerleaders and marching band.
Brown hyped up the assembled crowd of dignitaries, former players and media members — along with those following on social media — by saying all the right things and promising to “fix” the Tar Heels program the way he did during his first time in Chapel Hill from 1988-97.
It was an inspiring performance that should come as no surprise considering Brown’s engaging personality and the fact there is no one quite as popular in sports as an undefeated new coach. And it will likely sell a lot of tickets, which is undoubtedly one of the reasons UNC hired the 67-year-old Hall of Famer after a five-year coaching hiatus.
But here’s the reality of the situation now that the balloons have been deflated, the donors have written their checks and the task of building a winning football team has begun: There’s a better than 50-50 chance that Brown’s triumphant return to the Tar Heels won’t have a happy ending.
That’s not just an opinion. There are any number of college football examples to prove that UNC’s own Thomas Wolfe was right on the money when he penned the immortal words “You can’t go home again.”
Johnny Majors won a national championship by going 12-0 at Pittsburgh before leaving for the greener pastures of Tennessee. Sixteen years later, after being pushed into “retirement” by the Vols, he made a triumphant return to Pitt — only to win just 12 games over the next four years combined.
John Robinson also claimed a national title the first time he was at Southern Cal in 1978 before heading to the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams, only to finish at or barely above .500 in the final two seasons of his return to the Trojans a decade later.
It’s a trend not limited to the college game, as Joe Gibbs learned in his encore with the Washington Redskins and Jon Gruden is currently experiencing with the Oakland Raiders.
Despite those and other examples, UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham decided to buck history and go Mack to the future less than 48 hours after showing former coach Larry Fedora the door.
His reasoning was that “Mack is unique and the University of North Carolina is unique.” Brown also referred to “the fit” while asserting that he has “made it everywhere we’ve been,” saying that “we know how to win, how to make it work.”
That might be the case. But as they say on those late-night infomercials touting some random get-rich-quick scheme, past performance does not guarantee future results.
Five years might not seem like much in the great scheme of things. But it’s a long time to be away from coaching in a game that is constantly evolving, even for someone that has spent his time as a television analyst.
Brown’s separation from Chapel Hill has been even longer.
It’s clear that the once and future coach is anxious to make amends for the hard feelings he caused with his abrupt departure from the Tar Heels the first time around.
UNC, however, isn’t the same place as it was two decades ago. Neither is the ACC, which has also grown and gotten more competitive.
Even if the relationships Brown made with high school coaches around the state all those years ago are still as strong as he says they are, recruiting isn’t going to be as easy with teenage recruits that weren’t born when he built UNC into a top-10 program and barely remember his national title at Texas in 2005.
It should also be noted that while Brown left the Tar Heels in a much better place than when he got there, it took him four years — including back-to-back 1-10 seasons — for his team to earn its first bowl bid.
With only a five-year contract and anxious to prove to the world that Texas was wrong for putting him out to pasture before he was ready, Brown isn’t in this for the long haul. He’s here to win right away.
But already the task of doing so has gotten more complicated.
At least four of the 12 prospects that had already committed to UNC with Fedora have decided to reopen their recruitment. And the “super staff” Brown was rumored to be forming didn’t exactly pan out, with prospective offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury going to Southern Cal and defensive guru Gene Chizik deciding he wasn’t interested.
Chizik, who was UNC’s defensive coordinator during its Coastal Division championship season of 2015, didn’t give a reason for turning down a return engagement with the Tar Heels. Perhaps he’s just a better student of history than those being distracted by the balloons, marching bands and visions of a nostalgic past.