CHARLOTTE — Before Mack Brown could start thinking about winning football games in his return to North Carolina, the new/old Tar Heels coach first had to win over his players.
The process began the moment he walked through the door at Kenan Stadium because of the national championship he won at Texas and the success he achieved in his first tenure in Chapel Hill two decades ago.
If there were any lingering doubts, Brown erased them by soliciting the players’ opinions on subjects ranging from their training table menus to the redesign of their new locker room, lounge and weight room facilities, then following through on their suggestions.
“The first difficulty is to get the players to trust you because they just lost their coach,” said the Hall of Fame coach, who most recently has worked as a television analyst for ESPN. “They have had two tough seasons and here comes this new guy who has been out of coaching for five years.
“Some people questioned whether he is too old or should he be back. And you walk into a group of faces that have a void. So you’ve got to get them to buy-in. You’ve got to communicate with them. Then the trust and respect has to build up. I think we’ve got all that. I really think we are in good shape there.”
Brown has also made an immediate impact on the recruiting front, compiling a nationally ranked class right out of the gate.
But now comes the hard part.
For all the changes that have been made since the end of last season, including the installation of artificial turf at Kenan, the most difficult transition facing Brown and his staff will be establishing a new mindset among a group of players coming off two straight nine-loss seasons under Brown’s predecessor, Larry Fedora.
The task of doing is made all the more difficult because of a killer schedule that features a season-opening test against South Carolina in Charlotte, followed by games against Miami, Wake Forest, Appalachian State and defending national champion Clemson — all within the first five weeks.
It’s a gauntlet that will require Brown to transition from the role of lovable grandfather to demanding old coach once preseason preparations begin with the opening of camp next week.
“They’ve done everything we’ve asked them to do since the day we showed up,” the 67-year-old coach said of his players last week at the ACC’s Football Kickoff media event. “The biggest difference now, and we’ve got to tell them this, is that in the spring, we weren’t really into who was playing and who wasn’t playing.
“There will have to be some hard decisions now that have to be made, and there’s going to be some feelings hurt. They’re going to have to grow up and understand it.”
The most difficult decision Brown and his staff will have to make is at quarterback, where redshirt freshmen Jace Ruder and Cade Fortin and newcomer Sam Howell are all battling for the starting job.
But that’s hardly the only position that’s up for grabs.
Brown said he won’t hesitate to start untested youngsters over established veterans if he thinks they’re capable of being more productive. No fewer than 19 team members with eligibility remaining have already left the program since the end of last season because of transfer, medical issues and other reasons.
Among those that stayed, offensive tackle Charlie Heck said that there’s a renewed sense of energy — much of which is a product of their optimistic new coach.
“He’s exceeded all my expectations, and everybody’s on the team,” Heck said. “He brought an excitement to the team that I hadn’t seen before, not just only on the team but in the community. People are talking about Carolina football. That’s been really special to be a part of right now.”
Brown hasn’t been shy about his desire to return the Tar Heels to the glory they achieved before he left for Texas in 1997. UNC won 10 games in each of his final two seasons in Chapel Hill and was ranked as high as No. 4 in the nation.
But despite the nostalgia that has been attached to his triumphant return, Brown said he’s more interested in looking ahead than behind as he begins taking care of what he refers to as unfinished business.
That includes installing new wrinkles such as the “Air Raid Offense” and learning to have more fun than he did the first time around. Not to mention all the aesthetic changes he’s already brought about.
“They need that,” Brown said. “They need to know that there’s change coming, especially since the last two years haven’t been what they want.”