It was about an hour before the gates opened at UNC football’s practice facility, but a line of people had already begun to wrap around to a nearby parking lot.
It was a hot, sunny day in early August, but that didn’t keep this group of fans from waiting for a chance to talk to UNC players and coach Mack Brown.
Madison Lane, of Raleigh, who graduated from UNC in 1988, was one of the first in line to meet Brown that day at the Tar Heels’ annual ‘Meet the Heels’ event. She wore a white Carolina Tar Heels shirt and a huge smile on her face. She was carrying a football she wanted Brown to sign.
When Lane approached the coach, she told him she was a UNC student when he was a coach there the first time.
“We were both young then,” Brown replied.
Lane considers herself to be a die-hard Tar Heels fan. She attends at least two games a year, and said she loved the team even through its struggles the past two years, when UNC combined for a 5-18 record. She’s excited about the future. She believes Brown can turn the program around, like he did when she was in school.
“When he was here, we were on top,” Lane said. “He’s down to earth and nice, and he’s just what we needed. Carolina -- they have the name, they have the heritage, but we needed the coach.”
Lane isn’t alone in her belief. To many fans, Brown, who was hired to take over the program in November, represents the start of a new chapter for UNC football.
They think he’s the coach who can get UNC football back on top.
Season tickets sell out
In recent years, the university has struggled to fill seats at football games.
Prior to the 2018 season, the university removed sections of Kenan Stadium’s bleachers and replaced them with seats, reducing the seating capacity from 63,000 to 50,500.
The average attendance for home games at Kenan Stadium during the 2018 season was 43,622, which means 86 percent of the seats were filled (UNC sold out its game against Virginia Tech in 2018). The ACC average was 48,820, according to the NCAA’s Football attendance report.
That’s expected to change, though.
Last month, UNC announced it had sold out of its 28,400 season tickets. It’s the first time the school had sold out of football season tickets in more than a decade, according to Jeremy Sharpe, a team spokesperson.
Single-game tickets for UNC’s upcoming games against Appalachian State on Sept. 21 and Clemson on Sept. 28 both sold out the day tickets went on sale, according to the school.
Since Brown took over, he seems to have galvanized the program and its fans.
“I want our fans to get excited about coming back out for football,” Brown said in April. “We need Kenan Stadium full.”
At Meet the Heels last Saturday, Kevin Preddy, 37, of Wake Forest waited in line with his wife and dad for more than an hour to get autographs. His wife, Jules, pushed him in a wheelchair.
Kevin Preddy said he had back surgery the previous week, which prevented him from walking. But he wasn’t going to let that stop him from going to the event. He wanted to meet Mack Brown.
Preddy said it was tough watching the Tar Heels the past two seasons. So much so that his dad canceled their season tickets. When Preddy found out UNC was hiring Brown, he immediately texted his father, Jimmy Preddy.
“I couldn’t believe it at first,” Kevin Preddy said about Brown coming back to UNC.
When Brown was hired, Jimmy Preddy bought four season tickets again.
Hiring Mack Brown
Last November, UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham made what he called a ‘tough decision.’
The Tar Heels’ football program had only won five total games and lost 18 in the 2017 and 2018 seasons. Thirteen players were suspended prior to the 2018 season for selling team-issued sneakers. Larry Fedora, the coach at the time, made widely criticized comments about chronic traumatic encephalopathy’s link to football.
Many fans had lost faith in Fedora and the program.
Cunningham fired Fedora on Nov. 25 after seven seasons.
For his next hire, he needed a coach who could re-energize the program. Cunningham said that through conversations with “others,” it was recommended that he look at Brown, who was working as a football analyst with ESPN at the time. Brown had previously coached at UNC from 1988 to 1997, and amassed a 69-46-1 record. In his final two seasons there, his teams finished 10-2 and 10-1. He left to become the head coach at Texas, where he stayed from 1998 until 2013.
Brown visited UNC last season after being named to the 2018 College Football Hall of Fame.
Cunningham, who was already friends with Brown, said he observed the coach and liked what he saw. Brown was named the head football coach on Nov. 27, two days after Fedora was let go.
“Everything I was hoping, he was even more than what I was hoping for,” Cunningham told The News & Observer in July.
Cunningham said that Brown has a special way of connecting with people and is a “great communicator.”
“There’s no question in my mind that he’s the right guy right now,” Cunningham said.
After UNC fan Lane and her family left Brown at last Saturday’s Meet the Heels, she couldn’t stop smiling.
“That was amazing, wasn’t it,” she told her husband.
With Brown at the helm, Lane and other UNC fans believe it won’t take long before the Tar Heels start winning again. Lane thinks it will happen as soon as this season.
“We’re going to have a great season,” she said. “We really are.”
UNC vs. South Carolina
When: 3:30 p.m., Aug. 31
Where: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte