It’s a different kind of March in Chapel Hill. A few days from the selection show, the focus of Tar Heel fans everywhere is usually fixated on that broadcast.
Not this year.
Yes, the rough season that North Carolina has had in basketball has diminished the desire to be interested in March Madness. However, it’s the madness going on in the Kenan Football Center on the North Carolina campus that has captivated the eyes and ears of Tar Heel fans; and caught the attention of the college football world as well. Never before has North Carolina’s football program overshadowed its basketball program in March like it has this year.
One year ago, around this time, the Tar Heels’ new head football coach, Mack Brown, told the media that the program was entering the spring football season with a ton of question marks.
How would the team respond to a new head coach and his staff on the field and in the meeting rooms? Who would be the starting quarterback in the season opener against South Carolina? And, did Brown still have the passion and the energy to build and run a football program? The answers to these questions were all found eventually, and all of those answers proved why Mack Brown is sitting in the Hall of Fame.
There was a long line of critics when Mack Brown was named head coach for the second time at North Carolina.
“He’s been gone too long.”
“The game has passed him by.”
“He’s too old to step in and do the things he did before at UNC and when he led Texas to the national championship.”
One local rival even went so far as to call him “Grandpa” out on the recruiting trail. High school coaches in North Carolina were telling Brown and his staff that they were being asked, “Why would you want your players to go play for Grandpa? He’s too old to get it done anymore.”
Well, one year later, not only is that rival no longer calling Brown names, but nearly the entire staff of that rival is no longer employed at the school. Brown took them out to the woodshed on the field, and right now, he is owning them on the recruiting trail in stunning fashion.
The answers to Brown’s questions last spring really came down to a perfect storm of three events that propelled the Tar Heels forward and have people calling them one of the favorites to win the ACC Coastal Division in 2020.
First, it was Brown’s preparation for this moment that put his team in a position to be successful. That may sound like a weird thing to say about a Hall of Fame coach who clearly already knew how to win. However, Brown would tell you that in order to win consistently over the long run, you must be able to adapt.
When he left Texas, he admitted, “I wasn’t doing things the way I wanted at the end because things got comfortable, and I let other people start making decisions that were mine to make.”
Brown spent the five years away from football in the broadcast booth. But in no way did he treat that time as a nice “Plan B” that would take him off into the retirement sunset. Brown felt like he had another coaching run in him. So, what did he do? He turned that time into his own personal PhD class on college football. He visited as many programs as he could. He studied every coach and every system, and what the winning programs were doing to be successful.
Brown explained, “The best part of my job at ESPN is that it kept me in the game. It allowed me to travel the country and talk football with the best coaches who were refining the newest concepts on offense and defense. I got to see different ways to build and run a program. I took notes. It allowed me to create a plan for what I wanted to do if the day came where I was a head coach again.”
Brown was creating his vision for how he would put together a program to win in today’s college football. North Carolina didn’t hire the same Mack Brown that was at Texas. This Mack Brown was a head coach with a plan on how to win in today’s world.
The second event that impacted the current trajectory of the North Carolina program was Walt Bell leaving Florida State to become the head coach at the University of Massachusetts. That may sound like an odd statement, but Bell’s departure from the Seminoles opened a door for the Tar Heels. It opened the door to their starting quarterback, Sam Howell.
Howell had committed to the Seminoles, largely based on his relationship with Bell. Once Bell was no longer in Tallahassee, North Carolina was back in play for Howell’s services. Howell, a homegrown North Carolina product, found himself returning to Chapel Hill during the 2018 season to reconnect with the Tar Heel program. When Brown was hired, the first person he went to visit was Howell. He hadn’t even hired an offensive coordinator at that point, but assured Howell that the offense he envisioned running at UNC is one he would flourish in. Brown knew the locker room he inherited had the players and playmakers he needed to win. What they needed was a quarterback to bring it all together.
Howell committed to the Tar Heels and was named the starting quarterback a few weeks before the season opener, and the rest as they say, is history. He turned in one of the most prolific seasons in North Carolina history, and was considered one of the Top 10 quarterbacks in the nation by season’s end. In almost every passing category you can track, Howell led the Tar Heels to close to one of the best turnarounds in the nation. With every top playmaker returning in 2020, there’s no reason not to see Howell’s sophomore season building from the success of his freshman campaign.
The final event that has propelled the Tar Heel program forward in Brown’s first year on the job was beating South Carolina in the season opener on national television. The hype was there. There anticipation was high for Brown in his return to the sidelines. However, if the Tar Heels lost that game, it would have let the air out of that hype balloon. Eyes and ears would have moved on to the next story and left North Carolina behind. Instead, the nation was talking all week about the Tar Heels’ win and their head coach dancing in the locker room.
What did that win do to help Brown realize his vision? It guaranteed an incredible sold-out atmosphere at the home opener, against Miami, once again on national television in the primetime slot. In fact, North Carolina would go on to be one of a few programs to sell out every home game during the 2019 season. Those sell-outs generated the excitement needed for Brown to accomplish his next major goal with his program…dominating the recruiting trail in the state of North Carolina.
Mack Brown is one of the all-time great recruiters in college football history. The man knows what to do when he enters the house of a potential recruit. However, until that win over South Carolina, all he could do, in his own words, was sell people on UNC and sell people on hope. Now, that hope has been realized in the form of a winning season and a bowl victory, and Brown and his staff are off to the races. And the tracks are clear of anything that had recently held the Tar Heels back in its own state.
For years every high school kid in the state of North Carolina was told UNC was getting the death penalty. The 2021 class is essentially the first full class in 8 years where this issue has never entered the picture. Think about that. Kids wanted to go to North Carolina before, but looked elsewhere out of fear of sanctions. Now, as Brown has emphasized, there isn’t a reason in the world for an in-state recruit not to look at the Tar Heels as the place to be.
How has that worked out? Brown turned in a Top 20 class in 2020, and so far, he has the 4th-ranked class committed for the 2021 cycle. Just to be clear, that’s not the 4th-ranked class in the ACC, it’s the 4th-ranked class in the nation!
Whereas, some programs have just now received their first commitment, Brown already has commitments from 8 4-star recruits, almost all of which are from the state of North Carolina. He recently flipped in-state quarterback, Drake Maye, from the University of Alabama. Let’s repeat that, Brown was able to flip one of the top five quarterbacks in the country from Alabama. That’s rarified air with North Carolina football.
It’s only March. Basketball woes aside, it’s the momentum that Brown built on the field last fall, and the momentum he has built on the recruiting trail this offseason that has fans everywhere focused squarely on football as the Tar Heels enter the spring football season.
Mack Brown is a different coach, that came in with a different plan about the kind of head coach he wanted to be. It’s safe to say, one year later, that the critics of the Mack Brown hire have reversed course, and there are more answers now than questions heading into this spring.
The only question left is, “How high is Mack Brown going to take the Tar Heels from here?”