By Jeff Greenberg
David Cutcliffe asked him, “Is it really true?” Dabo Swinney asked him, “Are you really going back to coach North Carolina?” The answer was, “Yes.” Yes, Mack Brown was returning to Chapel Hill to coach North Carolina. But is it the same Mack Brown that was there before? No. The game of college football keeps evolving, and so has Mack Brown.
When Coach Brown left Texas five years ago, he had a conversation with Dick Vermeil. Vermeil told him, “Don’t ever say you won’t get back into coaching. You don’t know what opportunities can come up, or how you’ll feel at the time.”
When we sat down with him five years ago for his first interview after leaving Texas he said, “If the right situation came up, we would definitely consider it. There’s no question about that.”
So, has Coach Brown been sitting around waiting for that next opportunity? Was he just biding his time at ESPN until “the right situation” came along? The answer is, no. He’s been studying.
Many coaches are creatures of habit and don’t like change, particularly when it comes to their coaching style or their coaching philosophies. They have a way of doings things and they apply that to every job they take. It can be even harder for coaches that have had a long career of winning, let alone a coach that has won a national championship, to change their ways. He’s been to the mountain top of his profession. Why would that coach change the way he approaches the job?
For Coach Brown, that answer is simple. “The game has evolved over the last five years. I knew if I wanted to get back into coaching, I would have to evolve too. The only way I could do that was to use the tremendous opportunity I was given at ESPN to remain close to the game and the coaches to be able to study and to learn what that evolution would look like.”
He continued, “I think we’re all creatures of habit. If we’re not careful, we get in a little box sometimes. We don’t get outside the box. Leaving Texas got me outside the box. We did pretty much the same stuff at Texas that we did here(UNC) the first time. I think over the last five years, I’ve learned that there are other ways to do things well.”
For the last five years that’s exactly what Coach Brown has been doing, learning. ESPN sent him to every prominent program in the country to call games and interview the coaches at those schools. It would have been easy just to fly in, share war stories with his former peers and then move on to the next game. Brown didn’t do that. He went to each school and became a student of the game again.
He explained last week at the ACC Kickoff event in Charlotte, “I’ve learned how guys do things differently than I did in practice, and how many different ways there are to put a practice together. I learned a lot about how schemes have evolved and what’s working in today’s game because I interviewed coaches every Friday night and really learned what they’re doing in their version of whatever scheme they ran on both sides of the ball.”
Coach Brown didn’t just go talk about how he did things. He studied what those teams did, what their coaches did. He took notes. He studied how the game was changing. He started to formulate how he would do things differently if he returned to the sidelines. He was putting his plan together.
After hearing that he was returning to coaching, many critics opined that he was returning as more of a figurehead than a coach. He dismissed that quickly in the first five minutes of his press conference in Charlotte.
“I think the thing that I learned(at Texas) is I will never let a staff have too much control again, which is a strong statement. But I’m the one responsible for everything that happens in football at the University of North Carolina. So, I need to make those final decisions.”
In that one sentence Coach Brown made it clear to all that were watching and listening; this will not be a laid-back, hands-off experience for him. He is the man responsible for the success of his program. He will be involved in every decision that affects his program.
That responsibility can put a lot of pressure on your plate. How will he go about handling that pressure this time around? By having fun doing the job.
That was his second point made last week in Charlotte. He explained how many times coaches grow to lose the joy in winning. Instead of being happy with a win, you’re just relieved. And when you lose? You’re devastated.
He explained further, “The other thing I learned traveling around to different programs the last five years is that not many coaches are having fun. They’re miserable. They’re all worried about losing and they’re paranoid about getting fired, and that’s not right. You’ve got to have some fun. It doesn’t work if you can’t have some fun. I’m going to have a lot more fun and enjoy everything more this time around.”
Looking at these comments one could ask, “So has he completely changed everything about the way he will coach his team?” That answer would also be, no. His foundational principles remain intact.
He explained, “We have five guys that played for me that are working for us now and they said the core fundamentals haven’t changed. We have simple rules, but you have to follow them. We will be deathly honest with them and direct, which is hard for them to handle sometimes. We’re going to work them really hard in practice. And we will play the best guys that know what to do and work the hardest.”
His core values about running a program also include having high standards and expectations.
When asked about his expectations he said, “Our expectations are to win every game. That doesn’t mean it will happen. But we’re going to work with that goal in mind. I’m not going to sit here and say, “God, we’d love to win six. What an awful thing to love to win six. That’s only half of your games.”
He continued, “This isn’t on the players as much as it’s on us as coaches. Our job is to help them. We may not be better than anybody on our schedule. So, it will be our job to get our guys ready. We have to get them more confident and put them in position to win and do everything in our power to make that happen. I’m excited to put these guys in position to win and play well and see what happens.”
To be successful in today’s college football you must evolve as the game evolves. What worked 10-15 years ago won’t work today.
Coach Brown is taking his core principles with him back to Chapel Hill, with a more modern approach to how those principles will translate onto the field in terms of schemes, how they practice and how they will execute those schemes on game day.
When North Carolina hired Mack Brown, the critics said the game had passed him by, and that North Carolina was hoping they hired the coach that had been successful there over 20 years ago. In both cases, the critics appear to be wrong.
Mack Brown isn’t the same coach that left Texas five years ago. Mack Brown isn’t the same coach that left North Carolina 22 years ago. Mack Brown spent the last five years evolving into the coach he needs to be to win today.
He’s been studying hard the last five years, and now he’s ready to take the final test, and have fun doing it.