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College Football Welcomes Back Mack Brown and Les Miles

Mack Brown, North Carolina Tar Heels Football

Mack Brown, North Carolina Tar Heels Football

Mack Brown didn't have a lot of options for his re-entry into the coaching world, and it didn't have anything to do with the fact that he was a 67-year-old aiming to rejoin the profession from which he had been "retired" for five years.

The marketplace hadn't put restrictions on Brown. His wife, Sally, had.

There had been suitors, but no proper arrangement could be negotiated — with the schools or with Sally.

"I asked her, 'Where would you want me to coach?'" Brown says.

The list was short: Hawaii, the Bahamas and North Carolina.

Hawaii was too far for Brown. The Bahamas didn't have a team. "We could start one," Sally said. "We would call it 'the Bahama Iguanas.'"

And UNC had a coach, Larry Fedora.

Or did it? By late November, Carolina had a job opening, after parting ways with Fedora following a second consecutive nine-loss season. Tar Heels AD Bubba Cunningham had a very short list of possible replacements. It began and ended with Brown.

"When Bubba called and offered the job immediately, it was a blessing," Brown says. "It was an opportunity to come back and do what I love."

Les Miles' hiatus from coaching was shorter than Brown's, and his was not voluntary. LSU fired Miles four games into the 2016 season, and since then the grass-chomping "Mad Hatter" had been nursing a strong desire to return to the sidelines. When his old pal, Kansas AD Jeff Long, asked him to revive the floundering Jayhawks program, Miles was eager to sign on. Unlike Brown, who had been comfortable in the TV studio, Miles had never fit in completely in that world. He needed to coach.

"The further I got away from it the more I desired it," Miles said at his introductory press conference. "And I was prepared for a lifetime to be a coach. Ten thousand hours supposedly makes you an expert. I think I'm closing in on that 10,000th hour. Yeah, I always wanted to coach."

Brown and the 65-year-old Miles are back, with mandates to invigorate their wheezing programs and facing some skeptics who wonder whether their schools should have chosen younger candidates. But each has a track record of success, and it will be fascinating to see how their latest — and most likely last — chapters unfold.

When Brown speaks about his approach to Coaching 2.0, he describes how much more straightforward he is in all interactions with players, coaches, fans and media. "We have very, very direct meetings," he says about his staff. But the return to coaching has done more than just make Brown more candid. It has also improved his health and physical conditioning. 

When he was working four months a year for ESPN, Brown had become, admittedly, a little doughy. Now that he is back in the college football cauldron, Brown can't afford sloth-like tendencies.

"I have to be in better shape," he says. "I need to eat right and get more sleep. This job will make me healthier. I have things to do and have to get this fixed. That's what I like."

Brown's physical condition may be improving, but Tar Heels fans are less concerned about his blood pressure and A1C than they are about whether he can make Carolina football successful again. His hiring was met with some criticism by those who wondered if his age would be an impediment. And during his 16 years at Texas, Brown had been saddled by many with the derogatory term "CEO coach" for his ability to serve as the program's face while delegating a lot of the day-to-day football duties to his assistants. Cunningham has a different definition of the term.

"Sometimes people throw around 'CEO coach' in a negative context," he says. "But the CEO has to delegate, hold people accountable and provide leadership. That's what I see. Mack will rely on his offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator, recruiting coordinator and ops people. He's one of the best communicators I've been around.

"Mack brings meticulous detail to staff meetings and practices. He is an elite leader who happens to be a football coach."

In early 2018, when Brown was notified he would be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, he was advised to contact people at the schools where he had worked to inform them of the honor and to thank them for their roles in his great career. In Chapel Hill, the school feted him, and Cunningham was amazed at the number of former players, alumni and fans who came to celebrate Brown's big news.

"It became clear that he was still connected and respected," Cunningham says.

The Brown years at UNC were indeed worthy of celebration. The Tar Heels had enjoyed sporadic success before him, and his first two seasons — one win apiece — did little to convince fans that the man who had posted an 11–23 record in three seasons at Tulane would bring prosperity to the program. But Brown built a sturdy foundation, and by his fifth season, UNC was an ACC force. Carolina never surpassed Florida State in the conference hierarchy, but by the time Brown moved on to Austin after the '97 season, he had established himself and the program as formidable national actors.

The Heels won 10 games three times during his decade at the school, and Brown began to define a concept of leadership that encompassed more than just X's and O's. He understood the need to oversee all facets of the program and to create an image of UNC football that went from the field to every part of the state — and beyond. Some criticized his approach as "corporate," but what Brown was doing was creating a modern coaching concept. He was in charge. Everyone beneath him on the organizational chart was accountable to him, and the players understood not only what their positional assignments were but also what the team's personality was. That's even more true now. Brown has been quite clear in what he expects. "Everybody knows what I feel," he says. And while he has no end date to his tenure, he definitely knows this is his coaching terminus. "I won't coach anywhere else," he says.

It's unreasonable to expect a miraculous turnaround. Carolina lost 18 games over the past two years for a reason, and Brown admits that the Tar Heels "don't have the talent level" necessary to compete for championships. He will stress player development early and recruiting always. And he will definitely enjoy his return to the sideline. 

"I hope to be happy and doing a good job for a long time," he says.

One of the first things Miles did publicly as a Kansas employee was insult his boss. 

During his introductory press conference, he took shots at Long's basketball skills, which Miles had encountered during midday games while the two men were on the coaching staff at Michigan. "Noon basketball, he was just really terrible, just really terrible," Miles said to general laughter. "But he competed awfully hard."

That attitude is something that has gone missing in Lawrence, at least on the gridiron. Kansas has been epically bad the past decade, winning just 23 games during that stretch and posting two or fewer victories in five seasons. Attendance has dropped to the point where even "Rolls Royce Giveaway Day" wouldn't have filled Memorial Stadium. The Jayhawks have fallen behind Big 12 competitors in facilities, and of course, talent.

For all of his personality quirks, Miles remains fiercely committed to winning. He played for and coached under Bo Schembechler at Michigan, and he helped rebuild an Oklahoma State program that was staggering when he took it over. Although his stubborn refusal to liberate LSU's stagnant offense led to his removal, it's important to remember that he won the 2007 national title in Baton Rouge and played for the big trophy in 2011. His teams there won 10 or more games seven times in 11-plus years, and his ability to recruit top talent was well documented. When Long says he "can't think of a better guy" to rebuild Kansas, he isn't just massaging his friend's ego. He means it and has the evidence to back up his claim.

But this is quite a job. When Miles took over in Stillwater in 2001, the Cowboys had posted one winning season in the previous 12, but it had generally been in the four-to-five-win vicinity. Kansas is in far worse shape.

"The similarities between Oklahoma State and Kansas ... parallel quite nicely," Miles says. "And the success that we can factor, based on the experiences that we have had there certainly is there. I don't think that will be an issue."

But OSU's roster was nowhere near the disaster the Jayhawks' version is. Thanks to some terrible decisions over the past several years, Kansas won't be able to reach the limit of 85 scholarships until 2022. The 2019 class was limited to 15, thanks to 10 "blueshirts" — players signed in 2017 but kept off the roster for a year — brought in by previous coach David Beaty. 

"Recruiting has to improve dramatically," Long says. "We saw a glimpse of it in the very short time Les and his staff had to recruit this year."

The personnel condition was described by assistant Jeff Hecklinski in a Sports Illustrated article as "the toughest roster situation I've seen." That means expecting Miles to turn the Jayhawks from a soft touch into a bowl team in 2019, or even 2020, is quite unreasonable. Long understands that. What he wants to start with is a competitive outfit that will bring fans back and restore some interest among boosters and recruits. It's a practical expectation, but it still won't be easy in a conference that has grown stronger over the past decade and boasts some tough road environments. If Kansas is playing in bowl games in 2021 and beyond, Miles will have been extremely successful.

But Miles is excited about the challenge. At this point in his career, with a national championship on his resume and the thought of another stop after Lawrence unlikely, he can devote his trademark high energy to the program and not worry about his time at the school defining his legacy. KU has shown an increased commitment to football through the opening in February of an indoor practice facility, and Long says the process of studying possible renovations to Memorial Stadium has begun. Ticket sales are moving at a faster rate than in recent years, and Miles' arrival has spawned enthusiasm, including from him. The broadcast booth was no place for him. He needs to be on the sideline, doing Les Miles things and trying to win ball games. 

"I did not expect it to take this long to get back in," he says. "But as it went, I was very comfortable with the fact that how I played my cards and the things that I wanted to do. And the opportunity to go forward and get a position like Kansas is the thing that obviously we wanted to do."

Miles and Brown aren't in the Bahamas, but at least they are back in the game.

— Written by Michael Bradley for Athlon Sports' 2019 SEC Football preview magazine.

(Top photo courtesy of @TarHeelFootball)