For the first time in 44 years, Kenny Browning doesn't know where he will be coaching football next fall.
Or if he will be coaching.
Or even if he wants to be coaching if the right situation doesn't come along.
"I'm taking a little time," the former Northern Durham High head coach and University of North Carolina assistant said recently. "When this whole thing happened, I knew that I didn't want to jump at the first opportunity."
"This whole thing" is the upheaval in the North Carolina football program that led to the firing of former coach Butch Davis.
Browning had coached under Carl Torbush, John Bunting and Davis after leaving Northern to join then-coach Mack Brown in Chapel Hill in 1994. Browning remained on the staff in 2011 during Everett Withers' season as interim head coach after Davis was abruptly relieved of coaching duties on the eve of the season.
Browning's 18 years as an assistant under five head coaches is the longest tenure ever by a UNC assistant football coach. He was not offered a coaching position by new North Carolina coach Larry Fedora.
"I can understand that," Browning said. "When I met Coach Fedora, he mentioned the possibility of being in the program in a non-coaching position, but I really feel I have a few more years of coaching in me."
Browning wouldn't comment on the ongoing NCAA investigation saying it would be premature to speak before the NCAA announces it findings on nine major allegations, but he said it bothers him that some players were punished and had done nothing wrong.
"Absolutely nothing," Brown said.
Investigation unfairly costly
Devon Ramsey, for example, was held out of the final nine games of the 2010 season during the investigation.. He originally was declared permanently ineligible by the NCAA, but in February the NCAA ruled Ramsey had done nothing wrong.
UNC had 14 players miss at least one game during the 2010 season and seven players missed the entire season as the NCAA investigated possible violations.
"People on the outside assume that all of those guys must have done something wrong or they wouldn't be punished, but that's not what happened," Browning said.
Browning's reputation among North Carolina high school coaches may be unmatched.
"I know that he has tremendous respect from the high school coaches in North Carolina," said former N.C. State coach Mike O'Cain, who is an assistant coach at Virginia Tech and was an assistant alongside Browning at UNC.
O'Cain coached several of Browning's high school players, including Browning's son Chuck.
"Kenny was just a very special coach," O'Cain said. "He was very disciplined, very organized and did a great job relating with players. He is a great communicator. But the respect he had among high school coaches was tremendous. He must know every high school coach in North Carolina."
Success at high school
Browning earned a reputation as one of the best high school coaches in the state during his 18 seasons at Northern Durham, where he had a 178-36 record.
Clayton veteran coach Gary Fowler said even after Browning went to UNC he seemed to be a high school football coach at heart.
"He is just class," Fowler said. "He may have done more for high school football coaches in this state than anybody ever. He was off at college coaching, but he never forgot us. He always wanted to help us and it wasn't because he wanted to recruit our players either, but he usually didn't.
"He just wanted to do whatever he could to help make high school football better in this state."
Browning began conducting high school coaching clinics while he was at Northern and continued while coaching in college.
Browning, former Thomasville coach Allen Brown, who is one of Browning's best friends, and Ed Hiatt, who made several North Carolina high school coaching stops including Lexington, Richmond County, Millbrook and Harnett Central, joined him at the first clinics.
"It was a cheap way to do coaching development," Browning said. "We'd bring in the entire staff, invite other schools and just share what we were working on."
Barbecue and Browning
He continued the one-day high school coaching clinics while at UNC. For the last several years, coaches from Eastern North Carolina gathered at Clayton High for what became known as barbecue and Browning.
"I just wanted to help," he said. "And the relationships with the coaches has been one of the best things about coaching. Those relationships and working with the players."
His eyes sparkled when he talked about Jerry Powell, who played on Browning's first Northern team in 1976. Powell lived a tough section of Durham and hadn't played football the year before. Browning eventually persuaded him to play, agreeing to give him a ride home after practices.
"He was good player, not a great player," Browning said. "He was a leader, though."
One of Browning's favorite memories is Powell, who is a pastor now, inviting him to speak at his church, Alston Chapel United Holy Church in Pittsboro.
"It is impossible after so many years to keep up with every player - what they are doing, who they married, where they live," he said. "And then you get contact from one and you remember them - the practices, the games, just being a part of their lives."
Eno River roots
Browning had some chances to pursue other college coaching jobs in the past, but the allure of his home state gripped him. His roots along the Eno River extend back centuries. Among his ancestors are Occoneechee native Americans, a group that was living on the Eno from at least 1701.
"I've gone back several generations and the Brownings always seem to have been along Eno," Browning said. "We were nothing special, just poor farmers mostly."
Perhaps it is no coincidence that most days since Dec. 28, when he learned that he wouldn't be returning to the Tar Heels' coaching staff, Browning has hiked the trails of Eno River State Park in Durham.
At 65, he is fit, eager, energetic, knowledgeable, respected ... and without a coaching job for the first time in 44 years.