NSJ Comeback of the Year: Brown comes home to fix Tar Heels football

Twenty-one years after he left UNC for Texas, the coach is back in Chapel Hill to rebuild North Carolina

Mack Brown came out of retirement to return to Chapel Hill, (Robert Willett / The News & Observer via AP)

Back in 1997, Mack Brown helped design the new coach’s office at North Carolina’s Kenan Football Center. He provided all the personal touches, including a fish tank provided by his wife, Sally.

By the time it was ready to be occupied, Brown had left Chapel Hill for Texas.

The fish tank is gone now, having been relocated long ago to the Ronald McDonald House in another part of campus. But after nearly two decades away from Chapel Hill, Brown is finally getting the opportunity to move into his office.

The 67-year-old Hall of Famer made a triumphant return to UNC on Nov. 27 when he was hired to replace Larry Fedora less than a week after the Tar Heels stumbled to their second straight nine-loss season.

It was a surprise move that has earned Brown recognition from the North State Journal staff as the Comeback of the Year in North Carolina for 2018.

“This is the only place that we would have gotten back into coaching to do, because the place is so special to us,” Brown said of himself and his wife. “We love challenges and with this opportunity that the trustees, and the chancellor, and (athletic director Bubba Cunningham) have given us, it gives us an opportunity to fix things, and we love to fix things.”

Brown’s motivation to return to coaching in general — he’s been an ESPN analyst for the past five years — and Chapel Hill in particular is more than just professional.

It’s also personal.

Not only was he not-so-gently nudged out the door at Texas, where his results had begun to fall off after leading the Longhorns to the national championship in 2005, but he still has regrets about the way his first tenure at UNC ended.

Brown had just completed his second straight 10-win season and had the Tar Heels ranked among the nation’s top 10 when he abruptly boarded a plane and headed for Texas — just one day after telling a recruit and the media that he planned to be at UNC for the long haul.

“I owe this place a whole lot,” he said. “That’s why I want to come back and do my part.”

Brown is off to a rousing start. On Wednesday, after just three weeks on the job, the once and future Tar Heels coach managed to sign an 18-man recruiting class that includes quarterback Sam Howell, who originally committed to Florida State.

Eleven of those players decided to come to UNC after the coaching change.

“Mack has a charisma, an attitude and a great reputation,” Cunningham said. “He’s turned programs around, been successful everywhere he’s been, and I think he’ll be great. He’s coming in unencumbered, and he’s really excited to get going. … Mack is the most positive, enthusiastic coach I’ve met.”

His charm was on full display at an introductory press conference that felt more like a pep rally and class reunion than the start of a new era/old era of Tar Heel football.

He professed his love for UNC and Chapel Hill, told tales of glory from long, long ago, schmoozed with former players in the audience and generally became a one-man hype machine.

At one point during the festivities, Brown called out to one of his first Tar Heels, linebacker Dwight Hollier, and asked him if he remembered the inspirational speech he gave the team when he was first hired in 1988.

Hollier replied that he did and that “it was really cool.”

“Well, you’ll need to tell me,” Brown replied, “because I want this to be cool again.”

It’s going to take more than just a good speech to make UNC football “cool again,” especially since history has not been kind to coaches returning to the scene of their past success.

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. Despite those and other examples, Cunningham decided to buck history and go Mack to the future.

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.”

Also Considered: Wake Forest wide receiver Greg Dortch

Looking Back

Brown is in a position to be the Comeback of the Year only because the NSJ’s prediction of the entire UNC football team for the award in 2018 came up way short.