Mack Brown Press Conference: Meeting the Standard, Previewing N.C. State and Embracing Rivalries
North Carolina coach Mack Brown met with the media on Monday morning to discuss the Tar Heels' victory over Mercer and look ahead to Saturday's rivalry matchup with N.C. State.
Here's what he had to say:
It’s always fun this time of the year, even when I was doing TV, because all the rival games are this weekend and it’s just a fun weekend of college football starting Thursday, then all day Friday and all day Saturday. It doesn’t get better than this week for college football.
I was really happy for our seniors on Saturday afternoon. We challenged the entire team to play for the seniors and play to a standard. It was obviously a lesser team than us and, a lot of times, you can go out there and stand around those teams and our guys didn’t. They started the first play of the game forcing a turnover and we scored immediately, dominated the first half completely. I wish we had not had the holding call on the 75-yard touchdown pass by Sam because that was such a great play, that was called back.
Really, really excited for the game. Our guys had fun, they were ready to play. When you show that you have less selfishness, that helps your team and they were really excited when guys were making plays that hadn’t made as many plays in the past. They were excited about Sam’s record, they were excited about Jake Bargas catching a touchdown pass, they were excited about young guys covering kickoffs that hadn’t done that and hitting somebody. It was a real fun day for our players. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a team have that much fun especially against a team they were supposed to beat, knew they were supposed to beat and did beat.
They played to the standard that we want to play each week and that was fun to watch them do that. I was pleased that it was a sellout; we’re only one of eight teams that had a sellout. I was disappointed not more people came and our fans need to do better than that. Rain day, Mercer; if we play an FCS game we’re going to move it up to the front of the season so it won’t be at the end, but we could have done better with our fanbase this weekend.
Played a bunch of guys and came out healthy. I think just about everybody that was eligible played. Our White Team, our second teams as such, played a whole lot. In fact, it was so good to get so many of those defensive guys in in the first half and then they played the entire second half. We played very few starters in the second half.
It was good to get Vincent Amendola some throws and still try to keep the score down; we didn’t want to score more than we’d scored but we wanted to get him some work so it better prepares him.
This week is fun because it’s the last week of the season and we’ve still got a possible bowl game out there and we’re playing a rival in N.C. State and we haven’t done very well against them. Like the Duke game, they’ve dominated this series as of late, so it’s time for us to step up and play better. Like against Duke, we’ve got to do our part in this rivalry and we haven’t done that four of the last five years. And, you’ve got bowl eligibility at the end for us and that’s something that these guys want to do. A lot of our team hasn’t been to a bowl.
It’s a great week for us, a fun week, a challenging week that we will get to play our rival in Raleigh on the road and at the same time, have a bowl game at the end if we do our job.
On State replacing Duke on the schedule as UNC's final game...
I had always, I grew up with Duke being the last game here so that’s what I thought. Since the Carolina-Duke basketball game is such a huge rivalry nationally, I always thought that game should be there but we have two rivals and that’s been documented for years.
Wake Forest used to be in that group and now that they’re on the other side of the conference, the Atlantic, and you don’t play them very often, it didn’t feel like it and our players didn’t play like it. So, I feel like now, the two rival games are State and Duke and it doesn’t matter where you put them; they’re still very important.
Rival games are important to your fans and when something is important to your fans and your supporters, it becomes really important to you. They don’t not want to go to work on Monday and have Duke coworkers or State coworkers laughing about them about winning a game. I’ve learned that through many, many years as a head coach, so these games are very important. The players usually get along, they know each other, they’ve played against each other in high school; fans don’t. Bragging rights are really, really important to people and that’s what makes a rival game so special.
On what bowl eligibility would mean this season
It’s a good feeling. It’s funny. It’s been such an up and down year. It’s a great feeling that we’re in this position with a position to go to a bowl. It’s also been disappointing that we’ve had so many opportunities against Virginia Tech who will play for the Coastal against Virginia this weekend. Against Virginia, against Pittsburgh, we’ve had those opportunities.
The next step of our program, I thought, was to play to a standard last weekend and we did that because I wasn’t sure we would. I thought they might go out there and stand around; that’s why I showed them pictures of last year’s Western Carolina game where we didn’t play very well early, for sure. Now the next step is we have to win these games that are close. We’ve won some, but we’ve lost more than we’ve won and that’s the disappointing thing. We really need to finish well and I think the guys, just watching them yesterday and watching them practice yesterday afternoon, I think they’re ready for this challenge.
What was the most important change that had to occur for the program this season?
The most important thing is that they needed to believe again. The fanbase didn’t believe, the players didn’t believe they could win. When you get that, there’s a lot of negativity, there’s a lot of selfishness; it becomes about you when it’s not about team. There becomes a lack of discipline when they don’t think they’re going to win, ‘So, why do I need to do this? Why do I need to do that? It doesn’t matter anyway.’ It’s a process of pulling everything back together, and then to make it work, you have to win. We’ve won enough that the players have bought in now and they do understand what it takes to win and that gives us a better chance this weekend.
Some coaches treat these games the same as others, but you seem to embrace them. Has that always been the case?
I think they’re fun. They’re what you play for and when it’s that much fun for your fanbase and it’s that much fun for you. I had a friend at Texas, we lost a game to one of our rivals that he didn’t like and he had to work with those people on Monday. He got on a plane and went to Cabo for a week so he wouldn’t have to see them. I said, ‘They’re still going to be here when you get back.’
When you lose to a rival, you lose for a year. Some of the other games, you go to the next game. Rivals last all year, so you’ve got to live with it. You’ve got to live with your friends and your neighbors and you need to need be the one walking into work on Monday with a smile, not your opponent.
How important was it to get a chance to evaluate some younger players on Saturday?
The next huge step in our program is develop depth. I didn’t think we did a great job with that. Some of that is we’re not as good with the backups and all the games were so close, we didn’t have opportunities. Maybe the other part is our coaches were trying to win so badly they didn’t trust a guy and didn’t put him in when we should have.
The last two weeks, especially on defense, we’ve played more people and I think that will really help us next year. It’ll help us with injuries, it will help us with not being tired. You take guys like Jason Strowbridge and Aaron Crawford, they’re playing 90-something plays in games or 80 or 90 every week and that takes a toll on you as the season goes on and beats you down, so one of the next pieces of this process is, I’d love to play two-deep next year if possible and not see any drop-off. When you do that, you’re starting to be a good team and that’s why we don’t talk about starters a lot; we talk about players and guys that are in the game, but that’s a huge step for us. In the last two weeks, we’ve put a lot of guys (in) especially in the front-seven. We don’t have many in the secondary, there aren’t many back there that are left, but we’ve put a lot of those other guys out there that have a chance to be good.
Ray Vohasek for instance, he was the defensive player of the game and that really helps us because we’re losing two really good inside guys and we need those guys to step up and he was all over the field. I’m really excited about him.
On whether he believes in the adage about first losing big, then losing close, then winning close then winning big...
I do and I think there’s a process you go through where if we had won eight or nine games this year, it wouldn’t have made any difference for next year. We’ve still got a young team that’s got to grow and build. You don’t want to be lucky in games and win; you want to be good. If you’re good, you just win those games. Some of these games, the ball bounces right and we win them and we’re still the same guys.
My first year here we were 1-7 playing Coach Bowden and they were either No. 1 or 2 in the country and he hugged me and said, ‘Boy, you’re doing it perfect, man. You’re starting out slow; don’t get those expectations too high, too soon like me. Then you’ve got problems and you’ve got to win every week. You’re doing it perfect, I like this.’ I thought he was about to beat the heck out of us.
The next year we’re 1-7 and Coach comes out and says, ‘You might want to pick it up a little bit now. This is the second year, don’t be 1-10 again,’ so I didn’t do that well. There is a process of getting better; I’m still learning the team, they’re still learning me and the staff is still learning each other which sounds weird, but you don’t know exactly how everybody is going to respond until you go through some pressure games and my gosh, we’ve had 8 out of 10 that were down to the wire. This has been a wonderful first year for us with experiences that the players are getting to know who we are in times of pressure and the coaches are the same. You never know who your team is or who your coaches are until you see them under pressure. The way they respond in a really tight game with a tremendous amount of pressure is who they are and you can’t hide that.
I’ve been able to see the coaches, so it’ll be fun evaluating them after the season as well and sitting down with them and talking to them about, ‘I like this, this has got to get better, this isn’t who we are,’ and you can do that more the second year. The team becomes yours more the second year and the staff, and then the third year, it’s your team and your staff for sure so that’s the process you go through.
They used to tell me, it takes two years to figure out your problems and the third year, you’ve got to fix them. Now, they’re firing coaches in a year-and-a-half, so that process has (sped) up.
On coaches being fired halfway through their second seasons at schools...
I don’t like it and I don’t like it because it’s not their team yet. They don’t even have their recruits there. So, to me, if an athletic director hires a guy and fires him in a year and a half, we ought to look at him; look at he and the president. If you believed in that guy so much a year and a half ago, I don’t know that he’s been able to fix it, that’s what I’d say from a coaching standpoint
I’d say the same thing if I was in Bristol on TV. To me, a year and a half is not enough time to fix your problems. The problem is not the firing; the problem was the hiring. If you don’t like him in a year and a half, you made the wrong decision, you had the wrong fit. So, it’s on you more than the coach.
On his expectations of N.C. State...
I expect them to be playing for their bowl game. They’ve had confidence for us, this will be their bowl game.
Since they’re not going to a bowl game, this will be their bowl game. They’ve dominated this series as of late, Dave has done a tremendous job, they’ve been to a bunch of bowl games here in a row. Since they’re not going this year, this will be it. They would love to finish by not only beating their rival, but keeping us from going to a bowl game. We’ll see, by far, their best shot.
On Dave Doeren embracing rivalry
He’s won four of the last five, so that’ll make you embrace it for sure. It’s a fun rivalry for me and for us and hopefully we can get back and do our share. We haven’t as of late, so we need to do that.
On winning in-state recruiting battles...
I’ve always felt like the most important thing in recruiting is to be the cool place to be. Our stands have been full, that’s cool. Saturday was kind of the outlier; it didn’t fit because it was Mercer and cold and rainy and that’s why we’re going to move that game up to the first. People will show up early in the year for that game; they usually don’t show up late.
You need to win, you need to beat your in-state friends and I think all of those things then feed to players wanting to come and be part of it and have fun. They want to have fun and they want to enjoy it.
One of the great things for me is I’m at a time in my life and coaching career where I can have fun. There’s so much pressure on so many coaches. I’m not going to get fired in a year and a half, I’m just not. They’re not going to do that. A lot of people can’t say that. There’s so much stability here for our coaches and me, it’s a good time and a good place for kids to come and have a lot of fun moving forward.
How has Raymond Vohasek adjusted to playing at this level as opposed to the JUCO level he was at?
The thing that Ray does so well is he's got a high motor. He plays as hard as anybody on our team every play. Now, he didn't always go to the right place, so I told Tim Cross, that's your job. You can get him in the right place, but I'd rather have a guy that's going really fast in the wrong place then a guy that's doing everything perfect and not making any plays. Because we can slow down a guy that's going too fast and get him in the right gaps. If a guy's lazy, or not trying all the time, that doesn't work. So he will get stronger, he'll learn more about what to do with our scheme and I think there's a real high upside for him. He's got two more years.
He's a three-year guy, which is very, very unusual for a junior college player coming in and I don't know that we'll ever recruit a junior college player. I had two while I was here the first time, Willie Joe Walker, my first year and Chris Keldorf, the last two. So those were the only two junior college players that we recruited and I don't foresee us doing it again. It might pop up, but that has not been our history and he was already being recruited here. We needed defensive linemen, so I'm sure glad we got him.
Last year, N.C. State players called this stadium Carter Finley North. Do you use bulletin board material to get players riled up for games, especially for rivalry games?
You know, I'd never heard it until right now. So, that's a first. I think that what you do is you show your rivals respect. I've never sat around and put them down all week. You can have cute things to say. ‘The school over there.’ And you know, Roy, he calls them State College because he's beating them so much. We haven't beaten them. It's hard for me to do any of that but have respect because they've beaten us. So what I've always felt is that these are fun games, that if you have to motivate your team to play, we probably have some problems. You’ve got to be really, really careful. I would be more worried about our players being so excited about the game, they play the game on Tuesday or Wednesday and that's what you have to be careful of in these games.
Don't have a great practice on Tuesday, great practice on Wednesday and then your week's over and they're down and tired by game time. So we'll take a normal process. We had a good practice yesterday. They need to be focused. We'll have a good practice in the morning early and then Wednesday and Thursday we'll actually let them off if they want to be with their families for Thanksgiving and then come back Friday afternoon and get ready for the game. But I think these games can definitely be overhyped and you have to be careful that you are who you are. We're not going to play better than we can. What we need to do is play as good as we can. But if you start talking about all the things that don't matter outside of who said what… You need to do your talking on Saturday night. I'm not a guy that likes talking during the week.
Would you have imagined that Sam Howell would be breaking records like he has this season?
We knew Sam was good when we signed him. We didn't know that he would start because we had Jace Ruder and Cade Fortin here who had some experience here that we didn't know a lot about. But I knew that Coach Fedora was really excited about them. And then over the summer when I came back, a lot of the older guys said, ‘Hey, this guy's really good.’
And I knew when we did the rock-paper-scissors to see who was going to start the spring game and his first play in the spring game he ripped a skinny post and it looked like he'd been here for 15 years. I said, ‘oh, that's good. That's a good sign early here that the freshman is not nervous in the spring game’ and then the way he practiced in fall, he's been a great example for us of what you can do regardless of your age.
And he's been the same all year. When he broke his record on Saturday, you wouldn't know any different. I mean he came off with a smile on his face like he does after every touchdown he throws. When he was running over there, I didn't like that. I thought that took 45 minutes to get him out of bounds before somebody might hit him and I said, ‘get down, man.’ And he wasn't supposed to run either, by the way, on that play. That was a pass play that he could run. And I said then don't give him the option because he's so competitive he wants to win. But I don't even know if it's a surprise. I think he thinks he should be in this position. His whole life, he's prepared for this. His mom and dad were athletes at Appalachian State. His dad's a coach. He's a gym rat. He's either in class or he's in our office watching video. He just loves the game. I think he feels like his whole life, this is what he was supposed to do is be the quarterback at North Carolina. So he's very, very comfortable in this position. And after, he's also becoming a better leader. After he came out of the game, he was all over the sideline with defense and picking kids up and smiling. And that's the next step for him is not only play good but lead the rest of them.
What is he doing better now on the field, that he didn't, say, in September? That's notably better?
I think he is leading the team better. Even in the games, you'll see him walk down to the defense after we have scored. He'll walk down to our defense and say, ‘Hey man, pick it up. Let's go. Now we've got to answer right here,’ and he wasn't able to do that earlier in the season. I feel like even though you don't huddle much anymore, we've huddled some against Clemson, a few teams. He's really got a grasp of the players and they all really believe in him. I think he also has shown us that he really doesn't care about stats. He wants to win the game and that's the most important stat for a quarterback or for anybody else. And you can be very selfish as a young guy that's broken all these records. I don't ever see him mention it, talk about it. He doesn't seem to care. I'm sure he's proud of it, but he would rather be at N.C. State than get some record this weekend.
There were some seniors who were visibly excited when Howell broke the touchdown record. Is that sort of a testament to what you're talking about?
It is totally a testament. They have all bought into Sam and he's bought into them. That's the thing. I think if you just take a few players like Jake Bargas, he's had key plays for us here, this year. He hadn't played as much, but he's totally bought in. I love that kid. We've talked about Antonio Williams a lot. I mean he's meant so much to this team and at the same time he hadn't run as much as he thought. He told me he's got 16 people here watching him on Saturday and that's the only reason he got to stay in a little bit longer. And then we had some other guys in who didn't block very well, and he's looking at me like, ‘come on man.’ I told him I’m not putting them back in and you're not going to be in there long so you can get out.
And that's why we took Javonte Williams out so he doesn't need to get hit in that game because he needs to prepare for this weekend and that gave Antonio a little bit longer. But Jake Lawler… there's so many kids on this team that I just love because even though they haven't gotten as much playing time as they like, it's about team and that's what's changing who we are right now. It's become about what is best to give us the chance to win because they see we're six overtimes with Virginia Tech, who's really good, they're going to be in the Coastal finals. We're in the last drive of the game of the Virginia. Those two are playing for the championship. So, that's how close we are. And these guys know we've got to take that next step and they're little steps but they're huge things and part of it's buying in. I think this team is really continuing to buy in.
What has Jake Lawler meant to the program with what he came out with over the summer. Did that open doors for guys to talk about stuff a little more?
Yeah. I don't like Jake Lawler; I love him. He's one of the neatest young men I've ever seen. He's going to be a big-time producer and movie producer in my estimation. He's graduating now so he can get to L.A. and step on his next dream. And he's doing a podcast now and for that young guy to come out and say he was depressed and had bad thoughts at times in his life about possibly taking his life to tell everybody. And he wanted to tell everybody because he felt like there's people out there. I've had depression in my family. I understand it. It's a tough thing. And for anybody out there that's having it now, go see somebody, get a counselor, go talk to a friend but don't get in that dark hole and not be able to come back out and it's one of the best things that's happened.
We will have been here a year on the 28th, I guess, it was our press conference. The best thing to me that's happened this year is Jake Lawler coming out, making sure he's okay, him growing and helping others. Of all the things that's happened, that's why Sally and I came back is to be around these young guys and help in a minute way, help somebody improve their life, and Jake's done that. So I told Jake, you know, I get depressed on Sunday. I get down after a loss, which is stupid. I need to be picking them up. I still hate losses so bad. Every Sunday, Jake will come by and he'll fist bump me and say, ‘You okay? You all right?’ And I think, here's Jake picking me up and it has. And I told him that the other day when he decided to walk and go on with his life. He said, ‘I don't want to be a distraction.’ I said, ‘You're not distraction at all. You have saved lives and you've helped us and you're one of the brightest things that's happened this year.’
You guys talk a lot about film, TV industry and ESPN. He has aspiration to go in that media space. Do you guys ever have those conversations?
We do and I'm going to try to use some friends of mine in L.A. to help him. His mom and dad have already been in the acting business and they have contacts. But Sally's got a contact with him here with some film people in Chapel Hill and I'm going to set up some things for him at spring break out in L.A., just to get him with a Matthew McConaughey or get him with people who have been in this business a long time and can help him because I think he's a superstar.
Not to look too far ahead but you lose two guys in the offensive linemen next year. Who are some younger offensive linemen you expect to step in?
It's a good question because those are the hardest guys to play. That may be the hardest position other than quarterback for a young guy to play. And now quarterbacks, they're all in camps, so they're more prepared than they used to be as young people, and especially when it comes in the spring. But you start looking at the guys that are back. And then we've got, who takes Charlie Heck's place? We've already had to replace Nick Polino because he didn't get to play a lot. So you've got EZ, you've got Ed Montilus. Ed started well and didn't play as well. He played much better the other day in the game because I think he just tries too hard and he gets too hyper. So, that's on us. He needs to be a factor next year. We lost a couple of centers, so Brian Anderson's had to play every play. Ty Murray got hurt early, missed some time. He needs to come on and be a factor in that group. We played Asim Richards a lot the other day. He played by far the most he's played. We think he has a chance to be really good and he'll probably take one of the tackle spots. It'll be him and EZ probably fighting for that tackle spot. Because you got to decide what you do with Jordan Tucker. Do you move him to the left? Do you leave him at right? And, then you've got some other guys in there. William Barnes needs to come on, he played in the first half the other day and all of the second half. So he's got to keep coming. He's making some improvements. So I think those are our guys, plus Tristan Miller had an operation. How soon will he be back? We think he can be really good. All those guys are going to redshirt. Tunall, Tristan Miller, Ty Murray, they'll all redshirt. None of them have played, except for Asim Richards, none of them have played in more than four games and will not now, we've held them out to do that. So I may be missing somebody…
McKethan's good. I mean, yeah. And there's been, Phil just walked in, there's been some discussion about do you move Marcus to left tackle? Do you move him to right tackle? And Jordan Tucker to left tackle? But Marcus has played so good at guard. He's been maybe our best lineman. So do you take him out of the spot? He's doing so well and move him? Or do you leave him there? And we think he may be an NFL guy at some point. So those are all conversations that we'll have this spring. And the great thing is that as sad as it was to lose Nick Polino, it forced Ed and EZ to play a whole lot and they're all young. You know, we don't lose an offensive lineman next year. So, that's the weird thing about this group. It's so young, we just got to keep it growing. But next year we'll have something we don't have this year and that's competition. And I've said the best motivator is the bench and until you get too deep, and somebody can take your place, if you're not playing well, you're up and down. You're an average team. And the old, ‘My bad, I didn't play good, coach,’ dies when you got somebody to put in their place because you can see he's playing poorly and you can take him out. ‘Stand next to me until you grow up’ because the old ‘I had a bad day’ doesn't fly in this business. Good players don't have bad days. Tom Brady probably didn't have a pretty game yesterday. He won. And that's one thing I'm going to share with our team today. You don't have to do everything right. You got to win. And that's what this is about.
On supporting Olympic sports:
Yeah, I love the other sports. I'm a huge basketball fan. Growing up in Tennessee, that's what you do. And I used to like Kentucky basketball when I first came here, I had to throw that out because that that didn't fit in Chapel Hill. So I'll be at every basketball game I can. I'll be recruiting a lot early so I won't be around. But I really have enjoyed being around Courtney. She's going to come as a guest to the radio show tonight and she's a trip and they're doing great and they were recruiting really well. Sylvia was a great friend. So I don't get into, is this better than that? I get into moving forward. The fact that we won the national championship yesterday in women's field hockey, I've known Karen forever. She was winning when I left, so it shouldn't be any different when I got back. So it's really important to me that we can use a visible football program with full stadiums to help the others recruit, and golf’s been over, lacrosse has been over. So as many as I can help get here, I want us all to win championships. And I did the same thing at Texas and that's another reason I came back. I like coaches and I like to be around them and when I can, I'm going to get over and see Courtney play. She asked me to come over for the Big 10 Challenge and I'll be recruiting, so I can't do it. So I'm going to try and get some of our players to go over and be very supportive.