No one ever thought Mack Brown would come back to save UNC, until he did

How many times in the intervening years, as North Carolina staggered from football irrelevance to soul-selling and back again, was the sentiment expressed that Mack Brown is not walking through that door?

Yearning for the man who built the program into something, and then left when that something still wasn’t basketball, wasn’t going to do any good. He was gone, and that was that. Remembered more fondly with each passing year, perhaps, but gone.

Like Rick Pitino’s infamous rant about Larry Bird and Kevin McHale and Robert Parish and the other Boston Celtics legends who weren’t coming back through the door to save Pitino or the Celtics, Brown could not be the answer. It had to be something else.

That’s not unique to North Carolina. The same was true of Jim Valvano and N.C. State while he was still alive, and will be true someday of Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams. There’s always pain in moving on, and pining for the past does no favors to everyone.

All these years later, Brown still cast a shadow over Kenan Stadium, one that Carl Torbush and John Bunting and Butch Davis and Everett Withers and, decisively and especially, Larry Fedora could not escape.

But Brown wasn’t walking through that door.

Until Tuesday morning, when he did.

Brown walked through the door of a luxury-suite complex that was all but a fantasy when he left in 1997, at the opposite end of the stadium from the football offices he helped design but never actually occupied. His custom fish tank ended up at the SECU Family House at UNC Hospitals. Otherwise, all these years later, he could now finally have filled it.

All that he knew was that the years flow by like water, and that one day men come home again.

“Somebody asked me this morning, ‘How long are you going to be there?’” Brown said. “Rest of my life, I guess.”

The Cosby sweaters he wore back then are retired, even if Brown no longer is as of Tuesday, and his hair is white when it once was dark, but North Carolina has nevertheless succumbed to the pull of the past, in the desperate hope that it will lead to a different future.

Brown’s return may initially have a been a surprise but the more he talked about his relationship with Bubba Cunningham and ticked off the names of his former players working in the athletic department and all the coaches in other sports still around from his first tenure, the more it began to feel less like a coaching change and more like a fait accompli. These are his people. They have always been his people. He knows them well, walks among them in Linville or on Figure 8 Island.

Powerful forces aligned to bring Brown back to Chapel Hill with improbable speed, but all felt the same yearning for the comfort of the known and the certain that Brown offers.

The desire to find safety in the past is fundamental in our lives, in tenuous harmony with the necessity to move forward into the unknown. That balance animates our politics, our culture, our friendships. Change is scary, creativity is inherently destructive and uncertainty is uncomfortable. Sometimes, it’s easier to retreat.

All the jokes about Brown being the reboot of a sitcom or the remake of a classic movie hit closer to home than they ever intended. All of those have a headstart on the truly original because they tap into feelings we already have, trigger emotions we already know, bring us to conclusions we already have reached. And yet they’ll never shake our convictions or change our minds, take us to places we’ve never been.

Yet that can be a beneficial instinct, even necessary at times. Poor NASCAR lost the personality its fans fell in love with when it moved from small southern tracks to soccer-dad superspeedways, when the drivers started to come from all over the country instead of a handful of area codes that delivered them with their grudges premade and their personalities raw. The ACC will continue to struggle with that dynamic as it assimilates the Big East exiles and tries to retain its character while expanding its geography.

It’s important to know who you are, where you came from, why you’re here. It’s important to remember all of that, and just as important to know when it’s time to leave it behind.

Mack Brown shakes hands with athletic director Bubba Cunningham as he is introduced as the new football coach at North Carolina on Tuesday, November 27, 2018 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C. Robert Willett

Brown in many ways personifies what North Carolina football is supposed to be, which made his first departure all the more painful. He is a living reminder of when times were good, a period of football success that was almost taken for granted at the time but is perhaps disproportionately appreciated in retrospect. And he is someone who loves the university as much as its people do: a kindred spirit, a member of the true brethren, as close to a native alum as a Florida State grad from Tennessee could ever be.

“I owe this place a whole lot,” Brown said, “and that’s why I want to come back and do my part.”

Will it actually work? That question is almost beside the point.

Brown is here to be Brown, to be a living reminder of an era once thought lost, to let everyone bask in the good feelings and memories his mere presence conjures.

If he can’t turn things around, no one will hold it against him. If he does, he’ll be even more revered than he is already. He couldn’t lose the moment he walked through the door.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered four Final Fours, the Summer Olympics, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.