Mack Brown’s coaching journey comes full circle
The game had ended, South Carolina had beaten North Carolina 31-10, and Mack Brown was seeking out Gamecocks coach Joe Morrison.
It was Brown’s first game at UNC. South Carolina was ranked 19th in the national polls under Morrison, a man who could be brutally blunt and was with Brown.
“He said, ’You really have a bad team,’” Brown recalled Monday, smiling at the thought. “I said, ‘Thanks, coach, I was fully aware of that when I got here and you just reinforced it.’”
That was in 1988, on a warm, humid night at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, S.C. — for Brown, almost a lifetime of coaching ago.
Brown will have that in mind Saturday when the Tar Heels again open a season, again with Mack Brown, against South Carolina in Charlotte. The storyline for the game, called the Belk College Kickoff, will have a distinct coming-full-circle feel to it.
Todd Ellis was the Gamecocks quarterback in 1988 and a Heisman Trophy candidate entering that season. On Saturday, he’ll be calling every play, now the “Voice of the Gamecocks” on South Carolina’s radio network.
South Carolina’s coach, Will Muschamp, once was a defensive coordinator for Brown at Texas and was considered the Longhorns’ “head coach in waiting” until he bolted for the head coaching job at Florida. His father, Larry Muschamp, played football at North Carolina in the mid-1950s when George T. Barclay and then “Sunny Jim” Tatum coached.
Another father, Torin Dorn, played on Brown’s first UNC team. He will be in the Bank of America stands and antsy, he said. His son, Myles, is a senior and will start at safety for the Tar Heels.
“Yes, it is full circle,” Torin Dorn said in an N&O interview. “I’m a little bit nervous but anxious to see Myles get out there and help Mack Brown turn this thing around.”
Tar Heels motto: ‘Be The One’
Brown said he could sense the excitement and anticipation surrounding the South Carolina opener, saying, “The folks here are a little down and want to get it back — get back to winning.”
That was in 1988. Brown can laugh a little about the tough days now. He’s in the College Football Hall of Fame, won a national championship at Texas and wears a Longhorns championship ring — he had it on Monday at his press conference — that serves as a visible reminder to his players at UNC that he has been there and done that.
“He’s validated himself at the highest level of college football,” senior offensive tackle Charlie Heck said in a media interview.
In 1988, UNC was celebrating its 100th year of football, which was being promoted by the university. Now, the football marketing slogan is “Be The One,” which sounds something akin to Nike’s “Just Do It.”
Nike aired its first “Just Do It” commercial in 1988, showing an 80-year-old runner named Walt Stack crossing the Golden Gate Bridge. Nike already was associated with Michael Jordan, then 25, a former UNC star whose NBA career was on a rapid upward trajectory where his ceiling was the roof, so to speak. And UNC remains a Nike school.
Brown this year invited former Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, an old coaching friend, to speak to his team during spring practice. Meyer talked of accountability, of everyone around the program, in some way, making a difference. “Be the one,” he said, a phrase that Brown obviously liked and adopted.
Mack Brown was 37 years old when the 1988 season began. He had been the head coach and athletic director at Tulane before heading to UNC to replace Dick Crum, who had won an ACC championship there in 1980.
“I didn’t know what I was doing the first time,” Brown said at the Charlotte ACC Kickoff last month. “I was so young and trying to figure it out.”
Thirty-one years later, Brown, who turned 68 on Tuesday, has it figured out.
“We were brought in to get them more confident, get them in position to win more games,” Brown said in Charlotte. “That’s our job.”
Mack Brown the celebrity coach
Heck, the UNC offensive tackle, said of his first impression of Brown, “He seemed more like a celebrity.”
It wasn’t that way in ‘88.
“When Mack Brown first came in he was pretty much that young guy who was energetic and ready to hit the ground running,” Torin Dorn recalled about Brown. “He had a plan, and the plan was to get out in the state of North Carolina and recruit and keep the great players at home.”
Players such as Ellis, one of the nation’s top-rated quarterbacks at Greensboro Page High, didn’t stay home. He was recruited by Crum’s staff at North Carolina but signed with South Carolina, setting 26 school records in the Gamecocks’ run-and-shoot offense.
“I remember watching Mack Brown do his television show at Appalachian State (1983) and early on at North Carolina,” Ellis said in an N&O interview. “The guy was unbelievably charismatic on television. He was the first of the coaches in my opinion, at least in the Southeast, who were so good on television and so good at selling his program, even in the face of some poor play early on in the tenure.
“I thought, ‘This guy has got it.’ ... To be honest, Dick Crum was not much of a salesman.”
Dorn said Brown believed from the start that he could be successful, that it was a matter of selling his vision to recruits and building the talent base. That hasn’t changed.
“Mack Brown’s whole objective was why not here, why not home?” Dorn said. “The first couple of years it was hard for him to put in the system he wanted. It’s like being a cook, man. You’ve got to have the ingredients in the cupboard to make your dish. He played a lot of freshman early because he had to.”
Brown said as a younger coach if a player disagreed with how the coaches were handling him, his reaction would be, “If you don’t like it leave.” Or, he said, in the words of former UNC coach Bill Dooley, “Don’t bitch, transfer.”
Now, Brown said, players are shown more video and told what needed to be improved. Otherwise, they’re told, someone else will play.
“When you’re a young coach you just want to work hard and prove to everybody that you’re smart,” Brown said. “I don’t need any of that anymore. We just want to win.”
Many of Brown’s former players have dropped by his UNC office in the past few months. Only one saw him on an operating table.
Dr. Michael Bolognesi played for Brown from 1989-93. When Brown had knee-replacement surgery in June at Duke University Hospital, Bolognesi was his surgeon.
“Before we went in I looked up at him and said, ‘Did I ever make you mad when you were a player?’” Brown told the N&O, chuckling. “He laughed and said, ‘Coach, you made all of us mad.’”
An upgrade in UNC football facilities
After a preseason practice this month, Brown first walked his wife, Sally, to her nearby car and then headed toward a highly customized golf cart that resembles the 2019 version of a king’s chariot.
“Remember when lightning hit the tree?” he said to an N&O reporter who’s old enough to remember.
Brown pointed to a spot on what’s now one of the Tar Heels’ practice fields.
“Right there,” he said, smiling. “Split the tree right down the middle. Might have been that first year. One of those first years.”
The “first years” are Brown’s way of saying the two 1-10 seasons that marked the beginning of his start at UNC. A lightning strike might have been startling but it didn’t hurt anyone and was the least of his concerns.
UNC lost its first six games in 1988 — Brown’s first home game was against fourth-ranked Oklahoma — before the Tar Heels finally broke through with a 20-17 win over Georgia Tech at Kenan Stadium on Oct. 22.
“I’m as happy today as I’ve ever been in my life,” Brown told the media after the game. “I told our kids before the season we’d have steak and lobster after our first win. We’ve got a lot saved up so I guess they’ll be getting double portions.”
In ‘88, the Tar Heels would walk up to Ehringhaus Residence Hall after practices and eat in the dorm’s dining hall. During the preseason, one meal was between the dreaded “two-a-day” practices that Brown came to despise as a coach, believing they sapped his players’ stamina, led to injuries and slow starts in seasons.
The Tar Heels today dine at the newly renovated Kenan Football Center. They have an indoor Football Practice Facility.
In ‘88, “indoor facility” meant anything inside the aging Kenan Field House, first built in 1927. “Oh, my goodness, the old field house was almost like a garage to what they have now,” Dorn said. “At that time, the freshmen slept there, on tiny cots.”
Another of Brown’s former players, Rick Steinbacher, recalled the players’ lounge basically being a couple of couches and a pool table “with a creaky leg.”
“I didn’t know any better. I thought it was pretty nice,” said Steinbacher, now a senior associate athletic director at UNC.
The old field house is long gone, replaced by the “Blue Zone.” The Kenan Football Center, first opened in 1997, has a refitted locker room and weight room, all state of the art and all the better to entice recruits.
The redone players lounge is more than nice. It has pool tables with light-blue felt, pinball machines, pop-a-shot basketball, sleep pods.
Brown, while showing it all off during a recent media tour, was asked if he could beat any of his players at the popular video game “Fortnite.”
“What’s Fortnite?” he said.
If he was joking (was he?), he’ll soon learn. Not that the players seem to mind. “Coach Brown is very hip,” Heck said.
In the back of the players lounge are some enclosed cubicles that seem a bit out of place.
“Used to be pay phones in those. Remember pay phones?” Brown said.
Leaving the media ‘team’ for coaching ‘team’
The return of Mack Brown begins at Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium, in a game televised by ESPN. The sports broadcasting company was Brown’s employer until UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham called late last year to say he had fired Larry Fedora and wanted Brown to come back to Chapel Hill and coach again.
“He was on y’all’s team and now he’s back on our team,” coach Muschamp told the South Carolina media Tuesday.
In 1988, Brown’s first game with UNC was played before more than 73,000 partisan South Carolina fans at Williams-Brice Stadium. Pregame traffic was snarled when a few lanes were blocked so that Dan Quayle, the Republican vice presidential candidate, could more easily get to the game.
The Gamecocks led 17-7 at the half before winning by 21. Said Ellis: “We put it on ‘em pretty good.” Deems May, a redshirt freshman, started at quarterback for the Tar Heels.
“Overall I thought our effort was a good one,” Brown said in a press conference after that game. “We’re not good enough to be inconsistent.”
Brown once jotted down his thoughts on index cards, often prefacing his weekly press conferences by sifting through the cards. He uses his smartphone more for that now, he said, although those cards haven’t disappeared.
Brown likes to say he’s smarter and has gained a better feel for the media and its job after being a part of it with ESPN. In truth, he said many of the same things in 1988.
“The media is very important, very powerful in athletics today, and we as coaches must try to learn more about what is a delicate job,” Brown said at a 1988 press conference.
Back then, “social media” meant some UNC beat writers having a few beverages together at Spanky’s. Brown has a Twitter account (@CoachMackBrown) with more than 136,000 followers and is active on it, often using quotes from famous athletes and coaches (“Show class, have pride, and display character. If you do, winning takes care of itself.” Bear Bryant).
Muschamp probably has some Mack Brown stories he uses.
Muschamp was a walk-on who became a starting safety at Georgia in the early 1990s. He was on Nick Saban’s coaching staffs at LSU and then the Miami Dolphins before returning to college football, first with Auburn and then for three years at Texas with Brown. Theirs remains a good relationship, Brown said.
Muschamp and the Gamecocks are coming off a 7-6 season that ended with a 28-0 loss to Virginia — in the Belk Bowl, in Bank of America Stadium.
The Gamecocks are back. Mack is back. Should be a lot to talk about, past and present, for the coaches at midfield before the game.
UNC vs. South Carolina
When: 3:30 p.m., Saturday
Where: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte
Listen: WTKK-106.1 Raleigh; WCHL-97.9, WCHL-1360 Chapel Hill; WBT-99.3, WBT-1110 Charlotte