Coach Mack Brown, who coached North Carolina from 1988 until 1997, is off to a 2-0 start in his return. (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Columnist

If you ask Mack Brown when he knew he wanted to coach again, his answer is exact: Aug. 10, 2018. If you ask him who made it clear to him that he should coach again, his answer is equally exact: His wife, Sally.

On Friday night, Brown, 68, will be on the North Carolina sideline at Wake Forest, coaching the 2-0 Tar Heels against the 2-0 Demon Deacons. A year ago, he would have been working the game from the press box as ESPN’s color commentator.

“I’m pretty sure Adam Amin, my partner the last two years, will say to me, ‘Are you crazy? Your biggest concern tonight should be our open,’ ” Brown said, laughing. “Maybe he’s right, but I can honestly say I’ll be exactly where I want to be, where I feel I belong.”

Brown’s road to that sideline began six years ago, when he resigned as the coach at Texas after 16 seasons that included a national championship and nine straight seasons with at least 10 wins. The Longhorns had gone 5-7 in 2010 — one year after losing to Alabama in the national championship game — but had won eight, nine and eight games the next three seasons.

Not good enough. Not good enough for many of Texas’s impatient boosters, but, more important, not good enough for Brown.

“I’d lost the joy of coaching,” he said earlier this week. “There were times after a win when I was shouting at my assistants leaving the field because I wasn’t happy with the way we’d played. I had lost what I started out to be in coaching: Someone who had a positive effect on the lives of my players. Don’t get me wrong, I always wanted to win, but, after we’d won and won and won, it became more about not wanting to lose than enjoying wins. It was definitely time for me to step away.”

Brown was 63 and had won 244 games at four schools: Appalachian State, Tulane, North Carolina and Texas. He was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame last year. As it turned out, it was that election that led Brown back to Chapel Hill.

Brown said Hall of Fame chief executive Steve Hatchell “suggested that, before I was inducted, I should try to spend some time thanking the people who had made this possible. I decided to go back to see people — especially players and coaches — who I’d worked with along the way.”

And so it was, on Aug. 10, that Brown found himself back in Chapel Hill, renewing friendships with many of those he had coached there.

“When the day was over, Sally said to me she now knew two things for certain,” Brown said. “The first was that it was always important to know exactly what you were saying when talking to young people because, clearly, it impacted them. The second was that there was clearly a void in my life. She said, ‘You’ve always been a fixer. You’ve got nothing to fix right now.’ ”

After leaving Texas, Brown had been contacted by schools to gauge whether he’d be interested in returning to coach. “I couldn’t get out of my mind how miserable I’d been at the end of 10-win seasons,” he said. “I’d gone from passion to obsession the last few years at Texas. I didn’t want to put myself through that again.”

After the Chapel Hill trip, he sat his wife down and said, “If you’re serious that I should coach again, where would you be willing to go? She said there were three places: Hawaii, the Bahamas and Carolina. I told her the Bahamas didn’t have a team. She said, ‘Well, maybe we could start one.’ ”

The other two places seemed unlikely to have a coaching vacancy anytime soon: Nick Rolovich was going into his third season and had Hawaii turned in the right direction. North Carolina’s Larry Fedora was coming off a 3-9 season but had just signed a five-year, $15 million contract.

Brown went back to working ESPN games and watched as Carolina had another disappointing season, going 2-9. Fedora was under pressure, not only because of the team’s record but because of comments he had made during the preseason ACC media days in which he had said, among other things, that it hadn’t been proven that football caused CTE and that football might be pushed, “so far to one extreme that you won’t recognize the game 10 years from now.” Then he added: “I do believe if it gets to that point our country will go down.”

A coach could probably survive making comments like that if he had gone 9-3 and then 9-2, but not after following up 3-9 with 2-9. Even though the school would have to pay Fedora $12 million to not coach, Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham fired him the day after the season ended.

That night, he called Brown.

Brown told Cunningham he had no interest in interviewing for the job. “I wasn’t going to be out there in the media as ‘one of five’ [candidates] and wade through all of that,” he said. “I told Bubba that and he said, ‘I’m offering you the job right now.’ ”

Naturally, he had to check with Sally. He’d met the location criteria. She had one more requirement: “You can’t get as upset about losses, or even unconvincing wins, as you did the last few years at Texas.”

Brown agreed. Two days later he was back at the place where he’d coached for 10 years, beginning in 1988, and had first made a national name for himself.

His first two Tar Heels teams went 1-10. By 1996, the Tar Heels were 10-2 and then went 10-1 in the 1997 regular season, leading to Brown being offered the Texas job. With new head coach Carl Torbush in charge for that season’s Gator Bowl, North Carolina destroyed Virginia Tech, 42-3. A headline in a newsletter devoted to UNC athletics said: “Who needs Mack Brown?”

Twenty-one years later — after going through five coaches; an embarrassing NCAA investigation that led to 16 wins being vacated and 11 losing seasons, including the two seasons of vacated wins — it turned out that North Carolina needed Mack Brown … again.

After UNC opened the season with a come-from-behind win over South Carolina, Brown danced for his players in the locker room after choking up in a postgame TV interview. A week later, the Tar Heels scored the winning touchdown with 1:01 left to beat a Miami team it lost to 47-10 a year ago. After Wake Forest on Friday, comes a home game against Appalachian State and then … Clemson. People around Chapel Hill are already talking about that game being a national TV game between two unbeaten teams.

“I hear that talk,” Brown said. “And you bet it concerns me. These players aren’t used to this. We’ve already won as many games as last season. They have to understand they can’t let down even a little bit or we’ll lose.”

And, if they do, can Brown handle it? He laughed. “Well, the first loss hasn’t come yet, but it will come,” he said. “That will be the test. But I think I can handle it. At least, I better.”

If he doesn’t, he’ll have to answer to Sally. That undoubtedly frightens him more than the notion of losing.

For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.