The first thought regarding the news that Mack Brown will return to the University of North Carolina is, well, sure, he’d make a nice athletic department ambassador. Wait, wait. He’ll be the head football coach? Are you &$#@! kidding? Brown is 67 years old. Five seasons have passed since he last ran a program. What sort of future could he possibly represent?
But then you realize what North Carolina wants isn’t so much what’s to come, but what it once had. The past was better than the present, so why not chase it down again?
This column is a reminder and a warning, not to North Carolina and its fans in particular, but to so many college football fans nationwide as we head into the annual coaching shell game. This is to the Tennessee fans who grew weary of Phillip Fulmer, to Cal supporters who felt Jeff Tedford had grown stale, to Maryland boosters who helped build the extra seats at their own stadium for Ralph Friedgen’s program, only to have Friedgen be fired and the excess stands sit empty on so many Saturdays since.
And watch out, Michigan State people who believe Mark Dantonio has run his course in East Lansing, even as the Spartans await their 11th bowl bid in 12 seasons.
Remember the lesson of North Carolina and Mack Brown. Yes, it’s two decades old, but it applies now, as Brown takes over as the sixth head coach of the Tar Heels — since Mack Brown.
What people recall: In 1997, Brown left North Carolina for Texas, which anyone with an understanding of college football hierarchy would deem logical, even a no-brainer. What people forget: Brown might have stayed had UNC’s administration not botched the handling of his situation. Dean Smith had just retired as the basketball coach. Football was ascendant. What better place to be than, as they say down there, “the Southern part of heaven.”
More importantly: Back then, some folks in Chapel Hill, N.C. thought Brown had pushed the Tar Heels as far as he could get them. Not only would Carolina be fine without him, Carolina might — get this — be better without him.
The height of North Carolina football — and fans of all those other programs, you have your analogous moments — came in November 1997, Brown’s 10th season.
“I thought our program was on the road to being extraordinary,” Chris Keldorf, one of Brown’s two regular quarterbacks on that team, said in a telephone interview Monday.
The Tar Heels were 8-0 and ranked fifth in the country. They hosted Florida State, also 8-0 and ranked third, back when the Seminoles had lost just one conference game during their first six years in the ACC. ESPN’s “College Game Day” was in town. The moment seemed nigh. Ron Green, the legendary columnist at the Charlotte Observer, reflected the tenor when he wrote before that game:
“This is it.
“Ten-and-one won’t do, not this year.
“See ya later at the Gator won’t do.”
In the moment, it made sense.
But the moment can’t account for the 20 years in the wilderness that followed.
So many schools have this story to tell. Maryland football won at least eight games six times in Friedgen’s 10 seasons at his alma mater. Number of eight-win seasons the Terrapins have enjoyed in the 15 years before Friedgen was hired and the eight since he was fired: zero.
Tedford, the offensive whiz who coached Aaron Rodgers, DeSean Jackson and Marshawn Lynch, among others, at Cal, was fired after going 3-9 in 2012, just the second time in Tedford’s 11 years in which the Golden Bears lost more games than they won. During one stretch, Tedford’s Cal teams went to eight bowl games over nine seasons. You have to go back to 1950 to find eight non-Tedford bowl appearances for Cal.
And to the text chain of Duke alums that I may or may not be a part of, those who are questioning David Cutcliffe’s stewardship of the Blue Devils football program: Stop. Stop right now. You’re about to get your sixth bowl bid in seven years. You have to go back to (checks notes) World War II to find the sixth-most recent Duke bowl bid, pre-Cutcliffe. You won’t do better. You can’t do better.
You know who you are, college football zealots. You’re the Hokies who questioned Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech , the Wahoos who raised eyebrows toward George Welsh at Virginia . This phenomenon — we have to do better than what we have — has existed for decades and knows no bounds. Another example is around every corner.
Why, look: Les Miles is now the head coach at Kansas . Why in the world is Les Miles, who won a national championship at LSU , at Kansas? Because his last four teams in Baton Rouge went 10-3, 10-3, 8-5 and 9-3, and then he got off to a 2-2 start in 2016. That wasn’t good enough, and he was fired. What’s happened since at LSU under Ed Orgeron : 9-4 and 9-3 . In five years, will Orgeron have stepped forward from 37-14, while competing in the SEC West ? Good luck, Tigers.
The message to each athletic director leading each program: Know who you are. Understand the best version of what you can be.
The best version of North Carolina football came about when Mack Brown was the coach. The reaction of one of his prominent former players Monday: “The first thing that came to mind, my immediate reaction was, Well, of course,” Keldorf said.
Sound crazy? Sure. But maybe it’s not.
“Coach Brown’s formula works,” Keldorf said. “He has a very, very systematic approach. He has an exceptional ability to hire an excellent staff, and Coach does an unbelievable job of creating a key message, a culture, and getting you to buy in. He gets you to believe in the system and tells you, ‘You’re going to perfect this system on a daily basis.’ ”
That system got North Carolina to a 21-3 record in his final two seasons, each of which concluded with a trip to the Gator Bowl . Amazing to think now, but there was a time when the Gator Bowl felt disappointing. Yet it has been 21 years since North Carolina played in that game. Maybe Mack Brown, of all people, can get them back, back to a time when they didn’t know how good they had it.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.
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