Mack Brown doesn’t often wear the ring. “It’s big and it’s gaudy,” he said, by way of explanation. But he wore it Thursday, a silent reminder to his peers in the ACC that he’s been to the top. He’s seen the view from there.
His national-title ring isn’t the only thing Brown brought with him from Texas back to North Carolina.
Watching his empire crumble around him there reminded him why he got into coaching in the first place. His six-year sabbatical with ESPN became a post-graduate program in modern football, listening and learning.
For all the familiarity inherent in Brown’s return to Chapel Hill, the man himself is different, by his own admission.
And there were many admissions Thursday. About how things fell apart at Texas. About how he rediscovered his love for coaching and love for the game. About disciplining players. It spilled out of him almost in a cathartic way, a man at the end of an unplanned journey of professional and personal self-realization.
“I’m at a better place right now in my life and with sports than I’ve ever been,” Brown said.
Mack is back. Just not the same Mack.
“I think the thing that I learned is I will never let a staff have too much control again, which is a strong statement,” Brown said. “But I’m the one responsible for everything that happens in football at the University of North Carolina. So I need to make those final decisions. I’ll get their input. Same thing with recruiting. I’m the one that knows who fits the place better than anyone else, so I need to make those final decisions.
“The other thing I’ll do is, you get into coaching because you love the game and you love the players. If you’re not careful, you win so many games, it becomes about the wins more than anything else.”
And not a kinder, gentler Brown, either: “It used to kill me when a young guy would get in trouble. Very honestly now, rules are rules. If you mess up, you got consequences like everybody else.”
There’s a bit of a humble-brag buried in there -- “you win so many games” -- but it’s also an acknowledgment that Brown got to a point where the wins were expected and the losses were disastrous. His national-champion forebear at Texas warned him about that. Darrell Royal walked away from coaching at age 52 after three national titles, because he became numb to victory and hypersensitive to defeat.
Brown, who left Texas in 2013 after a four-season run of 5-7, 8-5, 9-4 and 8-5, said that stuck with him. As did a conversation with Dick Vermeil, who warned Brown after he left Texas never to close the door on coaching. Six years later, that door reopened.
That gap presents its own challenges. David Cutcliffe had a few gaps, albeit much shorter, in his career before landing at Duke, which has become as much a home to him as North Carolina was and is to Brown. As well as anyone, he knows the adjustments Brown will have to make as he gets back in the game.
“The changes in recruiting are the biggest hurdle,” Cutcliffe said. “Secondly, getting a staff aligned. Not everyone thinks the same way. You throw a collection of new people together, and you haven’t done it for a while, that’s going to be a little bit of a startle. Not that he can’t do it.”
And at least as far as recruiting goes, Brown has picked up where he left off two decades ago, especially within the borders of the state.
That hasn’t changed. The coach has.