CHAPEL HILL — Mack Brown isn’t just a football coach. He’s also a salesman.
And a darn good one, at that.
Since returning to North Carolina last December, the 68-year-old Hall of Famer has been tirelessly selling his program to anyone that will listen. It’s a message that has created a much-needed buzz not only among an apathetic fan base, but also among some of the top recruits around the state.
But future players aren’t the only ones buying into Brown’s vision of the Tar Heels’ football resurgence. The members of his current team are even bigger believers, especially after after last week’s come-from-behind win against South Carolina in charismatic coach’s triumphant return to the sidelines.
“The atmosphere on the sideline going into the fourth quarter was something I hadn’t experienced,” offensive tackle Charlie Heck said earlier this week. “There was just a belief that we were going to get the job done, something that wasn’t necessarily there last year with our team. I think that confidence helped us win the game.”
UNC struggled to close out games in the final two seasons of former coach Larry Fedora’s tenure in Chapel Hill — a stretch that saw it lose several games in which it either led or had chances to win in the fourth quarter on the way to consecutive nine-loss records.
The Tar Heels found themselves in a similar position Saturday, trailing 20-9 after three periods despite getting the better of the Gamecocks on the stat sheet.
Only this time the ending was much different.
With Brown providing positive reinforcement, defensive coordinator Jay Bateman making several subtle adjustments and offensive coordinator Phil Longo finally opening up the playbook for true freshman quarterback Sam Howell, UNC put together a pair of 90-plus yard drives to pull out a potentially program-defining 24-20 victory at Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium.
It was the Tar Heels’ first opening week win against a Power 5 opponent since 1997. They’ll have a chance to get off on an equally solid start in ACC play this Saturday at home against Miami.
“I thought late in the game we did some really good things on offense,” Howell said of the South Carolina game. “Those two 90-plus-yard drives, I thought that was really good. That was good for me as a young player to get that experience in the fourth quarter in a close game, to be able to take the team down on those two drives.”
As beneficial as the performance and the result were for Howell and his offense — including receivers Dyami Brown and Beau Corrales, whose leaping catches accounted for the two late touchdowns — it was UNC’s much-maligned defense that may have gotten the biggest confidence boost.
The two long drive may never have happened had it not been for two big stops, including a key third down stop a yard short of the sticks by quarterback-turned-linebacker Chazz Surratt. Then, after the Tar Heels took the lead with just under five minutes remaining, strong safety Myles Wolfolk intercepted South Carolina’s Jake Bentley not once, but twice to salt away the victory.
It was a moment of vindication for an entire defense, celebrated by the awarding of a “turnover belt” Wolfolk proudly paraded around the sideline as though it was a winning lottery ticket.
“It was amazing, nothing less,” Wolfolk said. “People judged us for the past two years, talking about how our defense was bad. It was just amazing to go out there and do what we did at the end of the game, coming into the fourth quarter and dominating.”
It was a defensive transformation that may have come as a surprise to some. But not those that have been around the program since December and have bought into Brown’s optimistic new outlook.
“I hope people around us change and they start to notice us,” Wolfolk said. “I hope they take heed to what we have going on here. But nothing has changed on our end. We are going out there and trying to get a win every week.”
Though it’s only one game and one win, several team members said they have already seen a noticeable difference in the way they’ve been received on campus since South Carolina. That change should make for an electric atmosphere for Saturday night’s home opener against Miami at the newly renovated Kenan Stadium.
“I was talking to somebody that mentioned this will probably be the best atmosphere we’ve had here in awhile,” defensive tackle Aaron Crawford said. “We saw last year that fans will show up for night games when we played Duke. That was when we were struggling, so I expect it to be full force this weekend and I can’t wait to see it.”