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UNC’s really, officially bringing back Mack Brown

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The former Heels coach, who’s better known as the former Texas coach, is back in Chapel Hill.

Valero Alamo Bowl - Oregon v Texas Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

North Carolina is hiring Mack Brown to replace Larry Fedora as head football coach, the school announced Tuesday morning, a day after the news had gotten out.

Brown was the Tar Heels’ coach from 1988 to 1997. He had three 10-win seasons in that span before taking the coaching job he’s most famous for: the one at Texas, where he spent 16 years. Brown’s four finishes in the AP Poll’s top 19 from 1992 to 1997 are the most recent stretch of multi-year great play by the Heels.

After Brown left, the program declined quickly under Carl Torbush, and it didn’t have another ranked finish until Fedora put up an 11-3 mark in 2015.

A lot of us are going to have a hard time wrapping our heads around UNC hiring a 67-year-old head coach who’s been out of the game for a full five seasons.

When Brown won a national championship at Texas with Vince Young, who had arguably the greatest individual season ever, current recruits were around kindergarten age. The most recent thing on Brown’s track record is losing four to seven games every year from 2010 to 2013.

Yet there have been indications this was coming. SB Nation’s Steven Godfrey and Richard Johnson reported a week before UNC fired Fedora Sunday that boosters were talking for real about Brown taking the job. Early Monday, more details from them on the guy who’s spent the last few years in various analyst roles at ESPN:

It starts with the fact that Brown wants to get back into coaching. He’s 67 years old, the same age as Nick Saban and two years older than Les Miles. The feeling is that there are only a few jobs Brown would return to take, but UNC is one of them.

Brown’s enjoyed his time at ESPN, but his competitive fire still burns. His time at the four-letter network is as close to coaching as you can get without actually toeing the sideline, when it comes to preparation and scouting. It also kept him very visible.

One name connected to the potential Brown hire would be Texas A&M assistant Tim Brewster, a longtime Brown assistant who still has ties to the area.

Aside from Brown, Georgia defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, Appalachian State head coach Scott Satterfield, and Ohio State offensive coordinator Ryan Day have drawn interest.

It’s not like UNC got backed into a corner and had to hire Brown. Athletic director Bubba Cunningham wanted him, and apparently badly. There are no blue-blood job openings right now that the Heels have had to contend with for coaching talent. And the job had sat open for basically one day, which aligns with reporting that Cunningham wanted to move fast.

From UNC’s release announcing the hire:

“Mack Brown has a proven record of building great teams, and he doesn’t just develop football players – he also develops people of strong character,” says Director of Athletics Bubba Cunningham. “He knows how to win championships, and he expects his student-athletes to win in the classroom and community, as well.”

There are some major questions UNC has to answer now.

Tar Heel Blog asks three of them:

1. He’ll be 68 when the Heels kick off against South Carolina next season. Is there a contingency plan or head-coach-in-waiting scenario?

2. If this is more of a Dabo Swinney/Herm Edwards “CEO” situation, can he hire an all-star coaching staff? Early, unemployed names with Brown connections include Gene Chizik for DC and Kliff Kingsbury for OC— that would be a hell of a start and ease some concerns. Tommy Thigpen returned to Chapel Hill this year and played under Brown, and will almost certainly be retained, and other Brown-era alums such as Dre Bly and Ronald Curry could cut their teeth as position coaches and ace recruiters.

3. Did Brown orchestrate all of this? Fedora thanked Brown for being a mentor at his introductory press conference in 2011. Reports indicated that Fedora asked Brown for advice about recruiting in-state recently, and then largely ignored it. As Carolina stumbled to 5-18 over the past two seasons, did Brown (and boosters) assemble a pitch to Bubba Cunningham that couldn’t be ignored?

Could this actually work? Anything’s possible.

UNC’s an interesting gig for the same reasons it has been for a long time. It’s in the more winnable half of the ACC. There’s a lot of recruitable talent in the Carolinas, and UNC’s close enough to places like Virginia, Georgia, and Maryland to have a natural footprint there. Brown’s demonstrated before that it’s possible to have great seasons there.

But hiring Brown is a perplexing thing to do in the year 2018.

UNC’s betting its future on a guy who’s just now celebrating the nine-year anniversary of the last time he won double-digit games, and who hasn’t been coaching while schemes have been innovated upon the last few years.

It smells strongly like an attempt to recapture old glory days without being creative all, and while that sometimes works well, it often doesn’t work at all.