Now is the time for Mack Brown and UNC to fulfill a long-held vision and promise

Andrew Carter, The News & Observer

WINSTON-SALEM, NC — Mack Brown didn’t make any big promises when he returned to North Carolina four years ago, instead spending much of his introductory press conference sharing a broad vision of hope. The Tar Heels football program had descended into chaos, one with five wins in two miserable seasons, and of the task ahead, Brown said cheerfully, “We love fixing things.”

The challenge had brought him back. That, and he missed a lot of things about coaching — most notably the relationships. Still, he said back then, after years of living the comfortable life of an analyst at ESPN and after leaving the drudgery of the sidelines behind as he left Texas in less-than-friendly circumstances, “You’re starting to wonder why you’re doing it again.” work out. Maybe you’ve done enough.”

Four years later, Brown finally has a definitive answer to his question at the time. Why coach again? To the This. For the kind of moment and place North Carolina got here on Saturday night with a 36-34 win over Wake Forest. Afterwards, Brown found himself in a jubilant locker room surrounded by memories of why he wanted to return to UNC a second time.

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There were his players, “yelling and singing and yelling,” as Brown put it, while passing around the ACC Coastal Division trophy. Some of them came up to Brown and hugged him. For a few moments, he took it all in and all he could say was that “it’s so much fun to see happy kids who are comfortable.”

Parts of his return were not so joyous. An ebb and flow first season gave way to the Orange Bowl appearance at the end of the 2020 season marred by the pandemic. Last year, UNC started in the top 10 only to finish 6-7, a disappointment that questioned whether Brown, now 71, could revive the tar heels the way he did three decades ago. Then came this season: the early breaks against Appalachian State and Georgia State and the one-sided loss to Notre Dame before four (now five) straight wins.

Despite recent success, the Tar Heels have struggled to prove themselves. Drake Maye has been sensational and has become a viable Heisman Trophy contender, and yet the defense has remained a mystery even as it has improved. So, the trip to Wake Forest was a game and a test that many UNC fans awaited with trepidation. And rightly so.

After all, the Demon Deacons were a top-10 team a few weeks ago before suffering their third straight loss. They have an offense capable of exploiting the Tar Heels’ holey defense, which actually happened a lot on Saturday. Besides, how many times had other tar heels teams ended up and failed at such a crossroads? How many times has UNC climbed the national rankings – it’s now 15th and counting – only to receive a cold, heaping helping of waiting until next year?

Not this time. Not this night.

Tar Heels junior receiver Josh Downs reflected on some of the disappointments of the past while clutching the Coastal Division trophy to his chest on Saturday night. A year ago, he said, “We were just looking forward,” and lost focus after starting the season with some of the highest hopes in program history.

“We’ve come this far since last year,” said Downs, who finished with 154 yards receiving and three touchdowns, “from overvaluing, I can tell, and from not delivering — until this year.” Downs himself was physical evidence of the program’s growth under Brown, because if Brown hadn’t returned, Downs said he would have gone to NC State instead. Now he will be playing for a conference championship soon.

UNC’s place in Charlotte in the ACC Championship game was already secured with Georgia Tech’s loss on Saturday. However, rather than retiring in the league title game, the Tar Heels went through the front door and marked their arrival with a win over a state rival that has set the standard among North Carolina schools for maximizing their potential.

“I didn’t want to go back in,” Brown said, his hair disheveled and his eyes red from a bout of conjunctivitis, if not a tad of happy tears. “I didn’t want anyone to have to lose.”

And so the Tar Heels went out and won. Like most of her other wins this season, this one wasn’t easy. The offense, which generated 584 yards, proved fallible and allowed Wake Forest to stay in it for long. The UNC defense, once again coming up with needed stops late, made it harder than necessary in the first three quarters and still allowed nearly 500 yards.

Still, this will likely be remembered as one of the defining moments of Brown’s second act at UNC. The victory also underscores the fact that after four years in office, it is now time for his program to take the next step – to soar to heights it failed to reach even during its heyday in the mid-1990s. Back then, Brown had an understandable excuse for never winning an ACC championship. Florida State was still Florida State, after all, and there was never any shame in losing to those Seminoles.

But now? Now nobody really stands in the way.

Indeed, Clemson might be the favorite in Charlotte in a couple of weeks, but these Tigers are hardly the Tigers of a few years ago. And in Maye, the Tar Heels have an advantage that no opponent can stop or even slow down. The Demon Deacons actually performed reasonably well on Saturday’s search, holding Maye and UNC’s offense on three consecutive possessions from the end zone at crucial moments in the third and fourth quarters.

But then look at what Maye did throughout most of the game: a season-high 448 yards. Sixty-one yards at breakneck speed. Four touchdowns. Ho-hum. Another Heisman-esque performance from a player who’s increasingly looking like he’ll be in New York City as a finalist for what is probably the most prestigious individual award in sport.

It’s almost taken for granted now what Maye does because he does it every week. But it’s not normal. UNC has generational talent at quarterback. There’s another one, Downs, who catches Maye’s passes. On paper, for a while it looked like next season could be the year for UNC given the expected maturation of some announced recruit classes.

But more than ever, the time for tar heels is now. Next year is not guaranteed. Downs will likely be in the NFL by then. Who knows if Phil Longo, the mastermind of the UNC offensive, will get another job after this season. The defense, if they don’t make a significant step forward, could be a liability again. It’s taken four years, but the Tar Heels are here now, with the kind of opportunity that lured Brown out of retirement.

He then talked about how difficult it is for a team to come together like it is now.

“They’re a team that really likes each other,” Brown said. “We talk about culture, we talk about chemistry, it’s all really good with this team. We’ve had very, very few problems with them. And that’s only positive, and it’s hard to do. It sounds easy but it’s really hard to do. And even next year there will be many great players coming back.

“But we have to start over, we can’t wait for it to happen. That’s where you get into trouble.”

All the more reason for the Tar Heels to capitalize on the present. They’ve remained a sad Georgia Tech team whose head coach was fired before hosting the fading NC State in the regular-season finals. Then comes Clemson and the chance for the Tar Heels to win their first ACC championship since 1980.

If not this season and time, then when?