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News & Record (Greensboro, North Carolina)
CHAPEL HILL — Mack Brown didn't have a lot of options when he decided he wanted to get back into coaching. In fact his wife, Sally, said she'd move to only three places on earth, and only two of them had college football.
"Hawaii, the Bahamas and Chapel Hill," she told him.
On a cold Tuesday, 21 years after leaving, Brown went home. He'll coach at the school he longed to come back to, move in to the office he never used and hope to rekindle the success he had at Carolina all those years ago.
And he just might do it. Brown is one of the few coaches in UNC history who figured out how to win here consistently. And he did win a national title at Texas.
Brown brought Sally and his children with him to the Carolina campus on Tuesday morning and talked about how much he missed the place.
"We'd looked at different opportunities over the years, and they just didn't seem to fit," he said.
He wondered if he'd ever get back into the coaching business, wondering if he even needed to, if he had anything else to prove. He had, after all, taken three other programs as far as he could take them. But it was here where he left a job undone, where feelings were hurt when he left in 1997, where so many coaches have come and gone through the years without doing what he did at Carolina.
But mostly, he felt like UNC needed him as much as he needed UNC.
"This is the only place we would've come back to," Brown said. "We love challenges."
He'd interviewed for other jobs. He had a unique vantage point after leaving Texas and landing at ESPN, able to look at every program in America, knowing when the jobs opened, knowing the culture and knowing the communities.
None of them fit.
Now 67 with grandchildren, a retirement home in the mountains and friends scattered all over the state, he knew this was an opportunity that wouldn't come again.
"We know this place, and we know you can be successful here," Brown said.
Few people believed this would ever happen. And even now, few people deep down think he can return UNC football to top 10 prominence. But he's ever the optimist, ever the salesman. He'll recruit the state he knows, going back to the high schools he remembers when he locked this state up.
And just possibly he will pull Carolina out of the mess it's in and recapture the magic from so long ago.
If he does, he'll do it with the best players from a state that has lost almost all its best players in recent years to schools outside of North Carolina. He'll do it with an old-school attention to detail and with a smile on his face.
Brown hasn't changed a lick.
He's still positive to a fault, convinced UNC's athletics department is the best in the nation and confident he can add Carolina football to a long list of national-caliber programs at UNC.
"We like to fix things," Brown said.
This one's going to need some serious fixin'.
But mainly, he'll do it because he truly wants to be here. He's been in Linville the past few month in his mountain home, watching football and wondering if his time had passed.
Brown has been out of coaching for five years, and not many coaches make for successful comeback stories.
He knows that as well as anybody, but he also knows most football coaches aren't successful to begin with.
Brown is back in North Carolina because, in his heart, he's a North Carolinian. And he believes he can be successful in his return to UNC because of what he did here before.
Things have changed. It's likely going to be a harder climb this time. In the twilight of his career, he's ready to test himself against all the programs he's been watching from afar for all these years.
Mack Brown went down from the mountains, his clothes in a pillow case and a plan to replant himself where he belongs.
"Someone asked me how long I'm planning to stay," he said. "For the rest of my life I guess."
It might take that long.
Contact Ed Hardin at 336-373-7069, and follow @Ed_Hardin on Twitter.
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