On Dec. 3, 2018, Mack Brown faced a group of players he was just getting to know and delivered a message.
“Enjoy your holidays,” he said, “because it’s the last time you’re going to have them.”
Standing in front of a team who had not been to a bowl since the 2016 season, Brown all but promised that they’d be heading back.
“We’re planning on winning next year,” Brown told the media. “For the seniors, you can’t say we’re going to rebuild. You can’t say we’re going to play all young guys. We want to win next year. We want to win now. That’s very, very important to us. Trust. Communication, trust, respect, common purpose, making sure that we pull together as a family fast, and you do your job.”
Saturday, 362 days later, Brown stood in Carter-Finley Stadium, dripping with Gatorade, as his Tar Heels wrapped up a bowl bid with a win over NC State.
The Tar Heels won at NC State for the first time since 2015. That was also the last time Carolina beat both Triangle rivals — State and Duke — in the same season.
“Well, it’s really important for a lot of reasons,” Brown said. “Number one, I think we’d lost to Duke four of the last five and the guys got over that hump, and we’d lost to State four of the last five and the guys got over that hump, and they get another game together, and it gives us a chance to have a winning season by winning the bowl game. So, they’re really happy in that dressing room.”
Most importantly, however, the win allowed Brown to keep his promise to the senior class that stuck with him.
“It’s really rewarding for me and the coaches,” he said, “because those seniors are so happy. Good for them. They’ve hung in there with us. We’ve had some really tough losses where they could’ve laid down and quit. I think they appropriately learned to hurt after those losses. I wasn’t sure that we knew that. We’d lost so much at the first of the year that I wasn’t sure that we really got it, but they would’ve been crushed tonight if they’d lost and they’re equally as happy.”
The decision to change coaches last year was no surprise. The team had suffered back-to-back losing seasons and the program had stagnated, with fan interest at a low. The decision to bring Brown back, more than two decades after his last game at UNC, however, was a shocker.
A year later, the big shock is just how quickly Brown was able to turn things around. The program renovated the facilities, including new locker rooms and weight rooms and an artificial turf field. Carolina also sold out every home game this season for the first time in recent memory. The recruiting has also taken a step up to the next level, with star quarterback Sam Howell, added at the last minute to the 2018 class following Brown’s arrival, being the most tangible evidence.
The last step, and the toughest one, was to show the results on the field.
The Heels opened with last-minute wins over South Carolina and Miami, serving notice that the program was back, perhaps sooner than anyone expected.
Reality set in quickly, however, with the Tar Heels losing three straight and four of five, going down to the wire in just about every game, including a one-point loss to then No. 1 Clemson, when Brown went for two points and the win instead of kicking the extra point to force overtime.
The Heels went into the season’s final week needing a win over their rival in order to keep the season going and reward the seniors for sticking around. The Heels are being projected for anywhere from New York (Pinstripe Bowl) to Charlotte (Belk Bowl) to Annapolis (Military Bowl), but the important thing is that they’ll be playing somewhere.
“Oh boy, it means everything,” Brown said of the team’s sixth win. “Last spring, we were selling hope and now Bubba (Cunningham, UNC Athletic Director) — he and the Rams Club gave us money for facilities, so our facilities are really nice now, and when a young recruit comes in there, he’s excited about it. We’ve got official visits this weekend and next weekend, but I’ll be in high schools and homes really for the next two weeks, but starting Monday, all next week and it’ll be a whole lot easier to walk in there with a smile.
“The other thing this does is this win gives your fans, your boosters, a chance to walk into work Monday with a smile on their face, when they’ve got someone from the other team and that hasn’t happened for us a lot. So, I’m really proud for our fans. This was an important win for them.”