NSJ Comeback of the Year 2019: UNC’s Brown, Surratt flip script with unlikely revivals

The retiree-turned-coach and quarterback-turned-linebacker led North Carolina football back to the postseason

North Carolina coach Mack Brown talks to linebacker Chazz Surratt and defensive lineman Aaron Crawford during the Tar Heels’ season-opening upset of South Carolina in Charlotte. (Nell Redmond / AP Photo)

It turns out rational decision-making is vastly overrated.

Just over a year ago, the North Carolina Tar Heels’ athletics department lost its dang mind. Having dismissed Larry Fedora, UNC seemingly had a line on a hot in-state coach who wanted the job in Scott Satterfield. That’s 2019 ACC coach of the year Scott Satterfield, who would go on to take the Louisville job.

Instead of going with the trendy young coach, UNC took the opposite tack in a major way, bringing Mack Brown out of retirement.

It was a move that smacked of desperation — proof that the inmates were running the asylum and the process had been hijacked by former players and big-money boosters.

Chazz Surratt’s move to linebacker was questioned, but the former North Carolina quarterback responded with a season that earned him All-ACC honors. (John Amis / Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Meanwhile, on the field, another inexplicable decision had been made. Chazz Surratt, a promising mobile quarterback with a big arm who’d had trouble staying healthy in his first two seasons, decided to make a change — to linebacker.

Again, the move made no sense. If Surratt was injury-prone while trying to avoid contact, how would he be able to stay healthy initiating it? Even defensive coach Tommy Thigpen was unsure, questioning whether Surratt would be willing to “put his face into the fight.”

Surratt, it seemed, would spend his eligibility on the scout team—or injured list—earning his degree and moving on with his life, wondering what might have been.

Apparently, conventional wisdom hit the transfer portal, though, because a year later, both moves have succeeded beyond anyone’s most optimistic projections. That’s why Mack Brown and Chazz Surratt are the North State Journal’s co-Comebacks of the Year for 2019.

Brown’s transformation in Chapel Hill has been so complete that the dark ages of Fedora’s final season now seem more distant than Brown’s previous coaching stops. Despite not coaching since 2013, Brown stepped right in, leading a two-week recruiting push that brought in a strong class of freshmen, led by former Florida State commit Sam Howell. Howell quickly won the starting quarterback job for the Tar Heels and developed into a future Heisman candidate.

Brown then worked with boosters and administration to lead extensive renovations of Kenan Stadium, including new locker rooms, weight room, a player lounge and an artificial turf field.

The Tar Heels’ six wins in Mack Brown’s first year back in Chapel Hill were more than the combined five they had in Larry Fedora’s final two seasons at North Carolina. (Keith Srakocic / AP Photo)

Fans quickly jumped on board, selling out every home game for the 2019 season, and on the field, the Heels were better than expected and always exciting. They opened the season with back-to-back fourth quarter comebacks to upset South Carolina and Miami. The Heels nearly knocked off Clemson, losing by one when Brown chose to go for a game-winning 2-point conversion instead of kicking to send it to overtime.

Carolina won its final two games to finish the regular season 6-6 and earn its first bowl bid since 2016.

A big on-field reason for Brown and the Tar Heels’ success was the team’s new star at linebacker. Surratt made first-team All-ACC at linebacker, getting more votes than Miami’s Shaq Quarterman. He was UNC’s first first-team linebacker since 2012, leading the ACC in tackles, with 110 — dishing out more hits in one year than he absorbed in two at quarterback, when he was tackled 89 times. His six sacks were 11th in the league, and his 13.5 tackles for loss seventh.

Surratt’s accomplishments on defense are even more impressive considering his attention was pulled in a different direction for part of the season. With one backup quarterback — Cade Fortin — choosing to transfer right before the start of the season and another — Jace Ruder — out with an injury, the Tar Heels were down to walk-on freshman Vincent Amendola as the only quarterback behind Howell.

Brown joked that the team was so thin at quarterback, he discussed the possibility of moving Surratt back to his old position. A week later, Surratt was taking snaps under center.

“We just have him around for short-yardage and goal-line because he is big and he is strong and he can do those things, so if our guys get banged up then he can step in and do that,” Brown said.

He was never needed or, perhaps, was deemed too valuable on the other side of the ball that it wasn’t worth the injury risk.

It’s a script that Disney would have rejected as being unrealistic, but the old, retired coach and the brittle quarterback have helped lead the one-year turnaround in Chapel Hill.

“Last spring, we were selling hope,” Brown said.

This year, after seeing conventional wisdom turned on its head, people will be more likely to buy in.