Lauren Brownlow

UNC Sleeping Giant: Near-Breakthroughs

Posted October 11

When a team dubbed a sleeping giant by some has had football success elude them over time, there are always a myriad of reasons: poor administrative decisions, bad timing, investment, etc.

Oh, and ticks.

Yes, ticks. Or at least one fateful tick, the one who bit former UNC head coach Jim Tatum in the summer of 1959, giving him a case of Rocky Mountain spotted fever that resulted in his sudden death just days later at age 46.

It was supposed to be the year for the UNC alum as head coach of the Tar Heels, who came back home to win a national title like he’d already done at Maryland. Instead, UNC’s hopes for big-time football seemingly died with Tatum.

Jim Hickey took over for Tatum in 1959, but his Tar Heels went 5-5. He was always doomed to be blamed for it if they lost and watch Tatum’s ghost get the credit if they won.

There are a lot of woulda, shoulda, couldas in UNC’s football history. In spite of Tatum’s history and the way UNC football was trending, his best season since his return was 6-4. But “the curse of the tick” is something that longtime Carolina football fans will invoke with varying degrees of seriousness.

And there’s the Curse of Dick Crum, which might just be a thing this one guy made up.

Crum, though, was successful. He was the last coach at UNC to win an ACC title in 1980, but his best team was in 1981. That group lost 10-8 at home to a Clemson team that would go on to win the national title, but had suffered a bad loss to South Carolina earlier in the season. Wait, where have we heard that before?

After Crum came Mack Brown in 1987, and former Florida State head coach Bobby Bowden’s proclamation that UNC was indeed a sleeping giant. Even though ironically enough, it was Bowden’s own Seminoles that arguably kept UNC asleep. By beating them. Every. Year. (And almost everyone else in the ACC, but still.)

It took Brown awhile to get going. There were back-to-back 1-10 seasons. The breakthrough years came in 1996 and 1997. Except they couldn't. The 1996 Tar Heels still rose up to No. 6 in the country after a loss at FSU earlier in the season before No. 24 Virginia derailed their big-time bowl hopes in Charlottesville on a 96-yard pick-six. In 1997, UNC had risen to fifth in the country and was still undefeated before hosting Florida State in a top-5 primetime showdown.

The crowd of 62,000 that night was mostly filled with UNC fans ready to witness the Tar Heels’ coronation, a welcome to football glory. Instead, they saw a 20-3 beatdown in a game that didn’t feel that close. And the fans left feeling like if THAT team couldn’t beat Florida State, who can?

It was yet another example of bad timing, says former UNC defensive back Michael Felder. “I think the North Carolina program has been one year short or two years short of making special things happen. Obviously, the ‘97 team I believe it was, that’s a top-4 football team and the fact of the matter is if they were in the BCS era, they’re a team that’s getting an at-large bid to go play in a major bowl game,” Felder said. “But what were they, one year too early for the BCS? One year too early to get an at-large bid somewhere? Think about this -- if they were a couple of years later, wher you have the BCS Championship game by itself, that’s a team that’s playing in the Orange Bowl because of the bowl tie-ins.”

“When you talk about Butch Davis, God, if that doesn’t happen that year, this is a team that beats LSU, a team that goes out and just wrecks shop. They’re poised for success. Not having a head coach and not having big chunk of your production changes a lot of things. So I do, I do 100% think that they’re right there, they’re knocking on the door. I don’t know that bad luck or snakebitten is the right word, but gosh, man. A year. One year, 1998, that team is a top-4 team and now you're playing in a major game. It’s one of those things that it just didn’t happen the way they needed it to happen so they kind of end up being SOL.”

The hurt feelings Brown left behind in his exit are still there in the fanbase. Maybe they were even still there when UNC promoted Brown’s defensive coordinator Carl Torbush, and then again when they hired alum John Bunting to replace him. WRALSportsFan.com’s Turner Walston thinks there are some who would almost rather their good head coaches remain under the radar, lest they get stolen again. Because UNC is still looked at as a stepping-stone job.

“ECU fired Ruffin McNeill, right? Good coach, a consistently four out of five years was in a bowl game. ECU alum, loved the school, took it upon himself to take his school to take his school to a higher level at football, and they fired him. Mistake, I think,” Walston said. “For that reason, that’s why I was pulling so hard for John Bunting to be good: Carolina alum, sees it as his personal responsibility to take his alma mater and make them good at football.

“But no, I don’t think (UNC has) progressed because Mack Brown goes 11-1 (in 1997) and goes to Texas. Until they’re willing to invest in the coach salary, then then no. And there is a subset of fans that don’t want Carolina to go 11-1 because they don’t want (Larry) Fedora to leave, they’ll say, 9-3, 8-4 every year if we got a decent head coach rather than every 5-6 years go through the rebuilding with a new head coach.

“So no, I think until you get to the point where you have a head coach and there’s an opening and the Big 12 and they say ‘Well, the head coach at North Carolina, he’s not leaving that job’ -- men’s basketball is there, Football is not.”

Brown’s successors, Torbush and Bunting, didn’t work out. And in many ways, you could argue that failing to capitalize on the momentum Brown created was a missed opportunity. Settling for Torbush was the wrong decision, and hiring Bunting also likely a mistake, although the logic made sense.

And so in 2006, the University decided to change tactics. They decided to go for a proven winner in former Miami head coach Butch Davis.

Davis got an extension after a 4-8 start, partially because his team had shown genuine promise. The recruiting at North Carolina was vastly improved, and as his tenure progressed, those guys got older in his system. After back-to-back 8-5 seasons, it was looking like 2010 would be the year. His first class, like former UNC defensive back Deunta Williams (who actually redshirted as a freshman in 2006 pre-Davis, but he saw it firsthand).

Then, just before the 2010 season started...well, most of us already know, but you can refresh yourselves here.

“My first year, we won four games. My second two years, we won eight games. Our last year, we won eight games but we had 26 players suspended the first game. We had probably three first or second round guys that never touched the field our senior year, which made a significant difference. And we still won eight games,” William said. “So you never know what would’ve happened that senior year. I don’t like to do that because it keeps me up still. Sometimes if I get too wrapped up in it. I criticize myself. I criticize what we should've done.”

Williams said he and some of his old teammates reunited at a tailgate earlier this season to reminisce. They thought back to that time, wishing they’d told some of the ones who took extra benefits that they were going to hurt the team, that they were going to jeopardize the chance to do something in Chapel Hill that had never been done before.

And of course, pointing out the way NCAA issues had been handled other places -- Cam Newton at Auburn, for example, and even Alabama’s Marcel Dareus -- he thinks that if the administration had acted differently at Carolina, things might not have changed so much.

“Many people have something to say about all of the investigations and everything like that. I truly believe if it was handled differently, we would be past it by now. We would have our full strength of recruiting. And we would be truly -- we would probably have another class like that 2006 class that was my class,” Williams said. “We would’ve probably already had that guys in and they would probably be sophomores by now, and we would be down the road in terms of rebuilding where we were at.”

Davis was fired after the 2010 season when more academic misconduct issues were uncovered, but he maintains to this day he did nothing wrong in either scandal -- other than hiring assistant coach John Blake, who was no stranger to the NCAA before his tenure in Chapel Hill but was technically cleared by them of actual wrongdoing and was a longtime friend of Davis.

But is that 2010 season and its tantalizing potential unfulfilled, or even the 2015 season that ended in the ACC title game, the peak of what UNC can be? Is that the best they can hope for?

“So far, that which has been is an indicator of what will be,” former ECU head coach Steve Logan said. “Dick Crum had his little needle bump, then they ran him out of town. Mack left when he figured out he was not going to break through that glass ceiling. I think Butch Davis would’ve been the guy because of his age and the travels he already had, I don’t think he was interested in leaving at all. Butch could be sitting there doing some real damage because wherever Butch goes, there’s going to be some real talent.”

Larry Fedora was the next man up. The Tar Heels have shown promise, and they’ve been exciting at times. The Tar Heels found themselves in his fourth season in 2015 with most of his recruits into the program and NCAA sanctions lifted, ready for the next step. And they nearly took it.

A horrible loss in the season opener to a bad South Carolina team haunted them the rest of the year, but they were at least a team discussed when the College Football Playoff scenarios were being analyzed.

Instead, they lost to Clemson in the ACC title game as a late-game flurry fell short. The best opportunity at an ACC title since 1980, and gone.

“If Des Lawrence doesn’t drop a pick-6 against south Carolina and Carolina goes, maybe even if they lose the ACC Championship game but they are 12-1 going into postseason, maybe they’re in a New Year’s Six bowl. If that happens or Carolina recovers the onside kick and beats Clemson in overtime in the ACC Championship game, what does that do in terms of two months later when Signing Day comes and guys want to be part of that?” Walston said.

“I think the truth is Carolina has been so close that just one play here or one play there -- and that is crazy to think about, that a 60-minute football game can come down to one play, one tipped ball, one interception, but it does. And then the fortunes of your entire football program can change just like that.”

In a lot of ways, 2016 - failing to turn the draft picks, including the No. 2 overall pick in Mitch Trubisky, into something more meaningful than 8-5 might have hurt the Tar Heels' momentum more than an injury-riddled 2017 will.

“I feel like 2016, with the No. 2 overall draft pick coming out of Carolina and yet the season was almost a wasted season because you had this tremendous quarterback, you didn’t even realize how good he was because just of a few plays here or there or maybe some play-calling and you’d like to see players used differently than they were and you’d like to see one play go differently here or there, that changes the face of your program,” Walston said.

“I guess what I’m trying to say is where Carolina has been, was good enough to go 11-3 two years ago and win 11 games in a row, if you lockdown the state better, charlotte better, and you bring in two or three game-changing players, they make game-changing plays and all of a sudden you’re in the New Year’s Six.”

There are other obstacles in place than bad luck, bad timing or bad hires, though. Or even ticks.

What are they? Find out next week.

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