Mack Brown knew it was time to step away.
When he was head coach at Texas, the Longhorns went 13-1 in 2009, losing only to Alabama in the national championship game. That loss devastated him, and he dwelled on it endlessly.
Rather than focusing on the 13 wins and celebrating his players for their accomplishments, he searched for answers in that one loss. He beat himself up as a coach and looked for weaknesses from that defeat.
"This is a game, you're supposed to enjoy it, and I'm afraid a lot of the years I had, I was fighting that," Brown said. "Coach [Darrell] Royal told me something at Texas. He quit coaching at 52, and I asked him 'Why'd you quit at 52?' He said because the wins became a relief and the losses became devastation.
"He had no joy in his life, and I think that's where I got at Texas."
Brown stepped down at Texas after the 2013 season and spent five years working as a college football analyst for ESPN. He spent those five years meeting with college coaches before calling a game, scouring hours of film, watching practices and studying up on the young new coaches making an impact. Things that were part of the job, or so he thought.
Those conversations with coaches became pre-interviews, allowing him to create mental lists of potential hires if he ever returned to coaching. Studying film helped him see what works and what doesn't in this era of college football, and he was closely observing the profession and the game.
His time away from the game really allowed him to rediscover his love for coaching college football. With a rejuvenated perspective, he came up with a new plan to build a team and staff. That is what he credits for his promising start with North Carolina.
"When you're the head coach at Texas and you're winning a lot of games, you don't have to have new ideas, you don't have to change and you really don't doubt that much," Brown said. "You don't get off that roller coaster to take a look around, and it was really good for me to see how other people were doing things and talk to other people about it."
Returning to UNC
It wasn't until Brown was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in January 2018 that he and his wife, Sally, realized they had missed coaching. Traveling to his various stops as a coach was part of the Hall of Fame process, and when Brown made his way to North Carolina, seeing the number of former players who showed up in support and the feeling he got being around a college football program meant both of them knew it was time for a return.
It was later that night, after visiting North Carolina, Brown and his wife had the conversation that it was time to come back.
"That night Sally said, 'I see what you're missing. You have a void because you love these kids,'" Brown said. "'That's what you do, that's your gift is to help kids grow.' She said that's why if the right place ever comes up, we need to come back and do this, because this is what you do well."
At the time, they didn't know the right opportunity would be the very school they were visiting, where Brown had coached from 1988 to 1997.
"It's not about the rings and trophies and money, that's not what you got into it for. Most coaches that I saw in my time off weren't very happy in coaching ... if I was going back, I was going to be happy." Mack Brown
But it sparked Brown to start preparing. He compiled lists of how he wanted to build his staff. Those hours watching practice and film were now scouting reports and new schemes for the offenses and defenses he wanted to run.
Brown got a chance to get off the coaching roller coaster and rediscover his energy and passion for the game. He knew he could do something special at a place like North Carolina.
Before he jumped in, however, he made a promise to Sally that he would have more fun this time around.
Brown knew he had to take a different approach this time around or he would quickly lose that energy. It started with the coaching staff. He didn't want to get the old band back together and trot out the same groups he had in the past.
He coached against Mike Leach and Kliff Kingsbury at Texas and knew a lot about the Air Raid offenses they ran. Brown felt if those offenses could incorporate the run, nobody could stop them. In his time at ESPN, he watched a young coach named Lincoln Riley run an offense that blended the pass and run game the way he wanted it to, exactly like how Riley's Oklahoma Sooners did last season.
"I talked to Lincoln, I talked to Kliff, and they gave me three or four names that could do what they're doing, because I couldn't hire one of them," Brown said. "I asked Lincoln if he'd leave Oklahoma to come be my offensive coordinator. He laughed and said he'd have more fun. Kliff too, but he was headed to the pros."
One of the names on that list was Phil Longo, who had been the offensive coordinator at Sam Houston State and then Ole Miss. Brown's brother, Watson, had called three Sam Houston games and mentioned Longo's name to his brother as well. Brown knew Longo was the right fit.
On defense, Brown zeroed in on then-Army defensive coordinator Jay Bateman. Brown remembered seeing Army's defense while calling the Armed Forces Bowl in 2017. Bateman was one of those inadvertent production meeting interviews, as Brown met with Bateman for more than an hour rather than the usual 20 minutes.
But Brown didn't only need to find the right coaches. Having been out of the game for five years, he needed to prove to them he was prepared for success once again.
Bateman was familiar with Brown as he had been around the Army team, but Bateman had also attended a Mack Brown football camp in high school. He figured Brown would do a great job, but it wasn't until meeting with him in person about the defensive coordinator opening that he believed Brown was going to do something special.
Bateman and his wife have an 8-year-old boy with autism, but never mentioned it to Brown before a meeting they had about the job. His son's care at West Point was an important factor as to why he hadn't left for other jobs.
Only 10 minutes into the conversation with Bateman and his wife, Brown mentioned the number of resources that would be available to them and their son at Chapel Hill and Duke. That there would be other athletic department employees who had children with autism that they could reach out to. He brought up the fact that he and Sally had helped build the Sally and Mack Brown Rise School of Austin, a school for early childhood and preschool education for children with special needs.
"At that point, my wife was done, she was like, 'Yeah, we're going,'" Bateman said. "I just think that's how he is with everybody that he meets. He's constantly reaching out to us coaches saying, 'I need you to call this guy because he has a question about something we've done that we've had success in our life, whether it's football or non-football.' I think people realize pretty quickly with him, that's just who he is."
Bateman got a firsthand glimpse of what made Brown such a good recruiter his whole coaching career. Brown doesn't do sales pitches; he's genuine. That left no doubt as to whether Brown would be able to jump back into recruiting as well.
'If you're trying, you're faking it'
Not everyone can take more than five years off and dive back in with recruiting success. Relationships have changed, high school coaches have changed schools, younger college coaches are gaining prominence and recent national championship rings are dangled in front of recruits like a carrot in front of a rabbit. Not to mention that recruits have detailed digitally edited photos, alternate uniforms and high-tech facility upgrades constantly put in front of their faces.
But Brown has something that can't be taught: the ability to connect and communicate with people. Just being himself and showing people he cares has been a big part of why Brown and North Carolina have had tremendous recruiting success early on.
In his first recruiting class, Brown flipped ESPN 300 quarterback Sam Howell from Florida State and finished with the No. 23-ranked class. In 2020, Brown and his staff landed five-star defensive end Desmond Evans, along with five other ESPN 300 prospects, moving up to the No. 16 class overall.
In the 2021 recruiting cycle, North Carolina has the No. 4-ranked class in the country. The staff flipped ESPN 300 quarterback Drake Maye from Alabama and has five-star defensive end Keeshawn Silver committed.
Silver is the top-ranked prospect in North Carolina, and keeping those in-state prospects home was a big focus for Brown. All 11 of UNC's ESPN 300 commitments in the 2021 class are from North Carolina.
That genuine feeling from Brown was impressed upon Silver both figuratively and literally during his recruitment.
"He hugged and kissed me when I committed; I'll never forget that," Silver said. "I don't know if it was intentional or not, but he hugged me and then kissed me. You can't replicate Mack Brown; it's like you can't replicate Nick Saban; if you're trying, you're faking it."
Brown hasn't faked that in his 30-plus years of coaching. When Tommy Thigpen thinks back to his recruitment in the late 1980s as a linebacker at Potomac High School in Dumfries, Virginia, he remembers very vividly one coach making a profound impact on him and his father.
Of all the college coaches that came through their home and tried to recruit Tommy, it was Brown who made the biggest impression on the Thigpen family. Originally from Arkansas, Thigpen didn't have any real ties to North Carolina, outside of a high school coach who asked him to take a look at the Tar Heels as a favor.
He obliged and found himself and his father in front of Brown, coming away with a feeling they hadn't experienced with anyone else.
"I just remember this: The most influential person in my life is my father, and when he met Mack Brown, he said, 'There aren't many men in your life who are going to take an interest in your future,'" said Thigpen, now a co-defensive coordinator with the Tar Heels. "'But this man right here, he's going to be around you the rest of your life. I don't know about these other coaches, but I have a good feeling about this guy; you can trust this guy.'"
That feeling of genuine compassion from Brown was exactly why Thigpen knew Brown wouldn't have any issues returning to the recruiting world. Back in the '80s, Brown had told Thigpen that choosing North Carolina would be a 40-year decision, not a four-year one. Now, nearly 30 years later, here they are, with Thigpen's father's words still holding true.
No generation gap
He's been out of the game for too long.
He's too old.
Recruiting has changed too much.
Other people may have doubted Brown, but people close to him and the recruits who met him in person never felt that way.
Even though he's 68, Brown doesn't believe there's a generation gap. As long as you relate to people, it doesn't matter whether you're in your 30s or nearing 70.
"I think the generation gap is people; if you can relate to kids, you can relate to kids," Brown said. "We're so honest that a lot of people in recruiting tell them what they want to hear. I've got 32 years of players that are going to tell people that I told them the truth, and we even have seven guys on our staff that played for me at North Carolina."
Brown's style is his own genuine self, one at which Thigpen laughs lovingly when thinking about how different Brown is from other coaches.
On in-home visits with recruits, Thigpen knows other coaches spend time on clichés, telling recruits and parents the same message they just heard from the last staff that was in their living room. Thigpen says Brown is in the kitchen cooking dinner and cleaning dishes, immersing himself into the family rather than telling them how he will be a part of their family.
Brown took the foundation of what made him successful at Texas and his time away from the game to analyze his mistakes, better his system and surround himself with the right people. Those reservations on whether Brown would be successful in his return to coaching have now turned into questions on how far North Carolina can go.
Brown vowed he wouldn't let losing consume him and rob him of why he got into coaching: to develop his players and mentor these young kids. He promised his wife he wouldn't be devastated by a few slip-ups. He admits he hasn't lived up to that promise just yet, but he is allowing himself to have a lot more fun than he did in the past.
Taking the time away from coaching made him realize why he got into coaching in the first place and helped him prioritize how this last chapter would be written.
"I realized in the five years off, what I missed was being around the young people, the organization, the practice, the fourth quarter of the game where you're behind, trying to get back to win the game late," Brown said. "It's not about the rings and trophies and money, that's not what you got into it for. Most coaches that I saw in my time off weren't very happy in coaching, and I committed to my wife, Sally, if I was going back, I was going to be happy.
"This is a game. You're supposed to enjoy it."