I’m going to tell you my favorite Mack Brown story.
The year was 2008 or so, and I was a lowly student assistant in the Texas SID office. My duties largely revolved around attending Mack’s press availabilities and transcribing quotes he gave the media for the website and, as the Texas-OU game approached, someone asked his opinion on if the game should move out of the Cotton Bowl.
For those who aren’t familiar with the rivalry, “Should we move the game???” is a tradition nearly as annual as the game itself. The game moved to Dallas in 1929, and the question likely popped up by 1930 or ’31.
So, with the Cowboys’ new stadium set to open the next year, Mack was asked his opinion on if Texas-OU should move to that venue, or to Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, or back to the respective campus sites. Given that it’s an omnipresent topic of conversation, just about everyone in burnt orange or crimson and cream has their opinion holstered, ready to brandish at a moment’s notice.
But that’s not what Mack did. Given a chance to broadcast his opinion, Mack said (and I’m paraphrasing here), “I’m not the person to ask. Ask Darrell Royal. Ask (longtime UT SID) Bill Little. They’ve been here much longer than I am, and their opinions on this topic matters more than mine.”
Keep in mind, Mack was firmly entrenched as the ‘Horns head coach by that point. He’d been wearing the colors for a full decade at that point, serving as the face of the program, day-in and day-out, for 11 seasons and counting, and yet he deferred to his elders in this case. I didn’t think much about it at the time, but thinking back later, the graciousness and humility he displayed in that answer stunned me.
That has nothing to do with the questions I asked the former and current North Carolina head coach, but everything to do with the character of the coach behind the answers.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
FootballScoop: Present moment aside, how much fun are you having right now?
Brown: I’m having a blast. Very few coaches are having fun. I didn’t have a lot of fun before; I had fun moments, but I didn’t enjoy every day of coaching. The five years that I got out, I kept seeing how miserable coaches looked and how much pressure they were putting on themselves, and how little time they took to enjoy accomplishments. Sally and I discussed it and said if we go back into coaching, we’re going to try to enjoy every moment.
I used to be miserable after wins if they weren’t great wins. I said I’ll never be miserable after a win again. We had some awful wins last year, and I loved them. I started trying to fix them the next day, but I was going to enjoy them that day.
FootballScoop: There were a number of people that thought you’d never go back into coaching, and a larger number still that thought you’d never be successful. Is it gratifying to prove those people wrong?
Brown: I really didn’t care. I understood that people that didn’t know me were making those assumptions. I think if you’ve got the experience and the passion and the energy, it’s a great advantage for you. But I can understand that a lot of people that are 68 years old don’t have the passion, don’t have the energy, they want to retire, so a lot of those were the ones deciding that I shouldn’t be coaching again, and in truth my five years off reenergized me, and I had fun. I didn’t have to coach again, it was one — we wanted to live here, we loved coaching here, we loved the place — so it was just a match made in heaven for us or we probably wouldn’t have done it. I really didn’t think much about it when people were saying negative things because I didn’t care.
FootballScoop: How much are you learning right now, and who are you learning from?
Brown: I think I’m a better football coach right now, I’m in a better place in my life right now, than I’ve ever been. I learned from my five years out, learning a lot from kids and players and younger coaches. I’m mentoring them, but at the same time I’m learning from them. Those are all the reasons I’m having so much fun. We’re being very direct with everybody; we have a tremendous open line of communication, and our players have total trust in us and we have trust in them.
We’ll talk about race, politics, religion. We’ll talk about all those things that have the elephant in the room that they don’t normally talk about. I think that’s why it’s been so much fun.
FootballScoop: Who are some of the coaches you’re mentoring?
Brown: Just a lot of the guys that played for us, some young coaches that I met while I was doing TV. I really enjoyed the Friday night games the three years that I did them. I was in a different position, being out of coaching and older, that they would ask me a lot of questions, and it was fun to sit and talk to them and answer all of their questions and learn from them. That’s why I’m in such a good place in my life. Plus, I also know who I am. I’m not trying to prove anything to anybody. I don’t want another job. I’m going to coach as long as I can with this one and have fun with it. That also makes it so I can say exactly what I think.
You see young guys like Tommy Thigpen that’s on our staff that played for us, Dre Bly on our staff, Dre never coached in college before so this is has been really rewarding for me to watch guys like that.
FootballScoop: Have you found that recruiting has changed in the five years you weren’t doing it?
Brown: I would say yes in that the early signing date has made recruiting year round. That’s what’s changed. The kids haven’t changed, the parents haven’t really changed. Social media has changed the interaction that so many can have with them. And the fact that we’re recruiting guys for the 2022 class just means you’re doing some recruiting every minute of every day, and that’s been a huge change over the past 10 years.
FootballScoop: How did you zero in on Jay Bateman and Phil Longo as your coordinators?
Brown: One of the things I did over the five years I was out is really studied coaches. Dick Vermeil told me, “Never say you’ll never go back into coaching, because you really don’t know whether you really will or not. You probably will if you’re healthy and the right opportunity comes.” So I kept thinking that I may not coach, but I continued to push myself to learn more about the game and the coaches.
Jeff Monken had me up at Army for three days. I talked to their team and I talked to their staff, and I was really impressed with Jay Bateman. When I saw them go up against Oklahoma two years ago and hold this great offense to 21 points and go into overtime, I said, “Here’s a guy that can take lesser talent and beat opponents.” Coming in here I really anticipated that’s what we would have to do. We couldn’t just be the norm, we had to do something unique and different to win and win early, because if you don’t win early anymore you don’t know how long you’re going to be there.
The same thing offensively. I actually was fortunate enough to coach against Mike Leach and Kliff Kingsbury for 15 years and I always felt like if they ever got where they could run the ball with that stuff, the way they can throw it, boy, it’d be a killer — and then Lincoln Riley started doing that at Oklahoma. Running up and down the field. I decided I wanted to run that offense. That’s what I thought we could do because you can always get speed here. That’s why we put in the FieldTurf, because we wanted a dry surface where we’d have speed.
When I started looking at who I could hire (as offensive coordinator) I talked to Kliff a lot. I really like Kliff, he’s a dear friend. Lincoln Riley’s a dear friend. I leaned on them for guys that are really good in this offense, and Phil’s name kept coming up. He’s been around Mike Leach and Kliff Kingsbury a lot. He took lesser at Sam Houston (State) and took them deep into the (FCS) playoffs two straight years before he went to Ole Miss, and then moved the ball and scored a lot of points at Ole Miss. I felt like those two guys were the perfect fit to come in, with unique abilities. They had not coached the greatest players in the world in their careers. They’d taken the hard route, they’d come up through smaller colleges and weren’t spoiled.
I didn’t need somebody coming in here telling me how bad the players were. I needed somebody trying to take the guys that we had and make them make a difference, and that’s exactly what they did.
FootballScoop: Clemson is, obviously, one of the strongest programs in college football right now, arguably the strongest. Do you use that as a motivating factor, or are you focused on yourselves — on being the best North Carolina you can be?
Brown: Clemson is the standard. I love what Dabo’s done there. What I told the players and coaches is there’s a lot better chance to win a national championship at North Carolina now than there was when I was here before. Florida State was considered the only great program in the ACC, and we were kind of the other one at the time. But even if we had beaten Florida State the last year I was here (in 1997), I’m not sure we would have played for the national championship because people didn’t respect the football in the league as much as they do now.
Now there is a clear path to get into the playoffs and it goes through the ACC Championship, and obviously right now Clemson is by far the most dominant team. Any of us who want to get to the playoffs have to think about being better than Clemson at some point and that’s a real tough task.
FootballScoop: Simple question, complex answer — What were the first steps you took to installing your culture at UNC?
Brown: We have four principles that we’ve always built our program on. The first one’s communication. I told the guys that men don’t communicate very well, so we’re going to have to learn to start talking to each other, and that means you need to tell me exactly what’s on your mind. So we started conversations like, “Why are you losing? What don’t you like around here? What’s wrong?” “Well, the food’s bad.” “Okay, why is it bad? Write it down.”
So, we gave every kid a pad and a pencil. “You don’t come in your players’ lounge. Why don’t you come in there?” “Well, there’s nothing in there we like.” “Tell us what you want in your players’ lounge and we’ll put it in there.” “Well, we want two pop-a-shots.” “Get online and show me exactly what you want.”
We were able to start breaking down some of those barriers and getting them to talk to us and tell us exactly what they needed. “We don’t like our lockers, Coach. Our clothes get wet. We don’t have a way to keep them dry.” “I got you. We’ll put in new lockers.” We were able to ask them questions, and we were able to answer.
The next two principles, then, are trust and respect. When we asked them what they needed, they gave it to us and we answered back, they started trusting us — that we were going to believe in them, that it was an inclusive program, and that when they asked us to do something, we were going to do it and we were going to do it on time.
Respect is a hard one because you’ve got to respect yourself, you’ve got to respect your players, before you can really trust and talk to each other.
The last one, I went to Iraq, I think it was ’08 in the summer for about 10 days. I was with. General (Raymond T.) Odinero and I asked him, “Why do these young people re-enlist when they’ve got families at home, they’re getting shot at and they don’t get paid a lot of money?” He said, “Coach, it’s common purpose. We’re all over here for a common purpose, and that’s to help the person on your right and on your left, and we’re trying to keep our country free.”
I thought that’s the one principle we’ve always been missing, and that’s common purpose, with our programs, because we all need to be on the same page. We talk about it, but it’s not written down right in front of us. We said that our common purpose is that we want to have fun, we want our teams to have fun. Secondly, we want everybody to graduate. Thirdly, we want everybody to prepare for life after football, because it’s coming. And then the fourth component of common purpose is we want to win all the games.
Everything we do is based on those four principles. That’s how we started with the guys. They asked me, “How many games do you think we can win next year?” I said, “Everyone of them.” How could we sit here and tell you we’re not going to win every game. Which ones would I tell you we’re going to lose. “We’re going to win six. Well, which six are we going to lose?” You should prepare to win every game, every year.
Well, how do you win? One thing, we’ve got to do a better job of discipline. We had more penalties than anybody in the ACC. Discipline means you clean up your locker room, it means you clean up your training table, it means you clean up your players’ lounge. So we were really, really hard on them about cleaning things up, and then we took ACC officials to every practice and we addressed every penalty that we had and why we had it.
All of those things just led to, more than anything else, trust. We were fortunate enough to win the first two games. We told the fans, “You’ve got to come. It’s unfair to ask your team to win when you’re not showing up.” And then we got home for the first home game against Miami, and it’s a sellout. Students are waiting 3-4,000 deep because they can’t get in, and the players are just overwhelmed. All of those things led to them trusting us and understanding that we know what we’re doing. And that way we can be harder on them and more disciplined.
We also choose a 22-member leadership committee that they vote on, and a lot of the decisions we make go through that committee. They don’t make decisions but they have input. They give me their opinions on things that they feel like are very important to our team, and I make the final decision.
FootballScoop: Who do you lean on for advice when you feel like you need it?
Brown: That’s a great question. When I was at Texas I picked five or six different people, it was Joe Jamail, a prominent lawyer who the stadium’s named after. It was Coach Royal. It was Red McCombs, who owned the Minnesota Vikings. It was Coach Paterno, Coach Bowden, my brother Watson. I still have some prominent businesspeople in this state that I talk to and bounce things off of them, and that’s what I’ve done more than not, is take five or six supporters that I trust, that are going to tell me the truth and be hard on me. And instead of people that I don’t know talk about whether I’m doing things right, I want to talk to people that I know and that know me well.
FootballScoop: How are you getting through these unprecedented times that we’re in?
Brown: We basically are learning to be virtual coaches, because we’ve never done this before. We’re scattered all over the country; Coach Lilly’s back in Cleveland with family, Coach Dewitt’s with his parents down in Myrtle Beach. Everything we do now is online; we’re doing so many things through Zoom. Our players are going to class today online for the first time. We’re having our offseason program online today for the first time. Our strength staff is doing such a great job — they’ve got a program for those that can get to a weight room, and they’ve got a program for those that can’t. Filling up bottles of water, putting them in your bag and doing exercises. We’ve got our nutritionist that’s working really, really hard to make sure our guys have the supplements they need, working with the NCAA to make sure we can get them to them.
Our coaches do have projects, but the most important thing is they’re taking care of their health and their family’s health. They’ve got to reorganize their own household. They’ve got kids at home that are going to school online themselves, then they’ve got to continue to have a routine to work in recruiting and work with our players. We said, “Your safety, your family’s safety, the safety and well being of your players are the most important things, and then recruiting would be the fourth thing that we’re doing.” We want to over-communicate, because it’s really, really important right now. There’s some depression, especially the age of young people that we deal with. There’s some anxiety, there’s some boredom. All of us are dealing with new normals. And we challenge them that great leaders take crises and they turn them into positives. That’s what we’ve got to do.