North Carolina Football: Did the Tar Heels Make the Right Choice in Bringing Back Mack Brown?

Brown is back in coaching after a five-year stint as an ESPN commentator

In hopes of turning around its fortunes on the football field, North Carolina has handed the reins of the program over to a familiar face — Mack Brown. The 67-year-old Brown, who went 69-46-1 as the Tar Heels head coach from 1988-97 was introduced on Tuesday as the successor to Larry Fedora.

 

Fedora was fired on Sunday following North Carolina's 34-28 loss to archrival NC State that put a disappointing cap to a 2-9 (1-7 ACC) season. Fedora finishes with a 45-43 record (28-28 in ACC games) in his seven seasons in Chapel Hill but while there was some success (namely going 11-3 and winning the ACC Coastal in 2015), the Tar Heels went just 5-18 the past two seasons (2-14 in the ACC) and made more headlines off the field rather than on it.

 

While no one will deny that a head coaching change was needed, the choice of Brown has already been the subject of much debate and scrutiny. Brown's resume speaks for itself, as a recent inductee into the College Football Hall of Fame who left North Carolina to be the head coach at Texas. With the Longhorns, Brown helped turn the program back into a powerhouse, culminating with winning the national title in 2005.

 

However, Brown last coached in 2013 and while he's stayed connected to the game as a commentator for ESPN, it remains to be seen how well he will connect and resonate with the current generation of college players, as well as the high school recruits he must now appeal to.

 

So did North Carolina make the right decision in revisiting its past or should the Tar Heels have tried to inject some younger blood into the program? That's the question Athlon Sports posed to its editors and AthlonSports.com college football contributors.

 

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)

I’m not crazy about this hire, but I can understand why North Carolina decided to bring Mack Brown back and minimize its risk instead of an up-and-coming head coach from the Group of 5 ranks. Brown is a good recruiter and can keep some of the talent at home, while hiring a standout staff to do the daily Xs and Os work with the team. While the CEO-style approach can certainly work, I think North Carolina missed an opportunity to land Scott Satterfield, Neal Brown or Mike Norvell — three head coaches from the Group of 5 ranks who are rising stars.

 

Additionally, while Brown had success in his first tenure at North Carolina, things were headed in the wrong direction before he stepped aside at Texas. After playing for the national title in 2009, the Longhorns did not win more than nine games in a season and had just one top 25 finish (2012) until his departure in ’13. Brown will have access to a good talent pool but nothing like what he had in Austin. I don’t think this hire will be awful, but I think the upside is limited.

 

Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch)

The word that comes to mind regarding this move — intriguing. I can't wait to find out what happens at North Carolina over the next few years. This is not the move I would have made — Scott Satterfield, Neal Brown and Seth Littrell would have topped my list — but I can understand the school's thought process. The game has no doubt changed a lot since Brown last coached, but he was always seen more as a program CEO as opposed to an Xs and Os guy. Brown is known as a great communicator, and that should help him enjoy success in recruiting despite his age. The key, obviously, will be the staff he hires. With a good staff and an uptick in recruiting, there is no reason UNC can't return to relevance in the ACC in the near future.

 

Mark Ross (@AthlonMarkR)

As a North Carolina fan, I will admit I was not thrilled when I first heard Mack Brown's name connected to the opening. To me, thinking about the possibility of a Scott Satterfield or Neal Brown or Mike Norvell or (insert name here) coming to Chapel Hill sounded so much more exciting than going with, well, a retread. However, I understand why the university made this decision and after thinking about it some more, I am on board. That does not mean I believe it will be a rousing success, but I am willing to let this play out.

 

Simply put, the Tar Heels were going nowhere fast with Larry Fedora at the helm. Yes, injuries can be blamed for the debacle that was 2017, but what about this year? At some point, excuses become tired and there were too many incidents with the team or Fedora himself that could no longer be ignored. Ironically, the postgame brawl with NC State might have been the final straw for his superiors, although one could argue that's the most fight North Carolina has put up this season. Bad jokes aside, considering the Tar Heels won a total of five games (and just three of those vs. FBS teams) in the past two seasons, it's not like things can get that much worse.

Brown brings instant credibility with him and if anything, he should help repair the program's image as it relates to pretty much everyone — from the fan base to the Chapel Hill community to the state's high school coaches and the college football world as a whole. How soon will that that translate to success on the field and/or on the recruiting trail? Only time will tell, but for me, the best way I can sum up Brown's return is with these two words — guarded optimism.

 

Antwan Staley (@antwanstaley)

The last time Mack Brown was coaching in Chapel Hill, he led the Tar Heels to back-to-back top-10 finishes, who were on the cusp of battling Florida State for ACC supremacy. Now 20 years later, he will look to turn the Tar Heels back into contenders in the ACC.

 

I always thought of North Carolina as a sleeping giant as there's a potential for consistent success there with the right coach. Everyone knows Brown was a great recruiter at North Carolina and at Texas, but it is doubtful many of the kids coming out of high school today remember much of what he did at Texas with Vince Young and Colt McCoy.

 

That's why it is essential for Brown to surround himself with young coordinators who have the energy to grind and get players excited about playing at UNC. Either the Brown hire is going to work out really well for North Carolina, or it will be an epic failure. But that will depend on the staff Brown puts together.

 

There are a ton of questions in regards to the ACC Coastal Division. Miami and Virginia Tech both disappointed. Virginia and Pittsburgh made strides this year but were inconsistent. And Duke under David Cutcliffe will be Duke but probably won't consistently challenge for the division title.

 

Previous head coach Larry Fedora even showed he could win at North Carolina as he had them in the ACC Championship Game back in 2015. Brown can accomplish the same if he can put together the right coaching staff in Chapel Hill.

 

Allen Kenney (@BlatantHomerism)

Mack Brown has clearly wanted to get back into coaching from the second he and Texas parted ways, and he now has a chance to cap off an accomplished career by rebuilding the program at his former home in North Carolina. The Tar Heels can count on getting the best that Brown has to offer as he seeks to polish up a legacy that was tarnished in the later years of his tenure with the Longhorns.

 

But how good can Brown's best really be at this point?

 

Brown is 67 and has been out of coaching for six years. No one can beat him at convincing recruits to sign on the dotted line or at getting boosters to open their wallets, but there's precious little evidence to suggest that he can bring much to the table now when it comes to the actual coaching part of being a head coach. Moreover, he won't have the same resources at his disposal to hire a quality coaching staff. When you consider how many of his assistants' tenures ended at Texas, it's not clear that working for Brown is the kind of opportunity that will have hotshot assistants lining up to move to Chapel Hill anyway.

 

I understand the appeal for UNC of hiring a name-brand coach like Brown. I doubt he will take the Heels where they want to go, though.

 

Kyle Kensing (@kensing45)
Well, I tried to tell you so (Yes, I did) 
But I guess you didn't know
As the saddest story goes
Baby, now... Mack Brown is North Carolina coach again? 


Pardon the paraphrased rendition of Mark Morrison's "Return of the Mack," but the reference works twofold here. First... well, is pretty obvious. Second, the Europop dance track was all the rage circa 1997, which was also the last season Brown spent in Chapel Hill. I don't bring up the 1990s to downplay Brown's accomplishments in the 2000s, a decade he ruled college football with a national championship, a Fiesta Bowl and two Rose Bowl titles. But the end of the 2000s and Texas' loss in the 2010 BCS National Championship Game ushered in a disappointing half-decade.

 

It's been another half-decade since Brown last coached, and we're approaching the 2020s. Forget retro, "Return of the Mack" is the kind of tune that would come up on the oldies channel of today's recruits' Spotify. In that same vein, Brown will be 68 when his return to the sideline kicks off, making him the fifth-oldest head coach in FBS.

 

Now, there are obvious parallels to Herm Edwards, who at 64 and 10 years out of coaching returned to win seven games at Arizona State. But Edwards inherited a program in considerably better shape than North Carolina, which has been in freefall since reaching the 2015 ACC Championship Game, and has the added burden of playing second fiddle to basketball in its athletic department. Edwards also employs one of the game's best, young coordinators in Danny Gonzales. Brown's best course of action at North Carolina is hiring youthful and innovative assistants, but that's no guarantee for success. Consider that late in his tenure at Texas, he added Bryan Harsin and Manny Diaz, but the Longhorns failed to recapture their 2000s glory.

 

All told, I can't envision the Return of the Mack brings a return to past successes for North Carolina. 

 

J.P. Scott (@TheJPScott)
I personally like the Mack Brown hire at UNC. I don't see it as a long-term deal. I think it's a splash hire to gain a small edge in recruiting in what is quickly becoming a one-team conference. I believe Brown can finally and completely build a football culture at a school that has tried very hard over the years to do just that. Once he has the culture established, he can hand over the reins to a young, up-and-coming coach with the goal of cementing North Carolina as a perennial football power in the ACC.

 

(Top photo courtesy of goheels.com)

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