If UNC coach Mack Brown is going to make one more big splash, this has to be the year

7-9 minutes 7/27/2023
Mack Brown, one of the grand old men of college football, will celebrate his 72nd birthday six days before his UNC football team opens the 2023 season in Charlotte against South Carolina.
Brown looks good and feels good, as he should. He’s lost 35 pounds and he’s got a star quarterback in Drake Maye who enters the year as a legitimate Heisman contender and likely headed to the NFL as a first-round draft pick in 2024.
Maye’s big arm won’t fill in every UNC hole, and unfortunately he doesn’t also play defense. But his presence still means this is Brown’s best chance to make one final national splash. Last year’s UNC team, once 9-1, lost its final four games of the season and limped to a 9-5 finish.
This one — which opens against the Gamecocks on Sept. 2 at 7:30 p.m. on ABC in prime time — has a chance to be better than that. It’s almost certainly Maye’s final collegiate year because unless he gets hurt or plays extremely poorly, it would make little sense for him not to leave for the NFL.
So does Brown feel any pressure in 2023?
“I’m driven,” Brown said on the final day of the ACC Kickoff in Charlotte on Thursday. “I don’t ever feel pressure. If I felt pressure, it would put pressure on our team. I don’t get nervous. I get anxious because I get excited. ... To me, we’ve got the pride back in North Carolina football. We’re four years away from winning two games (in 2018, in Larry Fedora’s woeful last season). ... This team’s gone to an Orange Bowl, been to four straight bowl games and has won a divisional title. Now you’re starting your fifth season with a sold-out stadium, a really difficult schedule, an opening game on ESPN’s College GameDay and one of the best quarterbacks in the country, with a lot of guys coming back. So you want expectations. If you don’t have expectations, you haven’t done a very good job.”
In his second stint at UNC —he won a national championship at Texas in 2005 between the two baby blue gigs and is already in the College Football Hall of Fame — Brown will direct the Tar Heels once more at an age when many coaches are already working on their golf games.
Dean Smith was 66 when he retired. Roy Williams was 70. Beyond Chapel Hill, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski was 75. Florida State’s Bobby Bowden was forced to resign at 80. Alabama’s Bear Bryant was 69 when he stepped down, then infamously died of a heart attack only 37 days after retirement.
I mentioned to Brown on Thursday that Williams, who retired in 2021, has long said he retired because he believed he was no longer the right man for the job, due to a few coaching miscues that he thought pushed the UNC basketball team toward losses three different games in the final two years of his career.
“I can’t speak for Roy,” Brown said, “but he’s a dear friend. I think the transfer portal and NIL had a bigger thing to do with him (retiring). I think Roy would still be coaching if it weren’t for those two things.”
UNC Tar Heels quarterback Drake Maye responds to a question during the third day of the ACC Kickoff event at the Westin Charlotte Hotel in Charlotte, NC on Thursday, July 27, 2023.
Like all college coaches, Brown also has dealt with the transfer portal and the name, image and likeness questions, as players have more freedom than ever before to make money in college and leave their school for another if they’re not satisfied with what’s happening.
But Brown has weathered that storm, with the considerable help of his staff, and remained one of the friendliest coaches you’ll ever meet.
Said Maye of Brown Thursday: “He’s the most genuine, and he’s the best with names I’ve ever known. You’ll meet him for two seconds one day. ... You see him two years later, he’ll know your name. He’ll know your family members’ names. And the best thing Coach Brown is he’s always got a smile on him. You barely catch him in a bad mood.”
Brown hadn’t kept himself in great shape over the past few years. As he said in an earlier news conference this summer, during the COVID era he got “way too heavy.”
“When I’m busy, I’m good,” Brown said then. “Where I get in trouble is if I’m sitting, because I’m a nervous eater. And that’s what happened during COVID. I just sat and ate.”
Now Brown has cut out sugar, he said. And instead of drinking six of his beloved diet Snapple peach teas per day, he’s rationed himself down to one, which he sips slowly to try and make it last. When he looks at grabbing a handful of peanut M&Ms, he gets tempted, then puts them down. As he put it: “210 calories — not worth it.”
So that’s a man trying to take care of himself and make sure he’s able to do his job.
“As long as I’m productive and successful doing it for North Carolina, I want to do it,” Brown said. “If I see that I’m not getting to the kids and we’re not recruiting as well, then that’s (when he would consider retiring).”
One thing Brown doesn’t like: he still favors the two-division format the ACC has scrapped starting this year. The Tar Heels will have to pull a few upsets to play in the ACC title game for a second year in a row. Clemson and Florida State will be favored to meet in that Dec. 2 contest in Charlotte in the new one-division format which will pit the best two ACC teams by winning percentage.
But it’s possible UNC will get to Charlotte twice this year and not just for that season-opener vs. USC. Because with Maye on the field, the Tar Heels — and Mack Brown — will always have a chance.

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