CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — This is when the beautiful hell he willingly walked back into becomes real.
And this is when the promise he made his wife—how it wouldn't be so all-consuming this time around—must save him from the road he seems destined to travel.
"I told him it can't be like it was before," Sally Brown says.
Then North Carolina lost to Appalachian State this past weekend, and everything that felt so right for Mack Brown in his second tenure at UNC instead feels eerily familiar.
He's a coach again, all right, at 68 years young. The body is a '57 Chevy; the engine has hundreds of thousands of miles of life.
Even after what it endured not so long ago.
"It got to the point the last time, at Texas, where every loss was a tragedy and every win was exhaling," Mack says.
He looks at his wonderful wife of 26 years, the woman whose passion for renovating homes inspires him. An architect, Sally says houses will talk to you and tell you what they need.
There was no doubt what Mack needed. The only question was how to get there.
"Can't be like that again," Mack says softly, and then he says it again to no one in stern affirmation. "It just can't."
It can't be how it was two decades ago, when Brown accepted a behemoth of a job at Texas, and Darrell Royal, the legendary Texas coach of years past, told him what he was in for was like having a box of BBs spill onto the floor and the only way to make it right is to get every one back in the box in the exact same spot it started.
It can't be how it was when Brown won double-digit games in nine straight seasons, won conference championships and a national championship and played for another national title, and sonofagun if it wasn't enough.
It can't be how it was when after 16 years in the meat grinder, winning at least nine games 13 times, having two eight-win seasons and one—for the love of all things pigskin, one—losing season, it all ended when Brown's close friend chose to save his own ass over Brown's.
"The day before I resigned [at Texas], Bill Powers begged me to stay another season," Brown says of the late Texas president. "We took vacations together. We traveled together as families. We were close friends. I agreed to stay one more year, and the next morning, the new athletic director [Steve Patterson] came into my office and said, 'I need you to resign today.' Apparently Bill had changed his mind, or someone had helped him change his mind. And that was that.
"Never spoke to him again."
Five years later, this carnival of the absurd is what Mack Brown willingly—and really, eagerly—signed up for again. A business built on the ideal that only one team wins at the end of the season, and everyone else is waiting to be fired. A business that eventually sucks the life from your soul, its tentacles providing just enough give to allow you the thought of leaving, though its fuel will never stop coursing through the veins.
Just when you think you're finding a groove at your new gig, getting back-to-back upset wins over South Carolina and Miami to begin the season, along comes a gut-punch loss to Wake Forest (including a horrible officiating call to end the game) and then a shocking home loss to Appalachian State.
And before you can even begin to figure out how in the world it went from that to this, you get to host defending national champion Clemson on Saturday.
"You learn, and you move to the next week," Brown says.
He's back in coaching mode. Win or lose, you forget it and move on.
Just don't let it eat you alive like the last job.
Sally likes to tell the story of all those summer trips to North Carolina over the years, when she and Mack would hop in the car on vacation and drive from Austin to their home in North Carolina.
When they'd stop for fuel, she'd refuse to let Mack get out of the car and pay because, invariably, he'd stop to chat up someone. And when Mack stops to chat, it's like the years of growing up in east Tennessee flow out of him uncontrollably.
"He's friends with everyone," Sally says with a laugh, and there's a whole lot of truth to that joyful jab.
There's a reason Mack earned the nickname "Coach February" early on at Texas, and it had nothing to do with how the team was performing on the field (the Longhorns won nine games in each of his first three seasons, but at Texas that's not enough to earn any affection).
The nickname came from how he performed after the season—the way he'd relate to mothers and fathers and grandmothers and grandfathers, and to those high school stars they're protecting. And boy, can he recruit.
"Let me tell you something, if Mack Brown was in that house before you, forget it, you lose," says former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, who earned a reputation as the game's best recruiter during the golden age of FSU football. "Everything else in football might have changed, but recruiting hasn't. Mack will still recruit better than anyone."
Recruiting elite players (Brown's 2020 class is ranked No. 19 by 247Sports' composite) leads to increased expectations, and in the case of the Texas job, unrealistic expectations.
By his fourth year in Austin, Brown began his run of nine straight double-digit-win seasons. The Longhorns started winning big, and the more they won, the stronger the monster grew. And the stronger the monster grew, the more Brown would stalk the sidelines with the look of a man who just swallowed a bag of knives.
"You're right," Brown admits, "I did look like that."
That's what this game does to coaches and why the grind at this level is more demanding than any other football job.
In the NFL, the game is truly a business. It's coaching and managing a salary cap and X's and O's and finding mismatches. It's an accounting sheet in which the numbers simply have to add up. In college football, it's recruiting and getting kids to go to class and massaging 100 different personalities who may or may not be fighting with their significant other or worried about their mom's gas bill that's overdue or dealing with the reality that, for the first time since Pop Warner, they're no longer BMOC.
Why in the world would anyone want to be part of this again?
"I worry about him as a brother because I just want him to be happy and healthy," says Watson Brown, Mack's older brother by two years who also spent more than four decades coaching college football. "Nothing else matters to me."
Watson stops here because this is important; this is his little brother. They were as inseparable growing up in Cookeville, Tennessee—playing high school ball for their granddad Jelly Brown—as they are now.
Mack interviewed for the Oklahoma job after the 1994 season, and he likely would've gotten it had he not pulled out. The reason he walked away: Watson was the offensive coordinator at OU, and Mack believed Watson had a chance to get the job.
"We talked many times before he took the [UNC] job," Watson says. "He's a great coach, and he's going to do it right. He goes in with a plan, he sees what's there, sees where it has to go and he doesn't deviate. He sticks to it through good and bad. That's his best trait.
"They're getting his best shot, believe me."
He tried to stay connected through analyst work on television, and that didn't work. He tried traveling for a full year—anywhere Sally wanted to go, because she put up with his job all these years—and that didn't take, either.
He wanted back in the game, but Sally insisted any return would only happen at one of two jobs: back at North Carolina, where he coached from 1988 to 1997, or at Hawaii.
"The Hawaii job wasn't open," Mack deadpans.
More than 20 years ago, Sally designed a state of the art football-only facility at North Carolina. Every room, every square foot, had a purpose.
The cost was $50 million, and to get an idea of just how enormous that undertaking was back in the mid-1990s, understand that Clemson built a wildly hyped (see: bowling alley, player slide, etc.) football facility in 2017 for $55 million.
On the day he was supposed to move into his new office at North Carolina in 1997, Brown accepted the job offer from Texas and never got a chance to use it. More than two decades later, he sits in the office that overlooks the beautiful stadium shrouded in pine trees and marvels at an old adage.
"The more things change," Mack says, and his voice tails off.
The more it's like you've never left.
Their friends are still around. So are their doctors and those great little restaurants they loved. Rick Steinbacher was a linebacker on Mack's team, and now he's an associate athletic director at UNC.
Dre Bly, one of Brown's All-Americans from those years, now coaches cornerbacks for the Tar Heels. Tommy Thigpen, a team captain of years gone by, coaches linebackers.
"When I heard Mack was coming back, the first thing that went through my mind is, this is going to work," Bly says. "We will get elite players here. Make no mistake about that. We will win."
It took Brown all of two weeks to get 4-star quarterback Sam Howell, 247Sports' No. 1 recruit in the state of North Carolina and a player who could be Brown's most important recruit for years to come. Not only does getting Howell give UNC the chance to win now, but it also shows the rest of the players in the state that Brown is building something again.
Most of the coaches who spent all that time with Brown long ago are still around or connected to those state programs in some way. None were shocked when Brown, days after he was named coach on Nov. 26, 2018, hopped in a car and drove two-and-a-half hours south on I-85 to Monroe, North Carolina, where Howell had developed into one of the nation's top dual-threat quarterbacks.
"Mack's going to shake things up," a coach at one of the state's top high schools tells Bleacher Report. "Hell, I'm excited about it, and I have no dog in the hunt."
Howell had been committed to Florida State for eight months. Not long after spending time with Brown, he switched his commitment to North Carolina. A week before the end of summer camp, Brown named Howell his starting quarterback. And Howell is already showing why he was such a highly regarded recruit, with nine passing touchdowns, 1,024 yards and a 64.1 completion percentage.
"Coach Brown brings it in this building every single day. Everything about him screams positivity," Howell says. "There's never an off day for him."
Brown is driving a powder-blue golf cart across the bucolic campus, waving and smiling at everyone. Students, faculty, groundskeepers.
Everybody knows Mack, everybody loves Mack.
It's a long way from the daily grind in Austin, a city Mack and Sally adore and had a harder time leaving than you might think. Mack had other job offers but never really considered any of them until UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham called and asked him to come home.
For weeks after he arrived in Chapel Hill, his new team tried to get him to dance. You know, something to break up the long, monotonous days of camp in the hot and humid North Carolina summer. When everyone is dragging through the fourth week of camp, there has to be some release. So the players jumped in cold tubs and danced and laughed and bonded.
Mack had no problem getting in those cold tubs, but dancing? If Sally can't get him on the dance floor, he sure wasn't going to randomly bust a few moves.
So he dangled a carrot: beat South Carolina in the season opener, and I'll dance.
Walking through position meeting rooms during game week, Brown eased into a corner of the defensive backs room. The DBs, the last level of run defense.
"I'm concerned that South Carolina is going to line up and run it right at us," Brown softly admitted while the group went through preparations.
South Carolina ran for 128 yards on 31 carries but never did enough damage in the run game. Two fourth-quarter touchdown drives engineered by Howell in his first game gave Brown his first victory in his second tenure at UNC and forced an uncomfortable moment in the postgame locker room.
He was dancing. All arms and very much a 21st-century version of the robot, but he was dancing, nonetheless.
"He brought life back into the room, back into the program," says UNC safety Myles Dorn. "He brought fun back to the game. Every day he chooses to have fun. It makes all the difference in the world."
It can't be like it was before. Except when it has to be.
"You ask me why I'm in this, and it's not as complicated an answer as you think," Brown says. "I love football, always have."
The golf cart stops mid-drive, and one of the game's best recruiters leans over and sells stone cold truth.
"Football isn't the drug," Brown says. "Seeing a player return to campus 20 years later with his family and he tells you, 'I'd never be where I am today without this university and this team.' That's everything.
"That's why you coach."