Mack Brown is heading home. Not to the state of Tennessee, where he was born, nor back to Texas, where he had his greatest coaching success leading the Longhorns to the 2005 national championship, but to the University of North Carolina, where his coaching career took off as the architect of three 10-win seasons in Chapel Hill during a 10-year run from 1988 to ’97.
On Sunday, Austin American-Statesman columnist Kirk Bohls threw out a scenario in which Brown would possibly bring along Gene Chizik, who served as his defensive coordinator on Texas’s national title team and spent two years under the previous regime in Chapel Hill as Larry Fedora’s DC, as well as Kliff Kingsbury, who was fired as Texas Tech’s head coach on Sunday and is expected to draw serious interest from almost every program looking for a new offensive coordinator. If Brown could pull a staff together around those two names, UNC would be an intriguing contender in the eternally up-for-grabs ACC Coastal after finishing dead last in their division this year with one win. But before anything was signed, the only aspect of the Tar Heels’ new leadership team anyone could talk about was the fact that it would be helmed by a 67-year-old ESPN analyst who has not been on a sideline since he resigned from his post at Texas at the end of the 2013 season.
Some might argue that UNC, which fired Fedora over the weekend for a 45–43 record over seven seasons, should have looked for a young coordinator instead of Brown, who left Austin after failing to reach double-digit victories in four straight years. But not every program is looking for the hottest name or trendiest coach. Last year, Arizona State hired Herm Edwards after he’d been away from the college game for nearly three decades. The Sun Devils went 7–5 in his first season and are bowl eligible—exactly where they finished last year, but better than many outsiders expected. Kansas just hired Les Miles. Brown has a 238-117-1 record in 30 seasons as a head coach, including a 69-46-1 record with the Tar Heels. He led that program to winning seasons in his last eight years, including top-10 finishes in 1996 and ’97. Next week, he’ll be inducted into the 2018 class of the College Football Hall of Fame. There’s a comfort level and familiarity in Chapel Hill with his experience.
But for as much success as Brown had on the front side of his head coach career, it didn’t end on a positive note. There’s a reason why it has taken Texas nearly a decade to return to the Big 12 championship game. Longhorns coach Tom Herman even said Monday on the Big 12 teleconference that the way his team is performing now is a “complete 180 from what this place was.” After Brown left and Charlie Strong failed to last more than three years, the program needed a competitive culture shock and more elite players, and that’s what Herman is in the process of building with the goal of contending for a national championship.
North Carolina football is not on the same level as Texas football. Not even close. The expectations are different. No team in the ACC Coastal finished with more than seven wins, and Pitt, the only ACC team to lose to the Tar Heels this season, will play Clemson on Saturday for a conference title. If Brown could replicate the win totals of his last four years in Austin, he could be at the top of the division playing Clemson for the league title this weekend. The Coastal is the wide-open division of the ACC, with arguably even more consistent parity than power-conference counterparts like the SEC East and the Big Ten West. UNC doesn’t have to face Clemson, Florida State, Boston College or Syracuse every year, and Miami and Virginia Tech both have to dig themselves out of down years.
Suspensions and injuries wreaked havoc on Fedora’s final two seasons, but Brown won’t be working with an entirely bare cupboard, and there’s a chance former Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant, who has yet to announce where he’ll transfer but has visited Chapel Hill, chooses to play his final season of college ball in Tar Heel blue and immediately raises the ceiling of UNC’s offense. Fedora's teams nosedived in part because the quarterback succession plan broke down after Marquise Williams and Mitchell Trubisky left, leaving the Heels without a quarterback talented enough to take heat off of his coach.
Some people will love having Brown back in college football’s coaching ranks; some people will think it’s a mistake. If he can get a strong cast to join him, UNC has a chance to be a compelling story and a division race factor moving forward. If he can’t, and UNC’s hire proves to be more about the name at the top of the organizational chart than the little details at every other level, those who initially raised their eyebrows will have the last laugh.