WASHINGTON, D.C. — North Carolina coach Mack Brown met with media on Thursday morning at the Mayflower Hotel, just before the Tar Heels participated in their final walk-through for Friday's Military Bowl matchup vs. Temple. (Noon, ESPN)
Here are the highlights from the conversation.
It’s been a fun week. I congratulate the Military Bowl officials, Steve Beck, the CEO and all the other staff members because they’ve really shown the guys a great time. We’ve had fun, but at the same time, it’s been very educational. We’ve toured the Capitol, we’ve driven around the White House and seen all the monuments and tour guides to tell us about all the history for each one, so it’s been a great history lesson.
Probably best of all is we went to the African-American culture museum and spent a couple of hours there and that’s something a lot of teams don’t do, and our team enjoyed it, and so, our families have likewise had a great time.
At the same time, we’ve been able to balance that with work because we get up early in the morning and we practice and they’re through by probably 1 o’clock in the afternoon to get some freedom, then you’ve got to balance the getting in bed and resting enough with all the walking around and all the events. Since most of the team hasn’t been to a bowl game, I think they’ve handled all of that well to this point.
Excited about the game tomorrow. We also had an overwhelming turnout yesterday to wrap the gifts for the troops, which was one of the highlights of the week because our troops are over there fighting for us and don’t really have a Christmas and don’t make a lot of money. Most of what they get will be the gifts that are sent from America and both teams wrapped some gifts yesterday at 4 and that was really heartwarming to watch them. Then, Coach Bateman talked to them about the average age over there is about 19 years old and the salaries are really low. That was a real special moment as well, and then the proceeds going to the USO and for military families to travel makes this a special week around Christmas.
What has this week been like in getting closer and getting opportunities off the field?
We had Christmas last night and it was really fun. All the guys, each of the staff groups had to do something with karaoke and it was really ugly; it was a lot like my dancing, so it was really embarrassing for them …. Joe Haydon, one of our staff members, did the 12 Days of Christmas and he had a different position group with each one and that was hilarious. The guys can have a little Christmas before they come and they’ll have a chance to get some Christmas when they get back, but I think the week has been really good and it’s pulled the team even closer together.
Most of these guys have never been to a bowl game, so this is a wonderful experience for them and if anyone had apprehensions about, ‘Will it be fun on Christmas?’ They’ve had a blast.
On coming to the Military Bowl where it’s not just fun, but also educational...
I wasn’t sure when we were looking at all the different opportunities, and then when it got closer to choices, I was really pulling for this bowl because parents can drive, fans can drive; we’ve got a lot of fans and recruits in this area. We had open practice on Monday for everybody to come out and we had good turnout there. I didn’t even think about the educational part of it, but I’ve been overwhelmed with all this stuff, so it’s been a great week of teaching and learning for our players as well.
How has the preparation been?
I thought Tuesday’s practice was just OK; you’re changing routines and you just got through traveling, so it’s a lot different. I think since then, practice has been really good. Yesterday was great; they were really focused. We’ll have a walkthrough here this afternoon and make sure that we cover everything, but I think we only missed one assignment on each side of the ball yesterday, which is really good for this early, and we’ll correct that today.
Having not played for a month, what are the areas of focus or concern?
Bowl games are very much like opening games, you have the same concerns: You haven’t been hit really for a month, the ball-carriers haven’t been tackled full-speed, your kicking game hasn’t been full speed, and usually, it’s a team that loses the bowl game more than who wins it.
There’s a few things: who has the best edge? Temple is 8-4, we’re excited to be here, so I don’t think there’s an edge difference in this ballgame. I think it’s an even game and both teams will be excited and need to win the game, so then you start looking at who’s going to protect the ball best on a cold day? Who’s going to get more turnovers and take advantage of them? And it’s usually kicking game, and those are things that you can’t prepare for as well in an opening game. It pops back up in bowl games.
Will you talk about importance of getting to 7-6 vs. finishing 6-7?
We don’t get into numbers as much as we get into momentum. We’ve got tremendous momentum in our program right now. We just had a great recruiting year, fans are all excited, we sold out every game and this would just be another step forward getting us ready for spring practice. We’ve got 13 guys coming in for spring training on the 5th of January that are new to this team. Then, you’ve got two transfers in Bryce Watts and Kyler McMichael that aren’t with us up here, because transfers that are ineligible can’t travel with bowl teams, but they’ll be back on the 5th.
We need the momentum from this game to carry over into January, the offseason program and getting ready for spring.
When do you usually have a feel for how ready your team is for a bowl game?
I think it’s usually that Thursday-Friday.
We were not in pads yesterday; we were in shorts and it was real sharp. If you’re dropping balls and going the wrong way on Thursday, you’re in trouble — and we weren’t, we were locked in. The other thing you don’t want to do, is you can’t play the game on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, so do you don’t want to lose your energy and be ready to play too soon, so today will be an important walkthrough just to watch them and see how they do. With an early game tomorrow, we’ll be in bed by 10 o’clock tonight and getting up early and headed over for the game.
You talked a lot about learning how to prepare during the season. Has this been a carry-over from the regular season?
This is an important week for us to prepare because we’re going to be in bowl games every year and this staff’s never been to a bowl game together, this team, some of them have never been a to bowl game at all, so this week has been really important for us to learn how to handle a bowl game. We’ll see how we do tomorrow afternoon; that’s why everybody shows up.
But I do think that after Mercer, we gained more confidence. N.C. State, we didn’t have a great first half but they really felt good at halftime and came out and played a great second half, so I’m excited to see us play because I feel like we’re a better team than we’ve been all year, going into this ballgame.
Which younger guys took a step forward during the week of practice at home?
So many of them played, so there weren’t a lot of surprises, but Kevin Hester is a young guy that, as an interior defensive lineman, showed some promise in the week at home. I feel really good about what he did.
Have you had a chance to reflect on this season, and is there anything you haven’t done yet you’d like to accomplish tomorrow?
It’s funny, so many of my friends have said, ‘Great, you got to a bowl of all those things,’ and they’re really nice. One of the things, when you’ve been a head coach for 32 years, you get a lot of ‘Merry Christmas’ texts. I still can’t, I can’t make myself send them all one text back; I have to do it individually. Most of my time for the past day-and-a-half has been, ‘Merry Christmas to you, thank you very much.’
Most of them have said, ‘Are you OK? Did you enjoy this? Has it been what you thought? Has it been fun?’ All of my TV buddies have said, ‘You OK? Is this good?’ Reflecting back, it’s been a blast. I’m really glad Sally and I decided to do this. The players have been unbelievable. I cry around Christmas all the time anyway, so I spent most of yesterday crying when they were coming up and talking about how much fun they’re having and seeing the look on their face.
I got a wonderful text from Coach Fedora yesterday, ‘Good luck in the bowl game.’ I texted him back and said, ‘You’d be so proud of your guys, they tried to do everything right to get here.’ It’s been a really good feeling being up here to be in a position that these guys haven’t been to give them some more fun.
You have a few guys within reach of 1,000 yards. Is that anything you’d consider late in a game if you have a chance?
It’s really not, it’s all about winning and the guys know that. We’ve told them not to make any decision this week that didn’t have winning in mind, and if you do that, you’re going to be fine. We will not ever talk about individual awards.
You know, if it’s the end of the game and Javonte Williams needs 10 yards, Jeremy (Sharpe) might send somebody down and say, ‘If it works, Javonte needs 10 yards.’ If the game’s over, we might try to get it for him or something.
We went through those years where, do you take Vince Young out in the third quarter when he’s trying to win the Heisman and you’re way ahead. Do you leave him in, there’s a chance he’ll get hurt? Is it running up the score on the other team? We did the same with Colt McCoy and I think you have to win the game and go with your heart and do what you feel like is best.