AJ: Mack is Back

<i>Inside Carolina</i>'s Andrew Jones discusses the varying opinions of UNC fans on how to treat Mack Brown in his return to Chapel Hill.

After spending this week perusing message boards from Austin to Chapel Hill, reading an abundance of e-mails and listening to callers to my radio show, it has become clear that fans from each school have entirely different expectations concerning Texas' visit to North Carolina Saturday night at Kenan Stadium.

Most Texas fans expect an easy victory and don't take Carolina football seriously. UNC supporters are discussing the possible outcome of this important contest, but many are also talking about former UNC coach Mack Brown's return to Chapel Hill, and many have differing views on how to treat the ex-coach when his team takes the field.

It appears that the majority of UNC fans are looking forward to raining a chorus of boos on Brown than they are the actual game itself. This should be disturbing to most UNC fans as it further fuels the stereotype that football isn't such a big deal in Chapel Hill. A real football school, many will argue, would be fired up to knock off a top-five team with tremendous tradition, not put forth most of its focus on an event that will last all of 15 seconds and have absolutely no influence on the game's outcome.

On the flip side, however, is that UNC football fans will show they have pride and care about how one treats them, and many feel as if Brown treated them like a dog does a fire hydrant. Such passion for feeling slighted in a sport that allegedly "doesn't matter" much extinguishes the ignorant theory that Tar Heels don't care about the gridiron, and gives UNC fans a rare edge usually reserved for places like Raleigh and Greenville in the Old North State.

"Mack is never coming back to the Hill to play the Heels again," wrote bornatarheel on InsideCarolina.com's boards. "As a matter of fact, I think he tried to cancel these games before. I say boo him. It's not about losing him to Texas and not being happy about JB (current UNC coach John Bunting). It's about the way he (Brown) lied to the players, fans, and coaches."

Brown left UNC abruptly in early December, 1997, less than a month before the Tar Heels were to face Virginia Tech in the Gator Bowl. Many fans still feel slighted, not just because he left, but how he left. They think they were lied to through Brown's claim he wasn't leaving to the team some 24 hours prior to accepting Texas' offer.

Others say it goes beyond that.

"Do we boo Mack Brown? No. We go beyond booing him," said Happy, a caller to my show on Thursday. "The man's a slug. He tells us this is his home, where his children go to school. This is where he's planted his seed, this is where he wants to live his life. I'm very appreciative of the facility, but as you're well aware of, Carolina pays for its own facilities. The alumni paid for that, Mack Brown didn't pay for it. All he did was go around the state in the offseason asking for money, and the fans came through… and he didn't."

Even though it's five years later, a big reason why Tar Heelites remain bitter is because UNC has won just 25 games – including this year's 1-1 mark - since Brown left. Three years of Carl Torbush did produce a pair of winning seasons and a bowl victory over San Diego State (and the Gator Bowl win over Va. Tech). But it also included the dismal 1999 campaign that saw Carolina get clobbered by such stalwarts Furman, Houston and Wake Forest at home and at Maryland by 38 points. Not even in Brown's first two seasons, in which UNC was a combined 2-20, had the Heels been such an embarrassment as they were three falls ago.

Fans held Torbush and Brown equally in contempt, but Brown remains the target of their venom, partly because of his success with the Longhorns, which he has turned into a perennial top-10 club.

"This is a football game, not the opera," wrote Dean59Dook35. "When the other team runs on the field, you boo. When the other team is coached by a guy who basically told your team to (expletive) itself, you boo louder."

Not everyone has dreams of wielding a bloody knife at the former coach. Many acknowledge his contributions to UNC football, and are optimistic Carolina has the right man in place in Bunting.

"Why do you dummies want to boo Mack," wrote T23arheel. "All it will do is motivate the Texas players more and we will end up getting blown out by 40+ points. Is that what you guys want? Cheer for the Heels and JB (Bunting). Forget Mack. He's ancient history."

Others are concerned how the nation will perceive UNC's fans.

"While I continue to be upset at Mack Brown for the manner in which he left us, let's show our class and give him an ovation," wrote Heelhound. "To let national TV show us booing does nothing but make us look bad."

In the end, it won't matter what Carolina's faithful do before the game even starts. Carolina needs its fans to be rowdy throughout the contest. And even then, if the Tar Heels have little success on the ground, don't give Darian Durant quality pass-protection, struggle holding Cedric Benson and Texas' rushing attack in check, don't apply pressure on the Longhorns' golden boy quarterback Chris Simms, can't limit wide receiver Roy Williams' touches, and don't prevent Nathan Vasher from huge returns on special teams, none of this will matter. If they don't handle these responsibilities, the emotional Brown will leave Chapel Hill in similar fashion as he did 57 months ago.

And the pain of an ugly home loss to UNC's version of Benedict Arnold may lace a stench over the program that could take weeks to fumigate. And for those fans that care more about booing than anything else, it will take longer.

Yet if the Heels ride the crowd's intensity, force the 'Horns into some early mistakes, generate a few turnovers, Willie Parker breaks a long run, and Sam Aiken touches the ball at least eight times, the goal posts may come down as they did after Carolina routed Florida State 41-9 last September, which was, incidentally, the first game played after Sept. 11.

The fans should enjoy themselves. Boo if you want to, but don't throw anything. Cheer if that's your choice. But regardless, remember what Brown did for the school, and if you truly feel that Bunting is ultimately the better man for the job, be appreciative that Brown left. Otherwise, he'd still be in Chapel Hill trying to beat FSU and Bunting would be coaching someone's defense in the NFL.

It's strange how things work out. But in this case, both Brown, whose idol growing up was legendary Texas coach Darrell Royal, and UNC may have both upgraded in the long run.

Senior writer Andrew Jones is in his seventh year with Inside Carolina. He hosts a late afternoon radio show on ESPN Radio, WMFD AM630 in Wilmington and can be reached via e-mail at: AndrewJones@AM630.net.

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