Ken Browning remembers that his former boss at UNC, Mack Brown, had one stipulation his assistant coaches had to meet.
Brown would tell his staff that they should get out to each high school coach in North Carolina and see them face-to-face once a year. The coach might not have a Division I player on the roster that year, or the previous year, or the upcoming years, but at least once, a Carolina coach would make their way out to some of the smallest schools in the state.
It was that attention to detail, that commitment to hitting all corners of the state, that made UNC the premier college program in North Carolina. .
Brown made a point to hit all the nooks and crannies, from Murphy to Manteo, because there was always a diamond in the rough to be found. If a high school coach had a question, Brown would take the call. If another coach wanted to come on campus and sit down for a Q&A, Mack made time in his schedule.
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And the players, well, stars didn’t matter to Brown. His staff was instructed to go out and find talent, and they would develop them once they got on campus.
The goal was clear -- build a fence around the state, build relationships with high school coaches, make UNC the school all the top players in North Carolina wanted to attend.
After a 20-year absence, Brown has returned as UNC head coach, hired last month after the dismissal of Larry Fedora, and he has fired up Tar Heel fans for a couple of reasons.
First, UNC’s glory days can be traced to Brown, particularly in his final two years, when the Tar Heels went 10-2 in 1996 and 11-1 in 1997.
Second, Brown’s reputation as a top flight recruiter who built lasting relationships with coaches across the state during his first tenure at UNC is a reason for hope.
Those who were around during Brown’s first tour of duty have no doubt that the 67 year-old can again get the best North Carolina players to play at UNC.
Taking back the state
N.C. State has taken control of North Carolina recruiting recently. While UNC overall recruiting classes were ranked higher than N.C. State’s from 2010-2018, the Wolfpack landed more in-state recruits, 85-70, during the same period.
N.C. State head coach Dave Doeren dominated the state in recruiting the class of 2019 with 16 in-state prospects to seven from UNC.
Brown said at his introductory press conference that he would like for the majority of his players to be from North Carolina.
“You’ve got to win at home in recruiting before you go out of state,” Brown said. “Because if the locals won’t come, why would an out-of-state guy that’s really good want to come.”
Players who were recruited by Brown in the ‘80s and ‘90s, have confidence the coach can do it again.
“That’s one of the things I used to look at as far as the culture that was there back then,” said Kienus Boulware, a former UNC player under Brown and now the head coach at Winston Salem State University. “Coach Brown used to always talk about winning the state. He preached about winning the state and taking over the state. When you look at the Todd Gurley’s of the world and the Bryce Love’s of the world, Coach Brown had the ability back in the day to keep those guys in state versus losing those guys to out of state programs.”
Gurley, from Tarboro, went to Georgia. Love, from Wake Forest, went to Stanford.
One of the biggest in-state hauls Browns’ staff made in the late ‘90s was luring Julius Peppers from Bailey to Chapel Hill. Though though Peppers never played for Brown, Browning and that staff were crucial in his recruitment.
“A lot of guys are not going to recruit unless it’s close to an airport, big city or a Marriott,” Browning said. “You’re going to miss too many players in that part of the state if you don’t go to those schools.”
Two weeks into the job, Brown and his staff have already landed verbal commitments from nine players, five from North Carolina. The biggest name was South View wide receiver Emery Simmons, who originally committed to Penn State. When Simmons committed he tweeted he wanted to “help UNC football return back to it’s greatness that it once was.”
The relationship Brown had with high school head coaches played a role in his ability to bring so much in-state talent to Chapel Hill, recently retired coach Earl Smith said. Smith coached at Millbrook, Wake Forest and New Hanover and sent several athletes to play for Brown at UNC. He remembers the open door policy Brown had at Carolina and how he would constantly check with Smith at Millbrook for talent.
“It starts with the head coaches. The head coaches have a lot of influence on the players,” Smith said. “It starts there. Mack was really good at that. I think Coach (Dave) Doeren has done that at N.C. State with all the kids he’s got on his roster from North Carolina. That’s where it starts and you just have to stay on it.”
A big personality
One of the players Smith sent to UNC to play for Brown was wide receiver Bucky Brooks. Now covering the NFL for Sports Illustrated, Brooks played five years in the NFL after his career at UNC ended. As a teenager coming out of Millbrook High School in Raleigh, Brooks remembers how Brown won him over in the early ‘90s.
“He’s a people person and he does a great job of being relatable,” Brooks said. “He has just a real, real unique energy when it comes to being able to just connect with people and make everybody feel like they are the most important person in the room.”
Once he arrived on campus, Brooks remembers how every decision Brown made was done with the players in mind, from the uniforms, to music in the locker rooms, to accommodations.”
“Everything is done to make the players feel like they are in a first class environment, that they want for nothing,” Brooks said. “In turn, they are willing to give up everything because they’ve had everything given to them.”
Brooks added, “I think what Coach Brown would do is, he will always live up to the promises he makes on the recruiting trail, so players can know whatever he says, he means and he’ll live up to that. I think that’s something that is uncommon in today’s recruiting practices.”
Brooks said Brown promised him that if anything ever happened and Brooks couldn’t continue to play football, he would still be able to stay in school and earn his degree. When Boulware injured his knee and his playing days were over, Brown let him stay on as a special assistant. Without that start, Boulware says, he wouldn’t be a coach today.
Former UNC All-American linebacker Brian Simmons, who played at UNC from 1994 to 1997, said Brown is the type of coach who lets his assistant coaches do the work. Brown is “the closer,” Simmons said.
Simmons said Brown made sure to not only recruit him, but his mom too.
“If you can make mom happy, you have a greater chance at getting a kid to come to that school,” Simmons said.
Since Brown was hired on Nov. 27, Brown has announced the addition of seven assistant coaches to his staff, while retaining three from the previous staff. Most are known for their recruiting.
Chris Keldorf remembers the day Mack Brown first visited him at his apartment in San Diego to recruit him.
At the time, Keldorf was a quarterback at Palomar Junior College and he was being recruited by schools like Ohio State and Oklahoma. Keldorf said Brown told him going to UNC would be more than just football. He could go to one of the best academic institutions in the country, he recalled.
“If you want the Carolina experience, now is the time,” Brown told Keldorf.
Keldorf liked that. He said the other schools that recruited him only talked about football.
“I remember sitting in my room and thinking coach, I’m in,” Keldorf said. “I hadn’t even been on campus yet.”
Keldorf committed the day he visited and played at UNC for two seasons in 1996 and 1997.
Times have changed since the last time Mack coached in Chapel Hill. When he left in 1997, cell phones were rare and the internet was in its infancy. Social media and YouTube were years away.
The players he plans on recruiting now weren’t even born during Brown’s last run at UNC.
“Anything that he doesn’t know he’ll have people on staff who can get him up to speed,” Brooks said. “The one thing that he has always done is, he’s always been kind of the CEO type, the guy who understand what he wanted the program to look like, then he hired really good people under him that can make the vision come to fruition.”
And once it comes to talking to high school coaches, or athletes who might be 50 years younger than Mack, Browning says his former boss will adjust just fine.
“You could put him in Egypt and he’s going to connect with people,” Browning said. “I don’t think that’s going to be an issue. It’ll take a while, it’s not like he’s coming back and all the same guys are here. He knows that, I know that, but the coaching carousel for high school coaches has sped up since Mack was here. But I don’t know if I know anyone better at doing that than Mack.”
Those who know Brown say whatever the 2018 pitch is, it will work.