CHAPEL HILL — Mack Brown’s impending retirement was news to him, but that’s the nature of college football when you dive into the deep end with big-time prospects.
“Some major schools are recruiting against us now, saying I’m going to quit and I’m too old,” he said.
For the 68-year old coach, it’s nothing personal.
“I thought, ‘How cool is that?’ That’s a great compliment that we’ve got somebody recruiting against us in our first year,’” Brown said on Monday.
After signing a one-year extension last week to keep five years on his contract, Brown said North Carolina plans to sign 25 of its 26 commitments on Wednesday’s National Signing Day, with 12 players set to enroll for the spring semester.
Despite missing out on four-star linebacker Trenton Simpson, who committed to Clemson over the weekend, the Tar Heels’ class ranks 17 nationally and third in the ACC according to 247 Sports.
Naturally, a hall of famer with a national championship ring knows how to bring in talent, but much has changed since Brown put together those legendary Texas teams and during his five years out of coaching.
But during that time away, he never lost his relevance in the college football world thanks to his presence on ESPN
“One of the things that has really helped us be effective with recruiting, I think, is being on TV for five years and the kids and families saw me,” Brown said. “I didn’t go away … and it’s really been interesting that they think they know me and I was in their home for those five years.”
Carolina running back Michael Carter, who has always been quick to show his appreciation for the history of college football, said he knows Brown as both the coach who had Vince Young, Jamaal Charles and other greats at Texas and the analyst who became a fixture on ESPN’s Saturday afternoon studio coverage.
“I’ve seen him on ESPN, suit and tie,” Carter said, smiling. “Fresh.”
Lately, Brown has taken the opportunity to get back in homes through his old employer, making appearances on College Gameday to break down Clemson-Virginia and the annual College Football Awards to share some historical perspective.
Each of those appearances is a recruiting pitch that few coaches and programs in America have access to. In particular, his chat with ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi at the award show allowed him to speak for more than a minute about his philosophy of bringing fun back to the game at Carolina.
“Any time ESPN wants us on, I’m going to go,” Brown said. “I did feel like it was important to young coaches that I tell them what I’ve learned now that I didn’t know when I was here at 35.”
Coaches clearly weren’t the only audience for Brown’s insight during that interview or the other appearances when he’s proudly gotten the Carolina logo in front of the cameras.
“It’s awesome for the program, just more people are finding out about us through Coach Brown,” quarterback Sam Howell said. “He’s all over every TV, almost every single day. We’re blessed to have him back here.”
And it’s not just the ESPN appearances.
Toward the end of his time at Texas, critics said the game had passed him by.
Now, he’s active on Instagram and Twitter almost every day, sharing videos produced by Carolina’s social media team and posting his own photos with any number of media personalities, legendary players and other celebrities outside the sport.
Ahead of the Military Bowl, Carolina will host an open practice at Georgetown with the hope of bringing out recruits, fans and media for exposure in an area that the program considers part of its recruiting footprint.
“From a recruiting and a fan standpoint and of course we want (the media) to be there,” he said.
His time at ESPN was clearly valuable in helping embrace a more modern approach to recruiting, while those five years that went by have also led to a new approach in face-to-face conversations.
“I think I’m even more direct,” he said. “I want to get the hard questions asked and answered by families, so I just tell them here’s what we’re going to do, and if you like it, that’s great; come here, and if you don’t, well go somewhere else. I want guys that want to be here.”
“Recruiting has been so much fun. I missed it … it takes the coaches back a little bit. I try to put myself in the family’s position, and I try to look at what I would want if I was them.”
While he tries to figure out where recruits want to be, Brown knows one thing for sure: he wants to be in Chapel Hill for as long as he can lead the Tar Heels.
“I’m going to coach here as long as I can,” he said. “As long as I’m effective for North Carolina, I will be the football coach.”
So, for the record, Brown says he’s not going anywhere — despite what anyone else might have to say.
“At this stage in my career, coaches get jealous because we’re doing too well, we’re recruiting too well, we won more games than they wanted us to and they know how powerful this place is in this state, especially when you’re winning and you’re the cool place to be,” he said. “That’s really interesting in my first year that they are talking about the end; we’re still talking about the beginning.”