Mark: Old Coaches and Forgiveness at 30,000 Feet

<i>Roy Williams broke North Carolina's heart. Mack Brown cut it out with a Bowie knife. ...</i>

On Labor Day weekend, I found myself flying somewhere over Lawrence, Kansas, circling on approach to Kansas City. The airport sits on the Kansas side of the city's border with Missouri, and it was my first time visiting that particular part of the prairie. Though I thought I could plot all basketball meccas on the map, I have to confess I wasn't aware that Lawrence was only a jayhawk's flight down the Kansas Turnpike.

As I recognized that I was just miles from Allen Fieldhouse, my thoughts drifted toward the possibility of a pilgrimage to that legendary site. And of course as I thought about Allen Fieldhouse, I found myself wondering where, exactly, one might find the office of one Roy Williams.

I first met Roy about six years ago, back in the days when his son Scott was on the Tar Heel roster. Our seats in the stands at the Dean Dome were only a few rows apart, and so as the coach shook hands with old friends and new, I went down to introduce myself. I told him I was honored to finally meet him, asked if he'd sign my ticket stub, and commented on the amount of commuting he was doing between Lawrence and Chapel Hill. I don't recall what he said in response, but he did sign my ticket. And then, as I shook his hand once more, I remember saying, "Well, I hope you come home for good one day."

As the pilot made a left bank toward the Missouri River, I could see the look on Roy's face in my mind's eye. He smiled that tired smile you get when you've heard something a thousand times too many, and shrugged off my comment as he'd done a thousand times before with a simple, "Thanks. Nice to meet you."

I hadn't thought much about that exchange in the last couple of years, but as we flew away from Lawrence and I decided it wouldn't really fit into my schedule to get down to the university that weekend, I found myself with a distinct sense of sadness -- not because I would miss seeing the campus, but because I was reminded that my paths would probably not cross with Roy Williams's again, and certainly not with him as North Carolina's head basketball coach.

I was sad, but not angry. Angry is what I was that day when Roy held his press conference in Lawrence, and announced to the world that he was leaving the Tar Heels waiting at the altar to stick with that new girl he'd fallen for. Like so many in North Carolina, I was shocked and deeply disappointed. But last week, flying over Kansas, those emotions were gone. And I realized that if I had gone to Lawrence and happened to see Roy that weekend, I'd tell him I was fine with his decision to stay put. He stayed put, Carolina moved on, and in my mind at least, all is forgiven.

Which brings me to the point of these recollections: Mack Brown. This weekend, the former Tar Heel head coach returns to the scene of the crime, the campus where he misled his players and strung along the administration before ultimately leaving to take the head spot at the University of Texas. This weekend, Brown will walk out to the field not from the fieldhouse he helped build but from the visitor's locker room. And when he does, I dare say he will be met by catcalls and hissing the likes of which haven't been seen in Chapel Hill in a long, long time.

It's hard to predict what would happen if Roy ever brought his Jayhawks to play in the Smith Center. Frankly, it's just about impossible to imagine such a thing, because the emotional ties from Williams to Dean Smith and Matt Doherty just run too deep. But I've spoken to enough Carolina fans to think that if such an improbable event ever did occur, their emotions would run along the lines mine did on that flight over Kansas. Roy and his team would be welcomed with applause and respect. Suffice to say that isn't what I'm expecting this weekend as the Longhorns take the field.

My theory on why is simple: Roy Williams broke North Carolina's heart. Mack Brown cut it out with a Bowie knife.

When a family member does you wrong, you fuss about it a while, and then generally you try to put it behind you. Roy Williams was and is family. But for all the success Brown brought the football program, he was never family, and he wasn't even the guy you wanted to invite over for the holidays. He's like that neighbor who might mow the lawn for you while you're on vacation, but then he'll find a way to remind you that you've got a lot more crabgrass than he does.

Yeah, the grass is greener in Austin. But maybe that's because they have a surplus of fertilizer.

It's not that Brown left Carolina for Texas. No successful coach wouldn't give hard consideration to taking one of the top spots in all of college football. It's the way he left that's hard to forgive and harder to forget. Mack Brown was good to Carolina at first, but Carolina was good to Mack Brown to the finish, and the university deserved better. The athletes deserved better. And the fans deserved better. So folks are still mad at Mack Brown. And I don't blame them.

Maybe one day I'll fly over Austin and be struck by an impulse to go say a friendly greeting to the old Tar Heel coach. But I don't expect that to happen any time soon.

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