Welcome to Friday Food For Thought, the weekend conversation starter. Each week, this article presents a topic for debate. Whether in the comments section, on the golf course, or around the weekend game table, the goal is to provide enough background that either side could be a winner. In order to facilitate the discourse, a suggested beverage pairing is also included. So speak up, mix it up, and drink up.
When college sports fans and commentators attempt to categorize the major sports at Carolina, they are generally stuck in two continuous narratives. The first is that the University of North Carolina is a basketball school. Football is a fun diversion for a couple of months, but basketball is king from at least the first game in November if not earlier.
The second narrative is that Tar Heel basketball fans are the “wine and cheese” crowd. They are a laid back group of fans that do not show up with energy, do not make noise, do not intimidate their opponents, and do not help their team win.
Taken together, these two themes are pretty disturbing; Tar Heel basketball fans do not do enough to support their team, and basketball is way more important than football. What does this rationale say about the football program?
Last week, this article examined the Kenan Stadium renovations and paid particular attention to the seating capacity. One of the benefits of the new seats is that the stadium has a significantly reduced attendance limit and is therefore easier to fill. I questioned whether this was a “benefit” or just a sad commentary on the reality of the situation.
So, given the current perceptions related to the football program, what will it take to make UNC a “football school” as much as it is a “basketball school?”
This discussion will only focus on what level and duration of success needs to occur on the football field. It would be much easier to swing the focus of attention if the basketball team were not a perennial power. And maybe as long as the Tar Heels stay nationally relevant and successful on the court then there is little hope of greater attention on the field. I am making the assumption, however, that schools can be good enough in both sports for each program to get its own attention and not live in the shadow of the other.
Like all sports, college football is a “what have you done for me lately” game. It really only takes one good season for fans and the media to start singing a program’s praises. Put together a successful run and everyone loves you.
On the national stage, a gaining prominence is much easier over time than all at once. Building one successful season after another serves to move a program up the preseason rankings. This helps to garner more attention nationally and makes it easier to remain relevant in the conversation. In other words, when you start in the top 10 all you need to do is hold your spot. If you start outside the top 25, there are a lot of teams to climb over on the way up. This does not even take into account scheduling power for smaller schools.
Residing in a Power 5 conference mitigates a great deal of the damage that starting very low in the polls could otherwise have. Threaten to win your conference and you are virtually guaranteed to be a point of attention on Saturday morning pregame shows and evening wrap-ups.
This means that to get a lot of attention for a school like North Carolina, all that is required is one good season. Let’s look at 2015. That season started with a putrid loss to a South Carolina team that turned out to be terrible. From there, however, 11-straight wins including an undefeated conference run turned a bad start into an incredible season. Sure, there were lots of strength of schedule critics (rightfully so with NC A&T and Delaware on the schedule). But by the end of the season, UNC was playing Clemson in a sold-out ACC Championship game in Charlotte with an outside chance to get in the playoffs. That game provided a new definition of “offsides”.
Generating sustained interest and excitement in any team requires long-term success. Sure, there can be bursts of energy and excitement, but a handful of sold out games late in a year does not bring a program into the limelight.
Perhaps the best mark of success in a program is the recognition that a particular season is not successful. Look at Florida State in 2017. This was a team that started the season ranked number 3 and went 3-6 out of the gate. A 3-6 North Carolina football team garners no national attention. A 3-6 Seminoles team was noteworthy for its poor record and remained a talking point.
There are three hurdles that the Tar Heels must cross to elevate the program’s recognition over the long haul. First, winning early non-conference games is must. There must be excitement going in to every season and that excitement has to last longer than the first week.
Second, the team must consistently win its last game. The elation from a season must carry longer than (hopefully) mid-late December. This point is especially important at a school like North Carolina where the attention of casual fans can so easily turn to January basketball in a blink of an eye.
Finally, the team must regularly compete for a conference title. I do not think that any reasonable person would suggest that the Heels have to be National Title contenders on a yearly basis in order to be a prominent program. Competing in the conference, however, maintains relevancy. Think Virginia Tech. The Hokies seem to always be in the mix in the Coastal and have the occasional great year, and in doing so earn a spot in the national rankings. This keeps them firmly viewed as a “football school.”
In short, the team does not always have to win it all, but they do always have to win their share.
In need of encouragement to debate – In Chicago a couple of weeks ago, my wife tried the Lakeside Lemonade. We have modified it at home and it is delicious. Mix 1 part pear vodka with three parts lemonade. Add a few slices of cucumber and serve over ice. It is a refreshing beverage with a very unusual and enjoyable aftertaste.
Can debate without assistance – My son has gotten in to the multi-flavored individual pouches of Hawaiian Punch. Mixes easily with a bottle of water and refreshes after these early season soccer practices.