How Mack Brown Fixes Football Programs
Clint Gwaltney likes to joke that Mack Brown has a manila folder with a to-do list in it for every job he takes: Rally the lettermen around you by bringing them back into the program. Get the in-state high school coaches to love you. Get the students and campus community involved.
Brown understands the marketing aspect of coaching. “He’s a true CEO and he carries himself in that manner,” Gwaltney says. “He trusts people to do their job and if you’re not going to do it, you’re not going to work for him. He’s a great man to work for. He’s very loyal and very rewarding as long as you’re that way in return.”
Getting a late start in January, Brown started on recruiting first and in-state recruiting was a bit of a mess. Carolina’s opening day roster in 1988, largely recruited by Crum, had 70 of its 122 players from out of state, including nine from Ohio, six from New York and three from Michigan. Brown challenged his assistants to go out and meet each high school coach in the state in one month.
Gwaltney was one of those in-state kids and his recruitment was an example of the craftiness of the Carolina staff. He wasn’t on the radar of the staff until one of Carolina’s assistants was across the street recruiting one of his neighbors.
“It was prior to cell phone days and Mack Brown’s recruiting coordinator sought me out across the street at my friend’s house, got the number and called me,” the former kicker says. “I was probably going to go to Purdue. That was before I heard from them.”
Eric Blount was another in-state kid. The running back/wide receiver from Ayden, N.C. was originally recruited by Crum then one-day Brown showed up at one of his basketball games at Grifton High School.
“I saw him (in the bleachers) looking at me. I didn’t meet him at that time but I talked to Coach on the phone and then I went on a recruiting visit and met him in his office,” Blount says. “I think one of the best qualities of Coach Brown is that you can make a difference in winning and losing. It’s all up to you. He says, ‘I’m here to help you get to that point.’ He wants you to feel like if you do well individually then the team does well collectively. He’s a players’ coach, right? He listens to everybody. Not just the coaches but the players as well. That’s why the players like him and gravitate to him.”
Rallying the letterman and improving morale in the program went hand in hand. Brown renovated the fieldhouse and locker room. Each player had their picture and name in their locker, accompanied by former standout players who’d also worn that number. There were lists of former All-ACC and All-American players at Carolina. Everything was painted Carolina blue.
“You just saw a lot of visual changes. He wanted to visually change the locker room. He wanted to visually change how we dressed,” Dinkin says. “To me looking back as a guy who’s spent 30 years in marketing, he’s a master marketer. It’s incredible he just changed the culture in so many different ways by doing so many different things.”
The improvements made the work the players were doing feel important. The numbers and names served as a tool for accountability. Each player was a link in a chain. When you came in, you were taking the next step from the guy before you. If you didn’t take it seriously, you didn’t just fail yourself you failed the last guy.
“He created this idea of the state championship. Like, he made it up,” Dinkin says.
The state championship is a mythical title Brown created for whichever of the four in-state ACC teams had the best record within those in-state games. Brown went back and looked at the years Carolina would’ve been state champions and when the team came back from break, a previously white wall had all those years painted on it.
“We were like, ‘What the heck is that?’ But when you think about it, it’s exactly what you have to do,” Crowley says. “You can’t win conference championships if you’re not beating the guys in the state. It’s a stepping stone. You are the University of North Carolina, beat everybody else in North Carolina. If you do that, you win the recruiting battle.”
Brown also reached out to a local artist who would design T-shirts for each game, each with a different theme based on the opponent or what they were trying to accomplish. It was a far cry from the no-frills Crum era.
“I remember we were playing Army or Navy and it was the esprit de corps,” Dinkin says. “And we talked about the importance of our esprit de corps and our coming together as one. That was always a pretty cool thing that everybody was looking forward to.”
Then came the legend of Charlie “Choo-Choo” Justice. When Brown arrived, it had been 39 years since Justice finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting. Then all of a sudden, Justice’s Life Magazine cover popped up on the wall outside a meeting room in the fieldhouse. Not long after, Justice and other players of that era were honored at games and invited to talk to the team after practice.
Crowley believed Brown wanted to create a face of the program and with Lawrence Taylor running into off the field trouble, Justice was a safe choice.
Brown was skilled in assessing the challenges a university was facing. There was an emerging distrust between faculty and athletics. Brown’s solution was to have a faculty member serve as a guest coach each week. The faculty member attended a practice each week, wore a coach’s polo, was introduced before the game and ran onto the field with the team. It was Brown’s way of being transparent and opening the lines of communication.
Brown even reached out to the people who ran campus parking and had them come in to meet his players. It humanized the players and showed people that their intentions were honest, even if there were times they’d slip up.
“He’s trying to win football games and keep his job, but at the same time he realizes there’s a short term investment and long term investment,” Crowley says. “The more people I get bought into this program, the more people I get coming back, the more kids that are going to want to come here and play and the more people are going to want to buy tickets to watch us play.”