Twenty years ago, Mack Brown needed to make a splash. Back to back 1-10 seasons improved to 6-4-1 in 1991. Then 1992 saw the Brown’s Tar Heels go 9-3 including a wild win over Mississippi State in the 1992 Peach Bowl. The program was ready to blow up on the national scene but needed a platform to showcase the masterful job Brown was doing in Chapel Hill. But had anyone outside of the Tar Heel fan base noticed?
August 29, 1993. Carolina faced a Southern California team in Anaheim and laid the wood to the Trojans in spectacular fashion. With the 31-9 win, punctuated by total physical domination, the Heels traversed the proverbial hump and placed a footprint on the national map.
That was twenty years ago.
But for every Florida State, there’s a Wake Forest. For every Miami, there’s a Wake Forest. For the one season North Carolina Football was magical? There’s Judgment Night.
The national spotlight simply has not been kind to the Tar Heels -- frankly, it’s been non-existent. But two times do stand out – eerily similar in the stakes at hand.
September 4, 2010. For three years Davis built a team ready for the national stage. In the summer of 2010, Davis was ready to do what he came to Chapel Hill to do: put Carolina on the college football map.
Multiple trips by the NCAA, multiple panicked decisions, multiple player suspensions and multiple dropped game-winning touchdowns later, Carolina was close, yet still so far. In other words, right back where it started.
Brown, Davis and now Larry Fedora.
Fedora came to North Carolina to make a splash. Last season’s 8-4 record excited many around the program and spurred the “sleeping giant” phrase from several national pundits. For a program mired in constant mediocrity, Columbia, South Carolina provided an opportunity. Make a statement and do it in the back yard of the Southeastern Conference.
Brown had four years to prepare and won, Davis the same and fell short. Fedora was not afforded such a luxury. And he approached it as he always has – head on.
“Hey, it is what it is,” Fedora said leading up to the game. “We are playing in year two, and it's the opening game of college football, and so let's throw it out there and let's roll.”
Few gave the Heels a chance. It’s the SEC after all. You don’t win being cute on offense. You don’t win with walk-ons starting on defense and freshmen starting in the trenches. That’s not a knock on Carolina, and certainly not a knock on the players themselves. It’s just the way it is.
But they still had to play the game and the Heels had a puncher's chance coming in. But as with LSU in 2010, the Heels fell flat early and spent most of the first half stuck in park. One familiar ending later and the team and program still search for a defining win with more questions than answers.
South Carolina is just better, but after a spring spent working to improve and a fall camp working to eliminate the problems this team faced all last season, stepping on the big stage provided a crystal opportunity to see where they stood. But, failed execution, communication and the lack of energy are magnified under the bright lights and the postgame theme rang familiar.
Fedora: "They have some really good players and coaches and we didn’t play the way we wanted to play. We knew it would be tough coming in here to their stadium and playing a game in this situation. I was disappointed in the way that we played in all three phases of the game. But you have to give South Carolina credit, they are a good team.”
Quinshad Davis – “I feel like our offense is a lot better than we showed. The national stage? We really didn’t show up like we wanted to.”
Bryn Renner – “If we score a couple more times in the red zone when we had the opportunity, it could be a different ball game. In big games like this, you can’t not execute and you have to be flawless.”
Tim Scott - “As a defense, you’ve got to come out with energy and that’s one thing we didn’t come out with. The first couple of drives we came out with no energy. They came out and wanted to score and we didn’t really want to stop them, so that really hurt us in the first quarter.”
Romar Morris – “Early I think (the stage) affected some of the young guys. Overall, we just didn't play as good as we should have played. We didn’t come out with the effort that we should have had. We were well prepared. (South Carolina) was prepared too. They just had more effort than we did.”
Vince Lombardi once said, “Winning is not a sometimes thing, it is an all time thing. You don’t win once in awhile, you don’t do things right once in awhile. You do them right all of the time. Winning is a habit. Unfortunately so is losing.”
For a coach trying to change the Carolina culture, that’s the biggest hump there is. Fortunately, for the rest of 2013, there won’t be a tougher hurdle to cross than the one North Carolina ran up against in Columbia.