Tar Heels' Brown finally getting last laugh UNC coach leaves 1-10 seasons behind COLLEGE FOOTBALL

September 19, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Self-deprecating humor jumps into most of Mack Brown's stories. A man who has been the target of so many jokes, so many imitations, tops those who would ridicule him with stories about himself.

"When we were at Tulane and we played Georgia, we lost 58-3 -- we ran up some good scores back then, didn't we?" Brown said. "We recovered a fumble on their 20, ran a sweep on first down and lost 4 yards, ran a draw on second down and lost 3. We kicked a field goal on third down because we thought if we tried anything else we'd be out of field-goal range."

Brown has plenty of these stories at his disposal. While at Tulane and in his early days as North Carolina's football coach, he suffered some of the most miserable football. His first Tulane team went 1-10. His first two North Carolina teams went 1-10.

His twangy voice and incessant cheerfulness were the source of countless imitations. Jokes about his status as a loser circulated.

His answer was a twist on the cliche, "Laugh and the world laughs with you." He laughed when the world laughed at him.

"What he says and the way he talks, that's really the way he is," said Brown's brother Watson, the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma. "He's a very upbeat kind of guy. He keeps everything in perspective."

These days you'd expect most of the laughing to be coming from Brown. His Tar Heels are 3-0, ranked 13th and were realistically talking about beating No. 1 Florida State yesterday at Kenan Stadium.

Instead of gloating, Brown keeps those stories coming. He uses the past to keep him humble. He doesn't want to forget it because it is his motivation.

"When I flip through the press guide every year and see 2-20, I look at it like whew, I can't believe we were ever that bad," Brown said. "But I think it's a real motivating factor never to let it get that way again.

"More than anything else, more than appreciating the progress we've made, I make sure that in my mind that I'm not going to coach a football team that's that bad again."

When Brown arrived from Tulane he had a career head coaching record of 15-28 -- hardly a proper pedigree to bring North Carolina back from the depths. But he was familiar with the depths and was determined not to stay there.

During the first two horrible years, Brown hid his anguish from his players.

"We lost a lot of tough games but he never was down on us," senior offensive lineman Curtis Parker said. "He was always trying to find something positive. He even does that now. After the Maryland game he told the defense to be happy with the win and not worry about it. He keeps us from getting too excited or too down. He's always trying to be positive. That helps us out a lot."

Brown remembers those days well. He recalls his locker room speeches after the losses, when even he thought he might become a caricature of himself.

"When you're sitting there talking to a guy in the dressing room every week and saying, 'It's OK. We'll be better. We're going to come out of this thing.' And they're looking at you like, 'Sure. How many times can that guy say this?' "

Mostly, though, the players appreciated him.

"Coach Brown spent a lot of time, a lot of time being a motivator," senior nose guard Troy Barnett said. "He kept telling us we could win the next game. He never said well, we're 1-10 and we're just trying to stay in the games. He kept us believing we could win. He picked us up a lot."

Behind closed doors Brown struggled. Losing so much kept him from evaluating what he was doing. He could only guess if he was taking the right approaches. Tangible results were nowhere to be found.

At the same time, Watson was struggling with a bad Vanderbilt team. Watson, who was eventually forced out at Vandy, said the two commiserated constantly and they still talk three or four times a week.

"Believe me, he has his moments," Watson said. "But the reason he's done well is that he hasn't made it a life and death thing. He keeps everything positive, hung in there and he's stayed focused."

Light pierced the tunnel in 1990 when the Tar Heels went 6-4-1, and followed that with a 7-4 season. Last year's 9-3-1 year ended with a win in the Peach Bowl the program's first bowl appearance since 1986 and its first bowl win since 1982 and sent them on their way to this season.

As much as he had to coach the team, he had to coach his family through the rough times. He said it was harder at Tulane because it was his first time through it. But that didn't make it any easier when his daughters would come home from school crying because people were telling jokes about their dad.

"I had to sit down with the girls and tell them, 'Your dad's not a bad guy, and he's not as dumb as all those people say he is. He may not can coach football. That's something that we'll see later, but that doesn't matter to you."

Brown and his Carolina team have come a long way from the 1-10 days. His recruiting classes have been strong and many of his current players are young, so the future seems to hold success too.

The knock on him continues to be his inability to beat particular teams. He is 0-5 against Clemson. He is 0-5 against North Carolina State. Until last year his teams hadn't beaten a ranked team. To that Brown says the program is taking steps: first beating Top 25 dwellers Virginia and Georgia Tech last season, beating Mississippi State in the Peach Bowl and beating Southern California to start this season.

The detractors still don't faze him, even the ones who say he'll never beat North Carolina State.

"A couple of years ago they said we couldn't beat anybody," he said. "So I can live with that."

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