FNF exclusive: Q&A with North Carolina coach Mack Brown

By Dan Guttenplan, FNF Coaches Editor

Editor’s note: This story originally ran in the Summer edition of FNF Coaches.

With Mack Brown, 68, closing in on the final years of his Hall of Fame career at University of North Carolina, it’s sometimes easy to forget he is the same coach that led Texas to a national championship in 2006. In fact, during his 16-year tenure at Texas (1998-2013), he posted nine consecutive double-digit win seasons, two Big 12 titles and a national title.

Now the man who has amassed a record of 251-128-1 over 31 seasons as a head coach is looking to leave one final mark on a program he turned into a legitimate ACC powerhouse in his first stint from 1988 to 1997.

Brown recently joined FNF Coaches for an exclusive interview.

What inspired you to get into coaching?

“My father was a coach. My grandfather left Putnam County (Tenn.) as the winningest coach in Tennessee history. The stadium is named after him. He was the Superintendent then. My father became a Principal. My grandmother was the Assistant to the Superintendent. I’ve been in schools for my entire life as well as the sports business. My mother was All-State in basketball and volleyball. My dad owned a local sporting goods store. I had knee surgeries at the end of my playing career, so I went into coaching.”

Was it something you always wanted to do after playing?

“I actually wanted to be a lawyer. I didn’t like to read, so I realized I’m not going to be a lawyer unless I read. I went to Vanderbilt and they told me I had to read all of these pages and go to more years of school. Nope. I transferred to Florida State. I hurt my knee and started coaching. I turned a negative into a positive by starting to coach at a young age.”

You’ve had to establish a winning culture in a couple of spots throughout your career. How is that done?

“Going through the difficult situation at UNC the first time ended up being the best thing that ever happened in my career. You have to have a plan and continue to tweak the plan and grow from other people who are successful. Have confidence when things are bad and you’re not winning games. Find places to win small victories. Maybe you force more turnovers or finish with more rushing yards. I knew if enough things went right, the scoreboard would take care of itself. We told them, ‘Don’t look at the scoreboard, just give us everything you’ve got.’ When I was asked about the future, I said, ‘I know we’ll be good, I just don’t know when.’ A lot more people talked about the 2-20 start than the 10-2.”

Those Texas teams that you coached were so talented. You must have done a great job recruiting and then building team chemistry. What advice would you give for coaches of talented players who are trying to build a team-first environment?

“Well, you have to remember that Ricky Williams won the Heisman my first year there after a 4-9 season. We felt high school football was the lifeblood of a college program. We had to have players who were taught right and wanted to continue to grow. So, we had to do a great job of evaluating 20 million people in Texas. There were an average of 375 players who signed with Division 1 programs, and we could take 25 or fewer. We had to play the other 350, and they didn’t like that they couldn’t play for us. They expect you to win every week at Texas. If you’re not prepared for the pressure of 120,000 people watching and a media situation like the NFL, you shouldn’t be there.

“I think the biggest thing is finding people who fit at Texas. It’s the same thing here. Who do you like? If you don’t like them, they won’t like you. And then they’re not going to play very hard.”

I think everyone remembers that classic national championship game between Texas and USC. How did you feel in-game when it was going back and forth?

“When you’re in a game like that, you’re coaching like any other time. You don’t think about the crowd or the score except for strategy purposes. Even when we scored with 19 seconds left, I was thinking about how we had to kick to Reggie Bush, and USC has a timeout and a real good field goal kicker. People said I showed little emotion, but I was working. You don’t appreciate it until you look back.”

What made you decide to come out of retirement and return to UNC?

“We interviewed for jobs every year, and it wasn’t right for them or it wasn’t right for us. Nothing connected. When they told me I had been inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, I asked why it took a year after the announcement. They said you should go say thank you to all of the players that made it possible. I connected with former players and coaches, and my wife said she’d never seen me happier since I got out of coaching. She said, ‘If the perfect spot opens, we should go back and do this again.’”

Brown Returns to UNC

Brown, who was inducted into the National Football Foundation’s College Hall of Fame in December of 2018, won more college football games than any coach in the country over a 24-year period from 1990-2013.

Still, he wasn’t sure he’d get another chance before he got back into coaching after a five-year retirement.

“When this job came open, I said I wouldn’t interview and be one of five candidates,” Brown said. “They said, ‘No, it’s you.’ I called my wife in Austin. She had said jokingly, ‘I’ll let you coach in Hawaii, the Bahamas or Chapel Hill.’ I said, ‘Honey – You said I could go back to Chapel Hill.’ She was silent for 30 seconds and said, ‘Yeah, let’s do this thing.’”

For Brown, the hardest part was getting started.

“I stayed involved with coaching through TV, and I was at spring practice. I’d visit campuses days before games every week. If the game changed, I changed with it. Early Signing Day was the biggest change for me. I took the job on Nov. 26, and I had 19 days to hire a staff, learn my team, see who’s in academic trouble, get medical information, see who’s leaving early, see who’s in the Transfer Portal, figure out your position needs for recruiting. So, the most difficult thing for a new coach is early Signing Day. You have to multitask and move very quickly.”