CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – For decades upon decades, head football coaches have sought to shelter their players from the oftentimes harsh criticism that comes beyond a program’s physical walls, particularly with regard to media commentary.
Yet in the current social media landscape of Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, among others, it’s no longer possible to control the message by removing newspapers from their bins and turning the knobs on the box television in the players’ lounge. Today’s student-athletes have grown up in a world in which laptops are required and smart phones are necessities, so coaches are tasked with either pushing back against an inevitable tide of online information or acknowledging the current reality and addressing it in a beneficial manner.
When Mack Brown returned to Chapel Hill last fall, one of the first items on his agenda was asking the players what they needed in the locker room. Tops on the list were docking stations for their phones and various other tech gadgets. Brown obliged as UNC ordered new lockers that offered multiple plug-in ports along with more critical components such as ventilation measures. Welcoming smart phones into the locker room also brought outside opinions and prognostications about the Tar Heel football program, which only won five games in 2017-18.
Brown spent the previous five years as a member of the media, working as an analyst for ESPN. So instead of dismissing all that comes with the 24-hour news cycle, Brown has embraced it for its motivational derivative.
“When you’ve struggled like they have the last two years and people have been so critical of them, I think every day is a chip-on-your-shoulder mentality,” the Hall of Fame head coach said. “I told them, you were told you couldn’t beat South Carolina and you did. You were told you couldn’t beat Miami and you did. And now you’re an underdog to Wake Forest. Everybody’s saying, you’re not going play hard, you’re not going to be good. So that’s the challenge.
“One thing we don’t do is we don’t duck with these guys. We tell them exactly what’s out there. We tell them the truth. We tell them what we think. Can you handle success? We’ll see. It’s up to you.”
On Wednesday morning, senior advisor Kenny Browning heard SiriusXM radio host Mark Packer and ACC Network analyst and former Miami head coach Mark Richt discussing UNC’s matchup with Wake Forest on Friday night. Both Packer and Richt picked the Demon Deacons to hand the Tar Heels their first loss of the season, and Brown made sure to share that tidbit with his team in practice.
“I said, here’s Mark Richt, who’s a really good football coach,” Brown said. “He’s done a lot of great things and he saw you beat his old team last week and he picked Wake Forest. I hope he’s wrong.”
While there’s plenty of media buildup leading up to kickoff, there’s also an inundation of praise or criticism, depending on the outcome, in the hours following the game’s conclusion. The hype was significant following UNC’s season-opening win over South Carolina. If Brown’s players were going to listen to the external praise, they were also going to hear his internal challenge entering the Miami game.
“You are who you are and this is a big stage and if you want to be on the big stage, win,” Brown said. “You can’t go out and stink against Miami and walk around like you’re good. So if you want to be good, welcome to the big stage. You’ve got a packed house and a national TV audience.”
The Tar Heels responded with a come-from-behind 28-25 victory over the Hurricanes to improve to 2-0 for the first time since 2014.
Years ago Brown was quickly onto the next opponent and as his days at Texas drew to a close, there was more relief in victory than joy. In his return to the sidelines, Brown has emphasized enjoying the opportunity of the sport more, especially on game days, and he’s shared that with his players. While most coaching staffs tell their teams to enjoy a victory until midnight, UNC has celebrated its first two wins of the season with a victory dinner on Sunday following corrections.
“We’ve talked to the guys about how they need to enjoy and appreciate their first two wins,” Brown said. “We don’t want them to forget them and act like they never happened. They’re real and they’re good and they’re things that they should feel good about and it should give us confidence going forward, but you also need to move forward. You can’t keep talking about those games.
“You’ve got to start talking about the Friday night game with Wake Forest, and I think they’re doing that. I really worried about it after the first game, but then after this week, it seems like their total focus is on trying to get to be 3-0 and they understand the importance of that.”
Motivation comes in a variety of forms. By being willing to engage the sports media landscape, Brown and his staff have plenty of material to choose from.