On the morning of November 25, Larry Fedora was fired as UNC’s head football coach. Less than twenty-four hours later, Mack Brown’s return to the helm of the program was announced. When Brown was actually hired, though, is likely a different story.
Coaching searches at major college programs don’t take less than a day. Contract negotiations stretching into the millions of dollars with coaches who run major college programs don’t take less than a day. Coaches who run major college programs making decisions to move their families and their lives, and, in Brown’s case, to trade a cushy analyst job at ESPN for the never-ending grind of head ball coach don’t take less than a day.
Yet, that Monday morning, the rumors that began to swirl immediately after Fedora was fired were made official: Mack Brown was back in Chapel Hill. And though Carolina’s athletic director Bubba Cunningham insisted these kinds of searches can be fast and furious, I’m inclined to believe that Brown was hired quietly weeks, if not months ago.
Brown has long professed his love for the town and program he called home from 1988 to 1997, and many folks believed, as calls for Fedora’s dismissal reached a fever pitch, that Carolina was one of the few jobs Brown would leave sportscasting for.
His successes near (Carolina’s five consecutive bowl appearances in the mid-nineties, their stretch of Top 25 rankings from ’92-–95, their 10–1, fourth-ranked 1997 season) and far (his national championship run with the University of Texas, his vision and talent as a recruiter) are widely known.
He is as charismatic as old-school coaches come and has won 122 more games than he’s lost throughout his career. He is, by all measurements, a great football coach.
Then there are the obvious knocks on Brown.
His age, for one, is a big question mark. At sixty-seven, you have to wonder whether this is a long-term solution for the program or simply a stopgap, here to inject some much-needed energy and booster money, until Carolina can find their coach of the future. If Brown coaches out his five-year contract, he’ll be in his seventies.
At sixty-seven, Mack Brown just became the fifth-oldest college football coach in America, tied with Alabama’s Nick Saban. But Nick Saban isn’t human. Rather, he is a football cyborg created in a lab funded by the Wilson company, Boeing, and Vince Lombardi’s offspring, so any comparison is moot.
Few games evolve faster than football, so you have to wonder how much of the game Brown will even recognize after having been gone for half a decade. This isn’t baseball or basketball, where paradigm-shifting concepts happen once, maybe twice in a generation. Football changes drastically, especially at the college level, every couple of years, and much of today’s offensive theory barely existed last time Brown ran a program. Though he has watched it all unfold from the comfort of his office at ESPN and should have a grasp of what football has become, analyzing it and executing it are two very different processes.
But it is widely believed that Brown wasn’t necessarily hired to run the Xs and Os of Carolina’s football team so much as he was to be its CEO and, more important, to fix the major recruiting issues that plagued Fedora’s Tar Heels. Fans (and Bubba Cunningham) are relying on Brown to hire exciting coordinators who will run the show on Saturdays, while Brown—long known as one of college football’s best recruiters—will be the face of the program both in the media and in the living rooms of lauded high school players around the state.
Beyond all of that, many Carolina fans and sports pundits alike (this one included) feel that this hire is simply lazy, a retread of old successes, when there are a small handful of very exciting young coaches who would jump at the chance to run a major conference program. As a Power Five school with plenty of money, a roster full of talent in a football-rich state, in a very desirable area to live, the Carolina job was widely regarded as the most attractive in the country this offseason.
With former Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury, App State’s Scott Satterfield, and Troy’s Neal Brown among the most highly touted candidates to jump to head-coaching jobs at major programs, Carolina instead reached into the past to hire the coach who delivered them their most fruitful run in nearly a century of football.