Mutual admiration: Close friends Brown, Healy ready to match up

UNC and Charlotte have close relationships and are preparing for the first game between the schools

Coach Mack Brown and the Tar Heels will host the Charlotte 49ers — led by second-year coach Will Healy — on Saturday at Kenan Stadium. (Photo courtesy of the ACC)

When Charlotte travels to Chapel Hill on Saturday to face UNC, 49ers coach Will Healy will be facing a mentor and friend in Mack Brown.

Despite all the “student is now the master” clichés, however, Healy knows the score heading into the game.

“So, he’s won 252 and I’ve won 20,” Healy said. “I mean, it’s a pretty good matchup of head coaches — very similar experiences.”

Healy is similarly open about his admiration for the Tar Heels and Brown.

“They’re, in my opinion, the hottest team in the country over the last 12 months,” he said. As for his thoughts on Brown, “he’s an unbelievable football coach. I’ve leaned on him more in the last six months than anybody else, including asking for advice yesterday.”

It might seem odd to call the coach whose team you’re playing later in the week to ask for advice, but Healy respects Brown’s opinion that much.

“I asked a lot of culture questions,” Healy said. “How did you handle this situation? Preparation questions, game week questions, a lot of COVID questions. How are you handling this communication with parents?”

Charlotte coach Will Healy has looked to UNC’s Mack Brown for advice, including leading into this week’s game between the 49ers and Tar Heels. (Allison Lee Isley / The Winston-Salem Journal via AP)

For his part, it sounds like Brown was just as open and honest with Healy.

“It was great insight,” Healy said. “It’s like, when he speaks, you’re like, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’ He said, ‘Will, I’ve been doing this a little bit longer than you have.’ He’s so wise.”

On the other side of the field, Brown is just as big a fan of Healy, in his second year at Charlotte after leading the program to its first bowl game last year. Their relationship helped bring this game about as both teams scrambled to fill their schedules following the pandemic-related changes.

“We were supposed to play at Central Florida, then Auburn in Atlanta, then UConn here,” Brown said. “All those got canceled. We wanted an in-state game to keep that money in the state as best we could, to help the universities here. Obviously, athletic departments are struggling financially across the country.”

Healy was at the top of Brown’s list of candidates for a financial favor.

“Will Healy is a good friend of mine,” he said. “He’s one of the best young coaches in the country. He’s smart, high-energy, very innovative. I love watching him. He’s a superstar. He’s got it all. And his guys play with the same energy he has on the sideline.”

While UNC has played in the city of Charlotte 19 times in its football history, the Tar Heels and 49ers have never met on the field. Obviously, however, the Brown and Healy regimes are closely intertwined.

“I played for (UNC defensive coordinator) Jay Bateman in college,” Healy said. “That was in 2003, at Air Force, where Healy started his college career. “I’ve become really close to Mack Brown and (receivers coach Lonnie) Galloway. (Secondary coach) Dre Bly’s son is on our team.”

That would be redshirt freshman defensive back Tre Bly.

While the coaching staffs are close, all indications are that the score might not be.

Carolina moved to 12th in the stripped-down AP poll after the Tar Heels opening win over Syracuse and the jettisoning of all Pac-12 and Big Ten teams from the top 25.

Brown shrugs off the lofty ranking, of course, telling his players, “‘You don’t play well Saturday, you won’t be rated.’ That’s the world they live in.”

Still, Healy knows his 49ers have a tall task in front of them.

“The way their team plays, their confidence, their swag — it’s amazing what he’s done in 14, 16 months there,” Healy said. “I think they have back 10 starters on offense, two 1,000-yard receivers, two backs who gained almost 1,000 yards and a quarterback who was second in the country in touchdowns. They’re a great football team. We have our work cut out for us.”

Making matters worse, Charlotte’s starting quarterback, Chris Reynolds — who Brown called, “a real leader, a tough guy” — is out indefinitely with an upper-body injury.

“If he could, he’d play without an upper body,” Healy said. “He’s a competitor.” He is, however, out for Saturday’s game. Backup Dom Shoffner will start. Defensive end Markees Watts is also questionable with an injury.

Despite the close relationship with Brown, Healy isn’t under any illusions that UNC will call off the dogs against the wounded 49ers.

“I know a lot of those guys,” he said. “They ain’t taking it easy on anybody. They’ll dress out everyone. They’ll be ready to play. It’s not like we’re going to get any gifts.”