Let it be known that Mack Brown does not dance. This is a fact the North Carolina coach maintains despite recent viral video evidence suggesting otherwise.
Over the weekend in his re-do college football debut, Brown’s Tar Heels beat South Carolina 24–20. Freshman quarterback Sam Howell led touchdown drives of 95 and 98 yards in the fourth quarter and UNC won a season opener for the first time since 2014 and beat a Power 5 team in Week 1 for the first time since 1997, Brown’s last season with the program his initial time around. After the game, Brown fought back some tears in an emotional postgame interview with ESPN. He said he just wanted to enjoy this win and would get to the lengthy list of mistakes tomorrow.
Brown was somewhat unprepared for what was waiting for him in the locker room. A whole bunch of confident and happy players yelling for him to “Dance! Dance! Dance!”
Before understanding why what happened next happened, we have to go back to preseason training camp and the dance contests. Among the many things that Brown, who was hired to come back to North Carolina last November, needed to do to make an immediate impact in this program, one was something that sounded simple. Get to know each other. He’d inherited a group of players recruited by Larry Fedora and he was bringing in a whole new staff, many of whom didn’t know each other, either.
Each preseason practice started at 6:30 a.m. with a team meeting. Before getting to on-field stuff, two players and a coach would be picked to stand in front of the team and share personal stories about their lives. This was something Brown also did at Texas as a way for everybody to learn more about and understand their teammates. The head coach would ask questions about family, background, tough situations and hardships. Those private team moments touch “your heart,” Brown says, and created a bond.
“It really brought us together and got us closer and we all got to know each other better,” Brown says. “That’s hard when you’ve got a team that’s already here and you have a new coaching staff coming in and the coaches don’t even know each other. We were trying to get more family oriented.”
To maintain some lightheartedness at 6:30 in the morning, Brown and his staff coupled the serious meetings with…dancing. In kind of an Ellen DeGeneres Show-style, players would have dance contests for five or 10 minutes before the meetings. Defensive backs coach Dre Bly arrive early and got the music going.
One morning players clamored for their head coach to join them and chanted, “Mack! Mack! Mack!” He declined in the moment, telling everybody there that, “I don’t dance.”
“O.K.,” the players said, “but everybody is doing it.”
Brown thought for a minute and then negotiated. “I said, ‘O.K., I’ll make a deal. You beat South Carolina and I’ll dance,’” Brown says. “I didn’t think about it again until I walked in the dressing room [Saturday] and they said, ‘Dance!’”
And so, he did. He had to, even though there wasn’t any music. He later described his moves as “very awkward” and he may or may not have included bits and pieces of the Macarena. “I’ve seen the kids do their dances and I tried to do a few of those things and that was it,” he explained to reporters this week.
Racking his memory of more than four decades of coaching, Brown can only think of two other times he danced with his players. Most recently was 2012 when he promised his Texas players that if they beat Ole Miss in Oxford, he’d dance. The Longhorns won 66–31, so he danced. Another time was in 2007 before Texas played Oklahoma State. His idea of loosening his guys up during pregame apparently included him wearing a camouflage shirt underneath his game day clothes and breaking out the “Soulja Boy.” The Cowboys held a 35–14 lead entering the fourth quarter before the Longhorns stormed back to win 38–35. Happy with the win, Brown swore he’d never dance again.
That promise hasn’t aged well. And maybe for the better. In his second go-around in Chapel Hill, Brown has a different approach than the one he had in Austin. When athletic director Bubba Cunningham offered Brown this job, Brown’s wife Sally said he could accept under one condition: he needed to be happier. That included in ugly wins and losses. He needed to have more “teachable moments instead of devastating moments.”
“It’s healthier,” Brown says of his approach to coaching these days. “If you’re going to coach, you need to have fun coaching. I’m worried because a lot of coaches aren’t having fun. They’re miserable, worried about getting fired, fighting recruiting. I was around them for five years in a different way [while working at ESPN] and I didn’t see many happy ones. So, I’m going to be happy. I’m going to enjoy this. I missed [coaching] when I was gone, but didn’t miss the part where I was so into winning that nothing else was important and that’s where it gets dangerous.”
Brown has taken on a great challenge returning to UNC to reshape the program and culture following the Fedora era, which came to a screeching 2–9 end last fall. Even Saturday, before there was any locker room dancing, the Tar Heels had 10 penalties—including a delay of game penalty on the first offensive play—had a field goal kick blocked and were down 20–9 in the third quarter. In previous jobs, Brown would have immediately addressed the miscues: with his staff as they walked off the field, with his team in the locker room, maybe with an ESPN sideline reporter on live TV. In this job, game tape wasn’t seen until Sunday afternoon, leaving ample time for a little celebration.
The road doesn’t get any easier for Brown and North Carolina. After opening the year against one former defensive coordinator in South Carolina’s Will Muschamp, who coached for Brown at Texas, Brown will see another on Saturday when the Tar Heels host Manny Diaz and Miami. Then a date with No. 1 Clemson looms on Sept. 28.
Brown knows he should be careful about future promises related to those games or others—he doesn’t want to have to cut his hair or take his shirt off, he says. But the more winning North Carolina does, the more Brown might just feel like dancing.