clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

What might have been

and no, I don't mean the cheesy song from the early 90s.

Caulton Tudor has a piece up today about Jim Donnan, the former Marshall and Georgia football coach who was inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame this week. Seems that when Mack Brown bolted Carolina in 1997, Donnan was very interested in coaching the Tar Heels.

Donnan, a former NC State quarterback and 1967 ACC player of the year, won a Division I-AA title at Marshall and had a 104-40 record as a head coach. In '97 Donnan was in the midst of a 10-2 season at Georgia, yet unquestionably wanted to return to his home state. But, as he told Tudor, "the pieces just never came together."

For fans under the age of about 30, it's hard to remember the heady days of Tar Heel football in the mid-to-late 90s. The 1997 UNC team finished the regular season 10-1 and ranked as high as #4 in the country. The Tar Heels were churning out NFL-caliber talent like Greg Ellis and Dre Bly, and UNC was clearly a program on the rise. Brown's departure was a shock but with guys like Donnan interested, the next coach could surely pick up where Brown left off, or so the reasoning went.

Donnan says he met with UNC officials but ultimately returned to Georgia, where he was eventually fired in 2000 as a result of a power struggle between athletic director Vince Dooley, who supported Donnan, and the university president, who wanted Donnan gone. Despite a number of offers, Donnan never coached again and currently works as an ESPN analyst. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2009.

We can only speculate what might have happened if "the pieces had come together". Donnan was a proven head coach who would have inherited a preseason top-10 team for 1998. He was known as an offensive genius, given his time as offensive coordinator at Oklahoma in the 1980s under Barry Switzer.

Instead, beleaguered rookie athletic director Dick Baddour, who had to replace both Dean Smith and Mack Brown in his first six months on the job, turned to the players' choice, defensive coordinator Carl Torbush. Torbush turned in an amazing performance in his debut, a 42-3 win over Virginia Tech in the Gator Bowl, but the season opener in '98 was a sign of things to come as the preseason #10-ranked Heels lost at home to Miami of Ohio. Torbush was let go after three lackluster seasons, beginning a fairly miserable decade of UNC football, which is only recently beginning to turn the corner.

Jim Donnan in 1997 was pretty much what Butch Davis was in 2007, at least as far as coaching commodities, but UNC was in much better shape as a program back then. If Donnan and UNC could have put it together, Donnan might well have been here today, as he is only 64 years old. Instead of what might have been, it could be the story of what would not have been - the lost decade of UNC football.