The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Wednesday February 1st

Showdown With Brown

Then like a cattle driver on the range, Brown was history, leaving clouds of dust and hoofprints behind.

His time in Chapel Hill exceeded productivity.

By the time Brown moved on, UNC's record had flip-flopped from the 1-10 marks his teams posted his first two years as head coach in 1988 and 1989. He left having earned six straight bowl berths and with a No. 6 national ranking in '97.

Brown and his success were instrumental in getting built the 78,000-square-foot Frank H. Kenan Football Center, widely considered to be among the nation's finest facilities.

Players take off their shoes after practice at the door of the football center before trekking the half dozen steps across the carpeted hallway to the locker room. The building stands enclosing the west end zone of Kenan Stadium, almost as a temple to the accomplishments of Brown's era.

But Brown never moved into his new office before the center's completion in '98.

Texas fired Coach John Mackovic on the last day of its 4-7 season, Saturday, Nov. 29, 1997. Sunday, Brown said he did not want to consider other offers while UNC's season was still in progress. Wednesday, he interviewed for the Texas job, was offered it and, according to a Texas official, accepted the position that pays him $750,000 in base salary annually. Brown's contract with UNC, worth $165,000 per year, ran through the 2001 season.

That same Wednesday he tried to settle down his team, preparing for the Gator Bowl on Jan. 1, 1998, while the reports of his likely departure swirled.

"It was out on Navy Field," said fifth-year senior wideout Kory Bailey, who was a redshirt freshman at the time. "We had just gotten done with practice. There were rumors going around, and the numbers were going around. A lot of people were saying, `Well, hell, if I was him I couldn't turn that down.' I remember thinking, `Nah, he's not going to leave.'

"So he sat us down and said, `The rumors are false. To this point, I'm not considering anything. I'm not going anywhere.'"

That night Bailey's phone rang.

"We got a call that there was going to be a team meeting (the next day) in the auditorium, which was over there at the time," said Bailey as he pointed down the field toward the opposite end zone and the old field house. "We went in there, and he came in there and told us he made his decision to go to Texas."

Brown exchanged his ram's horns for Texas' Longhorns.

"I felt like Chapel Hill has probably been the most important thing in my life of my 46 years," Brown said as he officially announced his resignation that Thursday after meeting with his team, Chancellor Michael Hooker and UNC Director of Athletics Dick Baddour.

This weekend, North Carolina's football team is following Brown's path to Austin, Texas, for a game scheduled when Brown was still a Tar Heel. But the Tar Heels aren't even close to the same team he left behind.

Eight players from his '97 squad remain on the team -- Bailey, Doug Brown, Danny Davis, Joey Evans, Billy-Dee Greenwood, Errol Hood, Quincy Monk and Merceda Perry. Ken Browning, now tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator, is the only one of Brown's former assistants still at UNC.

"That's a little bit of the nature of college football," said Browning, whom Brown offered a position at Texas along with the four other assistants who left with him. "It's not the pleasant part of it obviously. The job I had before this one I was there 18 years, so I've been pretty stable. When I get somewhere I like, I like to see that program grow. I've never been a guy that's looking for a better job."

The players were shocked and upset despite warnings. Perry, a backup linebacker in '97, said other college coaches told him during the recruiting process that Brown would be on the first train out of Chapel Hill. But, Perry signed with North Carolina anyway. He and Bailey described Brown as a great salesman, speaker and motivator.

"When I came here, I expected to be a part of a top 10 team in the country every year I was here and be a part of one of the top defenses in the country," Perry said. "Change happens in everything you go through. You just have to be ready for it."

But the sort of change that followed Brown's departure was not something the program was quite ready for.

"Coach Brown came here and inherited a program that was down, very obviously," Baddour said. "He and some other people around built a successful program. We and the University are grateful to him.

"(We expected) that it would continue. That was our goal, hope and aspirations."

After Georgia's Jim Donnan turned down the vacancy, the players' choice, defensive coordinator Carl Torbush, was promoted to head coach.

"That Torbush stayed was one of the reasons I came up," said fourth-year wideout Bosley Allen, who was recruited by Brown from North Carolina and Texas.

Under Torbush, North Carolina stumbled to 7-5 overall, 4-4 in the ACC and a Las Vegas Bowl win against San Diego State in '98 then to 3-8, 2-6 in '99.

Torbush's job came into serious jeopardy. More assistant coaches, those who didn't leave with Brown, were replaced. But a 6-5, 3-5 2000 campaign wasn't enough, and Torbush was let go at the conclusion of last season.

"I definitely thought he had good game plans," Bailey said of Torbush. "He's a very technical guy. He's very smart with the way he runs things, but he never really sparked a fire inside of everybody on the team. We kind of had to do that on our own or look to our seniors or our leaders to get us fired up for the games."

A lot of things have worked against the program's favor since '97.

All the coaching transitions, key injuries, the losses of numerous NFL talents and recruiting differences added up to too much weight.

"I think a lot of the old guys, their confidence kind of went down," Hood said. "I think when (Brown) left, players were like, `Dang, what's going to happen now, dog? What's going to happen now?' And then it took the first couple games to realize, `Forget Mack Brown. We've got to go out and do what we've been coached to do and play.'

"Even though we've had this great top 10 team, that's not the case anymore. If we want to continue that, we have to do what it took when he was here."

Some might wonder what could have been if Brown had stayed. If offensive coordinator Greg Davis, who tutored Kris Keldorf and Oscar Davenport, had stayed, what could have been done with Ronald Curry? What could have happened if recruiting coordinator Cleve Bryant had stayed? Bryant had coached at UNC and Texas before he returned to the Tar Heels in '95 and then left again with Brown in '97.

"At the time, I was a freshman and then I didn't really know the business sense of everything," Perry said. "So I felt very mad about it at the time. But as I got older, I realized it was something he had to do for the better for his family and for himself. So it'd be kind of selfish of me to hate him for making a change for the better.

"But right now, I'm just happy for him and his success, and I hope it continues except for when he plays us."

At 11 a.m. CST on Saturday, new head coach John Bunting will lead UNC (0-2) at Texas Memorial Stadium.

A lot has changed in the last three seasons, and much of the bitterness has worn off by now. Brown said when he makes his first trip back to Kenan Stadium next fall, the game will be a lot more emotional for him than this one.

"I have learned after leaving Appalachian (State) and Tulane and North Carolina that the only way you can leave a job and people be happy about it is if you're winning all the games and you die," Brown said. "Then they'll name something after you."

The Sports Editor can be reached at sports@unc.edu.

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