Mack Brown evidently now dislikes the label “CEO” coach. That marker came to be a caricature of his time at Texas: that Brown spent his time glad-handing boosters and recruits while his staff did the real coaching. It was a label Brown created by presenting himself as someone who would marshal the program’s vast resources and provide the vision and direction needed to translate Texas into an overpowering program.
But now that he’s taken back over at North Carolina, where he built the resume that resulted in his hiring at Texas for the 1998 season, Brown has stayed true to the CEO coach skill set. He built a staff with several up-and-coming coaches from prominent, modern schools of offense and defense, while reuniting with his old recruiting coordinator Tim Brewster (who was at Texas A&M) and hitting the trail to try and assemble a top-flight roster.
He’s built a strong staff. Brown secured air raid OC Phil Longo, who built an astounding resume at the FCS level with Sam Houston State before moving to Ole Miss in 2017. In Oxford, Longo’s offenses ranked 10th and 20th in S&P+. Brown also got Army DC Jay Bateman, who’s been ahead of the curve in building “positionless” and tempo-proof units.
Recruiting has taken off as well. The upshot is that Brown is building an impressive-looking program, at least as much as he could before the Heels play any games.
1. While Brown spent five years out of coaching, the sport changed a lot. He made sure to hire people versed in the new way.
Brown made it a point to pursue air raid coaches to try to bring an exciting and lethal brand of football to help the Heels build up their reputation. The obvious target, Kliff Kingsbury, ended up with shockingly good options, but Brown did well to get Longo.
Longo utilizes a particularly aggressive version of the offense. His Rebels took deep shots in the passing game whenever they could and ran a fair number of RPOs, primarily as a way to create opportunities to throw it down the field:
Or to the perimeter:
This is the cutting edge of the RPO world, using power run schemes to create opportunities to throw the ball to one-on-one matchups. The Rebels also mixed in some more air raid-specific schemes, like running multiple vertical concepts with receiver sight adjustments or one of Longo’s favorite schemes: combining route combinations with a QB draw as a way to approach third down:
This play is a great encapsulation of the “pass-first” paradigm that many of today’s spread offenses (especially the air raid teams) employ. You have to spread out to defend the quick throw first and then rally to stop a runner going between the tackles behind lead blocking.
The defense Bateman brings to Chapel Hill was designed in light of offenses like Longo’s. Bateman’s Black Knights faced a similar unit — and one Brown wants to emulate — when they took on the historic Oklahoma offense on the road in 2018.
The defensive success Army had in that 28-21 OT loss has been overstated. The Sooners moved the ball consistently throughout the game and were held down mostly by Army’s offense holding the ball and limiting them to 40 total plays at 8.9 yards per snap.
However, the Knights were able to cause problems for the Sooners with their disguises and ability to easily communicate blitzes and calls down to the field when moving at tempo:
They played 2-4-5 personnel much of this game, getting as many of their versatile LBs on the field as possible and throwing simulated blitzes and shifting coverages at the Sooners to create confusion. The Army defense was designed to allow the staff to signal in simple, one-word calls that would tell the players their assignments, and then they’d create one of a handful of core concepts. The variety was in who’d play which roles.
In the same way air raid teams have their three-day install in which they absorb the entire offense and then learn how to execute it in a wide variety of fashions, the Bateman style is essentially the air raid of defenses. The Heels will only have a few coverages and blitzes, but they run them from a multitude of different packages, with each position group taking turns doing the blitzing or covering particular zones or routes. The goal is be as confusing as possible to the offense, and to as flexible as possible in dictating the one-on-ones across the field — all while running as few concepts as possible.
2. More good news: Early indications are Brown might be realizing UNC’s recruiting upside.
Since Brown left after 1997 (and often before his tenure), the Tar Heels have struggled to win consistently. But they have pretty high recruiting upside if they get the right buy-in and leadership. Their state has more than 10 million people and a growing population with plenty of talented athletes. Only five states produced more blue-chips in the 2019 class than North Carolina, which has seen an increase the last few years.
UNC has competition within state borders from Wake Forest, Duke, and NC State. Plenty of other schools, including neighboring-state Clemson, operate in the area. But if the Heels put anywhere near as much emphasis on football as they have on basketball, they could at least regularly beat out their in-state foes to a pretty good-sized talent base.
In the 2019 transition class, UNC signed three of the state’s 16 blue-chip recruits. For a team that won two games, it was a historically strong class. In 2020, the Heels seem poised to do even better. A North Carolina Tar Heel team that locks down in-state talent has a much higher ceiling than what we’ve seen.
Brown’s vision is strong. While he may shy from the moniker, he’s fulfilling the “CEO” role at a high level early into his second tenure in Chapel Hill. The potential hangup is in quality control and oversight.
What happens once this team starts playing Virginia Tech, Miami, or rival South Carolina?
Brown can recruit, but his expertise in implementing and coaching up modern tactics after his time away is next to zero. After aiming to land the best possible hires and to help those coaches load up their position meeting rooms with talent, Brown isn’t going to have much to offer his assistants if they need to tweak or adjust their tactics to make them work.
In rivalry games, teams go all-in on game-planning, and Brown’s teams haven’t always measured up. His Texas was 7-9 against Bob Stoops’ Sooners, with four losses of 38 points or more under Brown’s direction. The Sooners combined similar amounts of talent with a head coach known as much for his own personal tactical ingenuity as his capacity for making strong hires and running a program. While at UNC, Brown was 1-3 against South Carolina and 5-5 against NC State, with a long early losing streak against the Wolfpack.
So, there are no guarantees. But so far Brown has looked re-energized and has initiated a plan to direct UNC’s potentially massive resources towards making a powerhouse out of a team that went 2-9 in 2018. If he can get UNC rolling forward again, perhaps the program will be able to maintain momentum the next time he moves on.