2019 ACC Media Days notebook: Mack is back, but Brown and the ACC have changed since he left UNC
First-year coaches Mack Brown, Manny Diaz and Geoff Collins met with the media on Thursday
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- North Carolina's Mack Brown was one of three first-year coaches from the Coastal Division to address the media on Thursday at the ACC Football Kickoff. In one sense he's not a first-timer at all, participating in many of the league's media events during his 10-season run as the Tar Heels' coach from 1988-97. But this kickoff, and the league itself, are far different than when he left for Texas in more than two decades ago.
A casual session of chatting around a ballroom table after a round of golf with writers has been replaced by bright lights, big stages and a rotation of performance fitting for a league that's loading up on content for the launch of its own network. And beyond the look and feel is the league itself, which went all-in on football in the early 2000s with the addition of Miami, Virginia Tech, Boston College and a conference title game and has seen that, and other, bets on football pay-off with three national championships since 2013 and appearances in every single edition of the College Football Playoff.
The ACC isn't the same league it was, and Brown is hoping that he's changed too, for the better, as a coach.
"I think we're all creatures of habit. If we're not careful, we get in a little box sometimes. We don't get outside the box. Leaving Texas got me outside the box," Brown said. "We did pretty much the same stuff at Texas that we did [at UNC] the first time. I think over the last five years, I've learned that there's other ways to do things as well."
One idea that Brown has been locked into since arriving at North Carolina for the second time has been a total involvement in every aspect of the football program. In March he admitted to CBS Sports' Dennis Dodd that and preferred to leave it in the past. Tasks can be delegated, but there's a level of empowering assistant coaches that removes responsibility from the head coach's plate, and ultimately the head coach is always going to be the one that's held accountable.
"I think the thing that I learned is I will never let a staff have too much control again, which is a strong statement," Brown said. "I'm the one responsible for everything that happens in football at the University of North Carolina. So I need to make those final decisions. I'll get their input. Same thing with recruiting. I'm the one that knows who fits the place better than anyone else, so I need to make those final decisions."
Manny Diaz rebranding at Miami: The creator of the turnover chain has been hard at work changing the narrative around Miami football. Diaz says what they're trying to do at Miami is rebranding effort, and that the Hurricanes' reputation doesn't line up with the storied history that fans and so many others are quick to connect whenever it's beginning to look like "The U" is "back." The quickness to associate any current success ignores the truth that it might be fleeting, as we saw from the rapid descent Miami football took from 10-0 in November 2017 to 7-6 in December 2018.
The key, according to Diaz, has to start with fundamental changes internally at every level of the program. Only with work will there be real long-lasting change that can remove the negative stigma around the modern Miami football program.
"We have to stop being known for having a team with a bunch of talented guys," Diaz said. "Sitting around and talking about how talented we are doesn't win us any games. We have to go back to being a bunch of hard-working guys. This is how Miami won in the past. All the greats that own this program, our former players, have told us repeatedly."
Virginia Tech facing pivotal 2019 season: Virginia Tech had one of its more disappointing seasons in recent memory in 2018, and it served as a shock to the system following what appeared to be a home-run hire and transition from Frank Beamer to Justin Fuente. Attrition was a huge issue for both injury and disciplinary reasons, an embarrassing loss to Old Dominion and the need play a make-up game against Marshall on conference championship Saturday just to guarantee bowl eligibility and the extension of the Hokies' FBS-leading postseason appearance streak.
After handfuls of transfers, the players that left can use the lessons from the 2018 season as something to build on for the future.
"There's two ways to look at it. I think they're both correct," Fuente said. "One, we certainly understand what's expected at Virginia Tech. We don't shy away from those expectations. We dedicate ourselves every day to living up to those. We know that last year was not good enough.
"But there's also an element of pride in what our kids did accomplish when faced with a tremendous amount of adversity. Throughout the entire season, the amount of guys that played beat up, the amount of guys that pushed through injuries, the amount of guys that we lost that were unable to continue to go, the amount of distractions we had for them to continue to battle through the entire year, I think we can learn from that, too."
It's only Year Three for Fuente but it feels like a pivotal season for his program. Bounce back with eight, nine or more wins and then last year's struggles and off-field issues take the appearance of an anomaly. But if the Hokies find themselves facing an uphill battle to reach bowl eligibility again in November it's going to require a real serious investigation into why the success from Fuente's first two seasons -- 19 wins and two top-25 finishes -- could not be sustained.
Can Virginia close out the Coastal Division rule of 7s? The official media poll preseason order of finish won't be released until Monday, but I'll reveal here that I put Virginia as the first-place team in the Coastal. Judging by the line of questioning for the Wahoos' coaches and players, there are going to be others who feel the same way. It's probably going to be a tight race between Virginia, Miami, Virginia Tech and maybe even Pitt, but the fact that Bronco Mendenhall has the Cavaliers in the position of preseason division title consideration is impressive.
But one of the real reasons why Virginia is getting attention as a team ready to break through is because it nearly happened a a year ago. Back-to-back overtime losses against Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech in late November threw UVA's conference championship contention off course and opened the door for Pitt to win the division. Those late slip-ups likely would have thrown the media off from backing the Wahoos as a pick to win the Coastal this fall, but a 28-0 win against South Carolina in the Belk Bowl changed the narrative entirely.
"A year ago two overtime losses prevented that from happening. Those overtime losses weren't accidental; we were outplayed and we didn't execute in the critical moments," Mendenhall said. "But we did apply those learnings, we worked relentlessly and shut out an SEC opponent that was another indication of our capability. We have as good a chance as anyone on our side of the division to win this league."
Now comes the fun part. If Virginia wins the Coastal Division, it could become the seventh and final different team from the division to appear in the ACC Championship Game. Among the schools who have been in the ACC since it first formed divisions 2005, only Virginia and NC State have yet to make an appearance in the title game.
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