Columns & Blogs

Mack Brown’s return to UNC a fever dream that could actually work

No one wakes up in the morning and says, “Mack Brown is the guy to fix our football program,” at least not in 2018. You don’t get here on a straight line. You have agents pushing behind the scenes. You need money to pay Larry Fedora’s buyout. Your football program is in disarray on and off the field.

This is how you end up with Brown, four years removed from fizzling out as a coach and recruiter at Texas, at age 67, starting over at North Carolina.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing, as bizarre as it may be on the face of things, as ludicrous as it might have seemed even a few weeks ago. Everyone loves Mack. The price is right. He’ll bring some stability to the program. He’ll be a recruiter and door-greeter and hand-shaker and back-slapper and let others – Gene Chizik? Kliff Kingsbury? – handle the Xs and Os.

It could work. With potentially 19 starters coming back and the presumed development of freshman quarterback Cade Fortin, North Carolina was already in a position to win eight games next season with Fedora or Mack Brown or Charlie Brown in charge.

But from the start, his entire regime is going to be plagued with questions, from how it came together to how it will end.

This is not a long-term solution for North Carolina. There were longer-term solutions out there, lower-level program builders like Scott Satterfield at Appalachian State or Mike Houston at James Madison, each the kind of coach Brown was when he was hired the first time around, from Tulane three decades ago. This is a stop-gap, born of nostalgia and desperation and the clever posturing of Brown’s agent, Jordan Bazant (who also represents N.C. State’s Dave Doeren).

For however long he wears the headset, everyone from recruits to his own players will wonder who his replacement will be, and when. Even if there’s a coach-in-waiting anointed, that’s not typically a scenario that ends well, either.

So the eventual transition is going to hang over this entire process from the beginning, just as it did at the end of the Bobby Bowden era at Florida State. That’s not as big an issue for Roy Williams or Mike Krzyzewski, since a single recruiting class can make all the difference for their eventual successors in the one-and-done world. Football recruiting has to be a pipeline, a constant, replenishing flow of talent. It’s been a long time since Brown was making the rounds in this state, and N.C. State has made huge inroads under Doeren in recent years. The landscape has changed.

And this is all contingent on Brown bringing in the right assistants. The rumored options make sense and have concrete connections. Chizik, a former Brown assistant at Texas, clearly knows what he’s doing on defense, and he has taken the time he wanted to spend with his family when he left UNC. Kingsbury, who is also represented by Bazant, was fired at Texas Tech, his alma mater, but his reputation as an offensive coach and recruiter is solid.

If Brown can string together three or four winning seasons, avoid any of the embarrassing off-the-field gaffes and incidents that contributed to Fedora’s demise and rebuild North Carolina’s in-state recruiting reputation, maybe he can just hand over the keys to a Satterfield/Houston type, or whoever Clemson’s offensive coordinator happens to be at that point, and hang out in Chapel Hill schmoozing with boosters, raising money for the athletic department and soaking up adoration.

That’s the best-case scenario. The worst-case scenario? North Carolina passed up a chance to hire a coach who could lead the program for a generation and achieve the kind of long-term success Brown did before packing his bags for a school where basketball isn’t bigger than football. At North Carolina, all these years later, that still hasn’t changed.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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