Tom Sorensen

Tom Talks: Bringing back Mack Brown worth the gamble for Tar Heels

Mack Brown, shown here in 1994, has returned to coach the North Carolina Tar Heels.
Mack Brown, shown here in 1994, has returned to coach the North Carolina Tar Heels. Charlotte Observer file photo

It is not true that when the North Carolina Tar Heels have the ball next season they’ll use the T formation. They’re going to run the single wing.

Mack Brown IS 67, not 87. But I get it. I know that many fans had hoped North Carolina would hire a coach on his way up, a coach such as Appalachian State’s Scott Satterfield.

Satterfield is very good and, regardless of where he goes next, will continue to be. But after the initial shock subsided, I back Brown.

I like this choice. Brown, too, once was on his way up. He coached at Appalachian State in 1983, moved to Oklahoma as offensive coordinator under Barry Switzer for a season, and from Oklahoma became head coach at Tulane. North Carolina hired him in ’88, and none of the coaches who replaced him have been as good as he was.

Brown coached the Tar Heels for nine seasons, and you know what he did exceptionally well? He recruited the state. He recruited the high schools and high school coaches and assistant coaches and athletics directors.

And even though he left for Texas after the 1997 season, North Carolina’s high school officials will remember him. They’ll remember that he treated them as if they’re important. Why did Brown do this? He did it because high school coaches, especially in the state in which a team plays, are important.

I understand that he’s been gone awhile. But not all those high schools have gone out of business, and not all of the assistant coaches and the players he recruited have been jettisoned to other parts of the world. Brown left an imprint.

Larry Fedora, whom North Carolina fired Sunday as head football coach, lacked Brown’s interest in North Carolina’s talent, or his gift for recruiting it. This state generates considerable talent. You can see it Saturdays at N.C. State.

When Brown coached North Carolina, he established the school as the state’s preeminent program. He went 1-10 his first two seasons, and never had a losing season again. He finished 69-46-1, and in his final two seasons, went 20-3. North Carolina has fallen so far that it neither is No. 1 nor No. 2 in the state. If you’re ranking the state’s programs, the Tar Heels are Among Other Programs Receiving Votes.

North Carolina could have justified preparing to can Fedora when he said before this season that he saw no correlation between football and CTE, that he hadn’t seen proof. If you play the game, or have a football playing kid, you worry about CTE. But Fedora talked about the subject as if, hey, what are a few concussions among friends? He also said he didn’t see the fight Saturday between the Tar Heels and Wolfpack. That’s like ordering Saturday’s heavyweight fight between Deontay Wilder and Tyson Fury on your 75-inch flat screen TV, and not noticing it.

Fedora recruited well until the 2019 class, but failed to parlay that talent into victories. He went 5-18 his last two seasons. He had to go.

When a school hires a coach, it usually does what’s safe. Professional teams also do. Hire the safe candidate and, if he fails, you can point to the reputation and accolades with which he came, and say it was his fault and not yours.

But if a school, or a professional team, gambles on a hiring decision and misses, it will be destroyed. Fans will ask what the athletics director or general manager were thinking, and demand that they go, too. Despite Brown’s work at North Carolina the first time around, he is not safe because he’s not conventional. Hiring a 67-year-old is not conventional. Brown signed a five-year contract, and if he stays for five years he’ll be 72, a year older than Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski is now.

After a great run at Texas, Brown flamed out. But when he was good, he was very good, and in 2005 his Longhorns went undefeated and won a national championship. I was in Texas for an assignment, and swung up to Austin to write a story about Brown. You know what fans called him? Orange Jesus. Brown will not called be Light Blue Jesus in Chapel Hill. Even basketball coach Roy Williams isn’t.

Jesus was around before Brown, but not by much. Brown was born in August of 1951, Williams in August of 1950. If you want to meet the head coaches of North Carolina’s two biggest sports, you might need to hit the restaurant before 5 p.m.

About age: Every older coach I’ve talked to says the same thing. He (or she) still loves to coach and teach, still loves to work with players. It’s the peripheral duties that beat them down. Yet those peripheral duties are a reason they make the money they do. They have to deal with the media because the media is the link between the program and fans. They have to deal with boosters because boosters are the link between the program, fine facilities and five-star athletic dormitories.

Recruiting is exhausting. If I’m a fan of the Tar Heels, that’s the football component that most worries me. Brown’s mission is hire coaches who can recruit. If Brown is the closer, he’ll be effective. His folksy appeal, and gaudy national championship ring, will be an asset with schools, parents and kids.

The recruiters that compete against the Tar Heels will tell high school stars that Brown is a temp, that there’s no reason to expect him to be around when those stars are seniors. Maybe they’re thinking of basketball coach Larry Brown. That football was a distant No. 2 at North Carolina when Brown was there probably drove him nuts. But he made the sport meaningful. Seats were filled. Fans were excited. A game at Kenan Stadium often was an event.

I don’t know how long Mack Brown will coach the Tar Heels. Perhaps he’ll groom a coordinator to replace him. But for North Carolina, it’s not about what happens when Brown retires. It’s about what happens now. Whether he runs the T formation or the single wing, fans of the Tar Heels will be pleased.

Bowls are fun, wherever they are

The four teams that compete for the national championship excepted, a college bowl game is to college football what the National Invitation Tournament is to college basketball. Or maybe a bowl game is to college football what the College Postseason Tournament is to college basketball.

All a college football team has to do to qualify for a bowl is win six games and not lose seven. Win six and go .500 or better, and you’re in. And even if you don’t, you might get in. Eighty bowl teams are required, and some of the six-victory teams might not want to go.

College football players sometimes shout, “We’re going bowling!” after that coveted sixth victory. I’ve never heard a college basketball player shout, “We’re going to the College Postseason Tournament!” after finishing 20-15.

Are there too many bowls? No. I like the minor leagues. I like the little guys, the underdogs. I like the guys on the margin of the pro roster, minor league baseball, semi-pro football, small college basketball and boxing cards stacked with small-town fighters. So, yeah, I like the bowls.

I like the Choribundi Tart Cherry Boca Raton Bowl, the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, and even the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl. Let’s say that your 6-6 team is selected to play in the Franklin American Mortgage Music Bowl (Nashville), the Academy Sports + Outdoors Texas Bowl (Houston), or the DSL Frisco Bowl (Frisco, Tex.). By plane, car, bus or Uber, you decide to accompany your team. And even if it loses by 20, the prelude will be entertaining. You get to wear school garb, hang out with people who share your affiliation, and visit a town you otherwise might not.

I always wanted to go to the Poulan Weed Eater Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La. Poulan ceased to sponsor the it after the 1997 game, and it’s now the Walk-Ons Independence Bowl. Walk-ons is a sports bar in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas and, soon, North Carolina and South Carolina., with a good story. Two former Louisiana State basketball walk-ons founded it.

I want to go to the bowl because I love the alien-ness of Louisiana, and when else would I go to Shreveport? You might ask, “If we go to Frisco, what will we do?” Well, Frisco is part of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, which might be an inducement. Frisco also is the home of the National Videogame Museum and the world’s largest home Pong console. Bring the kids. I get it.

Some of you believe that rewarding a football team for winning half its games is like giving a kid a medal for showing up. Obviously, you never have been, on the day after Christmas, to the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit.

NFL predictions: Locks have been strong

Last Week: 11-4

Season: 109-65-2

Lock of the Week (the lone game I pick against the spread): Got it, barely got it, but barely counts. Picked Dallas (-7½) to cover against Washington. Dallas won 31-23.

Season Lock of the Week: 9-3.

I don’t want to brag, but eight of my last nine Locks have gone through. The loss was Carolina-Detroit. The Panthers were favored by four against a bad team, albeit on the road.

This week’s games, with the home teams in CAPS:

New Orleans 8 over DALLAS

Carolina 2 over TAMPA BAY

Chicago 4 over NEW YORK GIANTS

MIAMI 6 over Buffalo

Indianapolis 4 over JACKSONVILLE

HOUSTON 7 over Cleveland

Denver 2 over CINCINNATI

Los Angeles Rams 9 over DETROIT

GREEN BAY 8 over Arizona

Kansas City 15 over OAKLAND

TENNESSEE 7 over New York Jets

SEATTLE 11 over San Francisco

NEW ENGLAND 2 over Minnesota

PITTSBURGH 3 over San Diego

PHILADELPHIA 7 over Washington

Lock of the Week: ATLANTA (-1) 30, BALTIMORE 26.

Time for Panthers changes? No

Three weeks ago, some fans complained that Carolina Panthers’ quarterback Cam Newton did not attract enough national attention for his MVP heroics, and that the team did not attract enough national attention for its weekly march to Super Bowl 53. Then the Panthers lost three in a row, and the conversation changed.

Now kicker Graham Gano must go, and if he has room in his vehicle for coach Ron Rivera and cornerback Corn Elder, bring them, too.

The fans who predicted a Super Bowl run when Carolina were 6-2 are the first to give up now that the Panthers are 6-5. I didn’t subscribe to the Panthers as world beaters theory three weeks ago, and I don’t subscribe to the theory that Carolina no longer can make the playoffs.

The Panthers have a top-10 offense. Their offensive line is a testament to the Next Man Up mantra. They have young receivers who are figuring it out, a running back who has been outstanding and a tight end that’s being ignored. Their play-calling has been outstanding until they get close, and then it becomes murky, or maybe the Panthers’ execution does.

The Panthers play inferior defense. That push up the middle, the big guys compelling offensive linemen to account for them, is a rumor. Because of the absence of an interior rush, linebackers spend more time eluding blockers than they had to last season. The outside rush isn’t functioning the way it conventionally has. The secondary is inconsistent; even Carolina’s best defensive backs are getting beat. When the rush fails, defensive backs usually do. There’s this: When the Panthers absolutely have to make a play, they fail to.

Who do you blame? I don’t blame Rivera. Should he fire somebody? Should he fire first-year defensive coordinator Eric Washington? Midseason, or late-midseason, firings usually are done not to improve a team but to appease the angry mobs. Rivera was the subject of such speculation in 2013, his third season as head coach. The Panthers began the season 0-2, and the second loss was to Buffalo. Rumors were pervasive. He wouldn’t finish the season.

Then a source said that nothing was going to happen while the season was going on. As it turned out, it wasn’t going to happen when the season ended. Rivera’s Panthers made the playoffs.

Rivera was a linebackers’ coach for Philadelphia and San Diego, and a defensive coordinator for Chicago and San Diego. If somebody new needs to lead the defense, it undoubtedly (and quietly) will be him.

Before the season, I picked the Panthers go to 8-8. I thought that New Orleans would be great, Atlanta would be good, (I was half right) and the schedule would be daunting. Any schedule that compels a team to play New Orleans in two of its last three games is daunting.

But look at the NFC wild card competition. Minnesota is 6-4-1, Dallas, Washington, Seattle and Carolina 6-5, and Philadelphia 5-6. Somebody has to win the NFC East; it’s a rule. So that removes one 6-5 team from the wild card contest. Dallas is an underdog at home Thursday against New Orleans. Minnesota is an underdog Sunday at New England. Washington is an underdog Monday at Philadelphia. If Seattle can’t beat San Francisco in Seattle Sunday, the Seahawks should be banned from the playoffs.

Carolina is favored (-4 as I write this) Sunday at Tampa Bay. The Panthers final four games: at Cleveland, home against New Orleans, home against Atlanta and at New Orleans.

The Panthers are a tough team to decipher. I understood their blowout road loss to Pittsburgh and home loss to Seattle. I didn’t expect the Panthers to win either game. It was the road loss to Detroit that surprised me. The Lions are lowly, and prove it almost every time they play. The Panthers didn’t allow them to.

Tampa Bay is as good as Detroit, or as bad. Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston rarely has good games, but he has great moments. He has receivers with size and speed, and talent. Mike Evans has caught 1,073 yards worth of passes, DeSean Jackson 750, and between them they have nine touchdowns and 30 receptions of 20 or more yards.

These teams know each other. Carolina’s most recent victory was against the Bucs. The Panthers beat them 42-28, and they intercepted Ryan Fitzpatrick twice. They have not intercepted a pass since.

Must-win is the most overused term in sports, so I won’t use it. But if Carolina loses Sunday, the next major move won’t be made by Rivera or general manager Marty Hurney. It will be made by first-year owner David Tepper.

Tepper was born and raised in Pittsburgh and, before he bought the Panthers, he owned a piece of the Steelers. When I think of the Steelers, I think of two qualities. They don’t fire head coaches, and they win. Regardless of the result Sunday, or the four games that follow it, Rivera should return, and I’ll be shocked if he doesn’t.

But the NFL isn’t a league for the passive. If the Panthers fail to make the playoffs, they have to figure out why a defense that features Luke Kuechly, Mario Addison, Kawaan Short and Thomas Davis doesn’t work, and they have to fix it.

Friday night boxing card

If you want to do something you probably never have done, there’ll be a weigh-in Thursday at 6 p.m. at Pint Central, 1226 Central Ave. The event is free and open to the public.

Boxers competing Friday night at CenterStage@NODA will step on a scale and, with friends, family, a promoter and nervous managers watching, attempt to make weight. Some will try to stare each other down, and in doing so gain an advantage in their Friday fight.

Most of the boxers will be stripped down as low as they can go so excess clothing doesn’t accompany them to the scale. It’s tough to stare down an opponent when you dress this way, but it’s a boxing tradition. Christy Martin, the former long-time women’s boxing champion, will promote the card. Featured be Donnie Marshall of Buffalo, a middleweight who fights out of Raleigh. He’s proud of Buffalo, and wants fans to know that that’s his town. He’s 9-0 and twice been scheduled to fight on Shobox: The New Generation, a prestigious opportunity. Both times his opponent canceled. Marshall, 30, is a boxer with some pop, is quick and lands a lot of combinations.

About pop: Also featured on Friday’s card will be Richard “Popeye the Sailor Man” Rivera of Hartford. A light heavyweight, Popeye is 8-0 with seven knockouts and, true to Popeye, considerable power. He’s 28. Desmond Lyons, a super lightweight out of North Augusta, S.C., also is undefeated. Lyons, 20, is 3-0.

One of my all-time favorite Charlotte boxers, Quinton Rankin, will be featured. Rankin, 32, is a light heavyweight. He won seven straight fights, before losing three of his last seven. The three boxers who beat him were a combined 51-3-1. Q lost two of the fights by decision, and all three losses were on the road. Rankin is 12-5-2 with nine knockouts. He’s smart, tough and good, and has a strong local following.

Tickets are $70 ringside and $35 general admission. Doors open at 6 p.m., and the fights begin at 7 p.m. For more information, go to

On Saturday in Los Angeles, Deontay Wilder of the U.S. (and Tuscaloosa, Ala.) will fight Tyson Fury. Wilder is the WBC champ, and the title defense will be his eighth. The fighters share two qualities: They’re big (Fury is 6-9 and, for him, a lean 250 or so pounds), (Wilder 6-7 and 220), and undefeated. Fury is 27-0, Wilder 40-0.

The fight will be televised by Showtime’s pay-per-view.

Fury is the better boxer, and he can frustrate Wilder with his defense and movement. He’s from Manchester, England, and he likes to counter punch. But Wilder’s right hand ends fights. Wilder is wildly unpredictable; at what angle that right will be launched, nobody knows.

Forty fights and 39 knockouts tell you who Wilder is and what he does. The longer the fight goes, the better chance Fury has. But I see Wilder winning by knockout.

Tom Sorensen is a retired Charlotte Observer columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @tomsorensen