Can North Carolina Football EVER be Great?
Let’s be honest. As a Tar Heel fan, I’m already thinking about basketball season. And why not? The tradition is there. The excellence is there. The really awesome non-conference schedule is there (Kentucky, Michigan State, Louisville, etc.). PJ Hairston has to come back at some point too. So it makes sense, right? Basketball, North Carolina…they just go together. Well yeah, and basketball season actually IS here. Late Night with Roy is this Friday. So it’s okay if my attention has shifted, isn’t it?
But shouldn’t I still be focused on football? After all, we’re only halfway through the season and North Carolina isn’t technically out of bowl contention yet (although we pretty much have to run the table). Have I given up hope, or am I just prioritizing?
As someone who has spent a considerable amount of time in Chapel Hill, it’s always been hard not to like basketball more than football. So many legendary players have come through the program. Jordan. Worthy. Carter. And on top of that we’ve had some pretty good coaches too. A lot of our other Olympic sports are top-10 as well- lacrosse, soccer, field hockey, baseball. But there’s a serious drop-off with football. Outside of the Mack Brown era and a few years here and there, the program just hasn’t been that good. The resources are there. The fans even show up for the most part. So what’s the problem?
It makes me wonder- Will UNC EVER be great at football? I’m not talking 8 wins. I’m talking consistently reaching 10-11. I’ll take a look at 5 reasons why the Tar Heels CAN be great. And 5 reasons why they’ll NEVER be.
Five Reasons Carolina CAN be Great
1) Population Growth- Already 10th largest in the nation, North Carolina has ranked one of the fastest growing states in recent years. The Tar Heels also happen to reside in the Research Triangle area of NC, which has been ranked one of the fastest growing areas in the country, growing over 40% in the last decade. A larger population creates more fans…and more recruits.
2) Improving Recruiting Base-The State of North Carolina is considered to be a top-15 state as far as football recruiting goes, and this will only improve as the population grows. Georgia studs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall are both NC products. Jadeveon Clowney is from just over the border in Rock Hill, SC. If UNC can keep these players in state they’ll go a long way to becoming great.
3) Program Stability- North Carolina seems committed to Coach Larry Fedora in the long run. That’s a good thing because it’ll still take a few more years for the Butch Davis fiasco to blow over. Once Fedora is able to fully implement his system with his own players, the program will feel a little different. It will have an identity. And that goes a long way into attracting top talent. Players don’t want to commit to something unknown. They want to go to a program with a system they expect and a coach that they know. They don’t like change, especially during their career, or before they sign. With the knowledge that Fedora, and his up-tempo offense, will be there at Carolina for a while, players can feel more comfortable and open to what the program has to offer.
4) Facilities- While North Carolina’s facilities may pale in comparison to football giants like Alabama, the Heels have one of the nicest stadiums in the country and incredibly deep-pocketed alumni. Not only that, but UNC is one of Nike’s premier brands, and not just in basketball. Upgrades are never an afterthought and the program is very well taken care of. Centrally located on campus, Kenan Stadium is easy to get to, and a fun place to play.
5) Competition/Motivation- The North Carolina ACC schools are not only close to each other geographically, but they’re also tied closely to each other on a very competitive level. North Carolina isn’t the only big-time school in the area, and this constantly pushes them to improve to beat their rivals. If you include traditionally successful bordering state schools like Virginia Tech and Clemson, then the Tar Heels have a lot of motivation to not just be good, but great.
Five Reasons Carolina WON’T be Great
1) Lackluster Fan Base- As a former student I feel like I can say this- Carolina has terrible fans. Awful fans. They’re entitled, arrive late, leave early, sit down and don’t cheer very loudly. Yes, this isn’t always the case, but it’s more common than not. It shouldn’t take a Thursday night game against a highly ranked Miami team to get the stadium full. Without fan support, North Carolina doesn’t have the motivation, or ability, to rise beyond the mediocrity that the football team, and its fans, are known for.
2) Poor/Inconsistent Coaching- While the Larry Fedora era is still left to be defined, North Carolina has certainly had its share of bad coaches over the years. The Tar Heels have had 6 coaches in the last 25 years with a 50.78% total winning percentage. That’s a lot of 6-6 years…or worse. Illustrious names such as Carl Torbush and John Bunting will forever be infamous among UNC fans, and anonymous to everyone else. Without a period of stability and growth, the turnover, and losing, will continue.
3) Losing Recruiting Battles on their Own Soil- Names such as Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall have already been mentioned. They’re not alone in leaving the Tar Heel State to play college football. North Carolina’s location is both an advantage and a disadvantage. Until the ACC can earn some respect (and the conference is actually progressing in the right direction this year), the top recruits will always leave to play for nearby SEC schools.
4) Scandal- There are North Carolina fans out there who still want Butch Davis to coach the Tar Heels. They’re a disgrace. It doesn’t matter what Davis was directly, or indirectly involved with (although if anything, he was guilty of sheer negligence), his time leading the program is the biggest black stain the Tar Heels have ever had. Southern Methodist University is an easy example of how a scandal can ruin a program. After receiving the dreaded NCAA “death penalty” in the late 1980s, the Mustangs dealt with decades of obscurity and hardship. They’re in the American Athletic Conference. Enough said. While UNC narrowly avoided the death penalty themselves, SMU had something UNC has never had- a history of success. The Mustangs were coming off of a 49-9-1 (.839) record, best in Division 1-A, directly preceding the penalty.
5) Lack of History of Success/Unfulfilled Promises- North Carolina is always the next “it” team. News outlets like ESPN, Sports Illustrated and Sporting News are always putting the Heels on their next “big program” watch list. And the Tar Heels always disappoint, never living up to their promise. After a while, someone will figure it out and they won’t be on the list anymore. It’s hard to break out of a cycle of failure.
So can UNC be great? Only time will tell, and an improved ACC will only make this harder.