UNC’s Mack Brown, Clemson’s Dabo Swinney put friendship aside in ACC title game clash

When Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney got the job 14 years ago, he reached out to a handful of coaches he didn’t know, but respected, to see if he could visit and talk football.

North Carolina coach Mack Brown, then at Texas, was the only one who said yes.

The two will face off for just the second time since that visit in the spring of 2009 — at 8 p.m. Saturday night at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte — with the ACC championship on the line.

“I just had seven weeks as a head coach and I had a lot of questions and a lot of things that maybe I was just looking for some confirmation on,” Swinney said. “I’ve always said this, this is why I love Mack Brown and always will, I mean I reached out to four or five coaches and — now you’re the head coach at Clemson people will call you back or at least to text back — and he was the only coach that would let me come visit.”

Not just Swinney, but his entire staff from Clemson. Texas was starting its spring workouts, and Brown allowed them inside practices and meetings.

The reason why he did it wasn’t as random as it may have seemed.

It goes back to Brown’s relationship with Gene Stallings, who coached Swinney at Alabama, and Woody McCorvey, who was Swinney’s position coach as a player at Alabama. They both asked Brown to look out for Swinney when he replaced Tommy Bowden as the Tigers’ head coach.

Swinney said he still has a stack of pages of notes he took during his time with Brown. He said he’d ask questions that Brown would sometimes anticipate and already have his answer.

“We just had a good time and we run our program so much alike,” Brown said. “And it’s not that he came to me and asked me what we did. It’s what he’s developed into. But we share so many things and a lot of the recruits that come to both places say, ‘We hear the same things when we go to each one.’ So I’m very, very proud for Dabo and all he’s accomplished.”

Brown said from that first visit, “I could tell then he was going to be a superstar.” And the two continued to build a friendship when Brown retired and worked as a television analyst. He would often get Swinney’s input on talking points surrounding college football.

Brown’ described their relationship as being so tight that he could call Swinney on Friday night before the game and have a conversation that didn’t infringe on the championship.

Friendship aside though, Brown is trying to keep him from adding one more accomplishment to his list.

“I’m excited about playing in the ACC championship game,” Brown said. “It’s normal for Clemson. It’s not normal for us. We haven’t played since (2015) in this game as the champion of the Coastal.”

Brown joked that one of the things he picked up from Swinney in his return to Chapel Hill was to “recruit really, really good players and turn them loose.”

What Carolina really could learn from Clemson is how to prepare for a championship. The Tigers have been to seven of the past eight ACC title games. Last season’s hiccup when Wake Forest, not Clemson, won the Atlantic snapped a run of five straight championship appearances and victories.

Swinney made a goal for the program that every recruiting class would win at least one championship.

“It’s something that is woven into just the purpose and DNA of our program,” Swinney said. “And so I think it’s great that we got a lot of guys that are coming in here and they have that experience to draw upon. But you got to seize these moments when they come.”

Although sophomore running back Will Shipley’s class has not won one yet, the Tigers will have plenty on their roster who have. Carolina doesn’t have anyone remaining from its only other appearance in the ACC title game in 2015.

Brown is just using that fact as fodder for motivation.

“What I’ve told them is everybody’s picking Clemson to win,” Brown said. “Everybody knows Clemson’s got the best team in the ACC and they’ve had that just about every year. What I want? Your best. I want you to give me everything you got for 60 minutes, because you’re gonna remember this game for the rest of your life. And that’s all I can ask you to do.”