From misery to happiness: Why UNC’s Mack Brown became a football coach again at 67

The shelves in Mack Brown’s office are lined with photos, reminders of his more than 40 years of coaching college football.

There are pictures of him sharing hugs and conversations with other coaches and players. There’s one of Brown, his wife Sally and former president Barack Obama. And another with former president George W. Bush.

But among the many photos that grace his new office overlooking Kenan Stadium, there’s one that sticks out.

It’s the one of Brown holding a plaque moments after giving his ‘thank you’ speech at the College Football Hall of Fame awards ceremony in New York last December.

Brown, who was hired to coach UNC for a second time in November, has 244 career wins, 34th-most in college football history. He has a national championship, multiple coach of the year awards and many other accomplishments.

For most, the image of a coach at his hall of fame induction ceremony would represent the end of his career. A chapter closed.

Not for Brown. His coaching chapter is still being written.

North Carolina coach Mack Brown thanks fans for coming to watch his team during the Tar Heels’ open practice in Kenan Stadium on Monday August 19, 2019 in Chapel Hill, N.C. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

Mack Brown is ‘jacked’

In 2013, Brown stepped down as the head coach at Texas, and started working at ESPN as an analyst the following year.

Five months of the year, he lived in the North Carolina mountains with his wife, Sally. They spent the rest of their time in Austin, Tex. The two could vacation when they wanted. It was a nice life. A life Mack and Sally designed for themselves.

“Work hard while you’re young, relax and have fun when you get older,” Brown told The News & Observer in June.

But he found out he needed more than that, he said.

Less than a month before he was inducted into the Hall of Fame on Dec. 4, Brown accepted the head coaching job at UNC, which prompted some to ask ‘why?’

Brown, who turns 68 on Aug. 27, is the third-oldest active head coach in FBS Division I college football, behind Ohio’s Frank Solich, 74, and San Diego State’s Rocky Long, 69. The average age of an FBS college football coach is 49.6 years old.

Brown countered.

“The first thing I think is that 67 is really young right now,” Brown said in June, just days after he had knee replacement surgery. “It’s (Nick) Saban’s age. It’s Pete Carroll’s age. Roy Williams is 68.

“So a lot of guys are in the prime of their coaching really right now at 67 because it’s different. It’s a different time.”

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He also insists he’s full of energy.

“I’m jacked,” he said.

But why would Brown want to return to coaching?

He said he missed the camaraderie with the players and coaches. He missed making a difference in his players’ lives.

Vince Young, the former NFL quarterback who also led the Texas Longhorns to a BCS national title under Brown in 2005, said his former coach was like a father figure. He attended Brown’s Hall of Fame speech in December.

“It’s why I’m here today,” Young told The News & Observer at the ceremony. “He cared about you and he shows it. Everything that’s coming out his mouth, he means that.”

That’s why Brown got into coaching. But in his later years at Texas, Brown says he lost sight of that.

A childhood filled with football

Coaching was all Brown knew.

He grew up in Cookeville, Tenn., the second of three boys.

Brown’s dad was a football coach and a principal. His brother became a Division I football coach. And Brown’s grandfather, Eddie Watson, was a high school coaching legend in Cookeville. At the time of his grandfather’s retirement, he was the all-time winningest coach in middle Tennessee history, Brown says with pride. The football stadium at Cookeville High is named after Watson.

When Brown was a small child, he and his older brother, Watson Brown, would ride to games in the front of the team bus that Eddie Watson would drive. The two brothers would wear X’s and O’s on the backs of their shirts and mimic football plays.

Brown admired his grandfather and wanted to be like him.

In college, Brown was a running back at Vanderbilt and Florida State. But a number of knee surgeries derailed his career. So he became a student coach at Florida State in 1973.

Over the next 10 years, Brown continued to work his way up the ranks as a college assistant coach, until he got his first break as the head coach at Appalachian State in 1983. He was 32.

He then went to Oklahoma as its offensive coordinator in 1984 before becoming the head coach at Tulane, where he spent three seasons. He became head coach at North Carolina in 1988.

When he moved to Chapel Hill, it was his ninth coaching job in 13 years. His job with the Tar Heels wasn’t initially easy.

North Carolina head football coach Mack Brown, shown in a 1994 file photo, screams at an ACC referee following a reversal of a touchdown scored by the Tar Heels. Charlotte Observer file photo

A coveted coach

On a dreary, rainy Sept. 30 in 1989, Brown was in his second season with the Tar Heels. UNC had just lost to Navy, 12-7.

“Navy hadn’t beat a Division I-A team in two years,” Brown said this summer, as if still frustrated with the loss. “It was awful.”

“That was one we felt we would have won,” John Swofford, the former UNC athletic director, recalled in a phone interview with the N&O in December.”

The Tar Heels finished 1-10 in 1988, and seemed to be heading in the same direction in 1989.

Fans were upset and pressure on the coach was mounting.

After the Navy game, Swofford, who is currently the ACC Commissioner, offered to drive Brown to the Smith Center, where he would tape his weekly television show.

Brown got into Swofford’s car and broke down in tears.

“John, why don’t you just change,’” Brown said he told Swofford at the time. “‘It’s not working.’”

But Swofford declined Brown’s offer. He told Brown not to give up. Swofford felt Brown would turn things around, even if Brown didn’t see his own potential.

The Tar Heels finished with a winning record in each of their next eight seasons, and in 1996 and 1997, Brown was 20-3. During his first career at UNC, Brown was 69-46-1, with a 3-2 record in bowl games.

He became one of the most coveted coaches in college football, and after the 1997 season, moved on to coach Texas.

Under Brown, Texas won the BCS national championship in 2005. Young, who was the Longhorns’ quarterback at the time, scrambled for a touchdown in the corner of the end zone with less than 30 seconds left to win the game.

Brown said winning that BCS title was one of the best moments of his life. But it turned him into a monster.

Winning becomes everything

After an undefeated 2005 season at Texas, winning became everything, Brown said.

But the wins were never enough. He says his team never played well in wins and he was miserable after every loss.

After beating a 1-3 Colorado team 38-14 in October 2009, Brown was angry. And he let his players know it, he said.

“It got to be about winning more than the players,” Brown said in June. “And I think that’s why I got tired in the end.”

From 2010 to 2013, Brown’s teams finished 5-7, 8-5, 9-4, 8-5. And at the end of the 2013 season, he announced his resignation from Texas.

“We talked about it for a while,” Sally Brown told the N&O last month. “We knew it was time for something new. A new chapter.”

He and Sally traveled for months, everywhere from the Bahamas to Hawaii, until Brown had had enough. He needed something to do and wanted to be close to football, so he joined ESPN as a college football analyst.

2007 AP_071227019396.JPG
Texas head coach Mack Brown, center, urges his players on during the fourth quarter of the Holiday Bowl football game against Arizona State on Thursday, Dec. 27, 2007 in San Diego. Texas won 52-34. Denis Poroy AP

A new job

Five years later, Sally was at her Austin, Tex. home when her phone rang.

It was Mack.

He was nearly 2,000 miles away in Bristol, Conn., on the set of ESPN’s ‘Who’s In?’. But he had something important to tell her.

North Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham had offered him a job.

Hours earlier, Cunningham had fired Larry Fedora after a disappointing 2-9 season. Brown was Cunningham’s first and only choice, saying “others” throughout the season told him that Brown was the right fit.

Sally said she was shocked her husband wanted to coach again.

“Hmm. Well, come home and we’ll talk about it,” she said she told him. “We’ll do a list of pros and cons.”

“No, actually I have to tell them today,” she recalled him saying.

They talked it through. He had longed for the family environment he got with coaching a football team, and he wanted to mentor young men again. He also wanted to win and help make UNC football relevant again.

Sally gave Mack her blessing.

North Carolina coach Mack Brown along with offensive tackle Charlie Heck, left and safety Myles Dorn pose during a photo shoot for the ACC Social Media group on Thursday morning July 18, 2019 during the ACC Kickoff at the Westin in Charlotte, N.C. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

Finding what was lost

When Brown was named UNC’s football coach on Nov. 27, 2018, he said at his introductory press conference that he and Sally liked to fix things, and they wanted to do that at UNC.

After 2019 spring practice, Brown gathered his players and asked them to write down everything they wanted him to change.

One of the requests was for a renovated players’ lounge. When the players returned for the fall season, the lounge had new carpets, games, televisions and two sleeping pods. Brown also had a new weight room built, the locker rooms renovated and Kenan Stadium’s old grass field converted to turf.

“I don’t think it’s one thing we wrote down that he hasn’t (changed),” UNC senior safety Myles Dorn told reporters at ACC media day in July.

When training camp started earlier this month, there was a noticeable difference in the attitudes of UNC’s players. Coming into training camp, players appeared excited and rejuvenated. They talked about starting fresh.

Dorn attributes the new attitude to seeing change. UNC senior offensive lineman Charlie Heck said the same.

“Coach Brown really knows how to get things done, and he gets what he wants,” Heck told reporters at ACC media day. “And what he wants is for the players to be happy.”

Brown’s hair is a lighter shade of gray than it was a decade ago. He’s not the same angry, tired person he was at Texas.

He’s happy again.

“There is no question in my mind that we should have come back,” Brown said in June. “(Sally) even talks about how I’ve got a lot more energy now than I had with TV because I’m excited again. I’m challenged. And it’s a lot of fun for me.”

In his office, surrounded by photos and mementos from the past 40 years, Brown leans back into his chair, crosses his arm and smiles.

He’s in his element. He has found what he had lost.

UNC vs. South Carolina

When: 3:30 p.m., Aug. 31

Where: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte

Watch: ESPN

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Jonathan M. Alexander has been covering the North Carolina Tar Heels since May 2018. He previously covered Duke basketball and recruiting in the ACC. He is an alumnus of N.C. Central University.
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