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UNC Football and the definition of insanity

As another season begins, the lack of optimism is telling.

Western Carolina v North Carolina Photo by Lance King/Getty Images

Welcome to the 2018 season. Happy to have you here!

What’s that you say? You really aren’t feeling the excitement yet?

Every season is its own animal, but the lack of excitement going into this season sure feels familiar to long time fans of UNC Football. Yours truly is one of them.

Back in 2015, as Carolina was completing an improbable run to the ACC Championship Game, I wrote on my old blog about all of the stumbles the team had endured up to that point. It was cathartic because it was nice to just lay out all of that futility for everyone to see and to just hope that once, just once, things were changing.

You know, kind of like how Lucy convinces Charlie Brown that this time she won’t pull the football away as he runs up to kick it. We all know how that turns out.

It feels weird for a fan of UNC sports to write about a lack of relevance. The basketball history speaks for itself, but with all of its recent success in many other sports, football stands out as a glaring hole in what is arguably one of the best sports programs in all of college sports. The football team boasts a ton of NFL talent, has one of the most picturesque stadiums in the country, and has had a ton of money sunk into it to compete with everyone else. Yet time and time again they have fallen flat on their backs.

Start with Mack Brown. After a couple of one-win seasons, he seemed to turn the program’s tide. The 1992 Peach Bowl win would soon be overshadowed by the 1993 national title, but from the 1990 season where he tied co-National Champion Georgia Tech, the Tar Heels had eight straight winning seasons. Eight. He had done something that no other coaches had done: he had given the fan base a reason to expect something more. After that Peach Bowl in ‘92, Carolina went to a bowl game every year he was there. This was in an era where there were about half as many. In 1996, Carolina narrowly missed on a top-tier bowl game thanks to a painful loss in Virginia, but after a win in the Gator Bowl fans were ready to be excited and expect something from the 1997 team.

That ‘97 team had a mean defense, with future NFL stars Greg Ellis and Dre Bly, among others, anchoring it. That was my first year at Carolina and the buzz on campus was something that you wouldn’t believe. They had a legitimate shot to get to the national title game, all they had to do was get past FSU. That game was going to be in Chapel Hill, though, as would the Virginia rematch. The schedule set up perfectly, to the point where fans were legitimately not talking much about the fact that the basketball team, who boasted Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison, were national title contenders in their own right.

Dean Smith changed that conversation when he decided he was done with basketball right before the first practice in 1997. The announcement overshadowed the Homecoming game against Wake Forest. A couple of months later, it’s tough not to go back to that moment as a fork in the road for the program.

The other fork came a few weeks later when FSU came to town. There has still not been an atmosphere in Kenan since that night. The game had the A-crew from ABC, was in Primetime, and the school built extra seats in front of the field house to accommodate the crowd. It was loud, and FSU brought their band to add to the atmosphere. Truly, we all thought, tonight would be the night Carolina takes their final step.

Lucy pulled the football away again.

The game wasn’t as close as the score, as the FSU defense was just as stout as Carolina’s but their offense was superior. By the time the clock hit zero, FSU had another big victory, and Carolina saw their best chance for national relevance fade away. A month later, despite getting the commitment from the administration for improvements at Kenan and the facilities for the football team, Mack Brown would leave for Texas. The popular notion is that Brown realized he’d never be at the top of the pecking order at Carolina and it’s tough to argue that.

Then it was three years with the architect of the defense, Carl Torbush, who promptly had trouble getting to .500 in ‘98, and failed to get there in ‘99. A mediocre 2000 without a bowl game cost him his job. By then, Bill Guthridge had taken Carolina to two more Final Fours, and football was back to being the sport that killed time until October practice.

John Bunting gave some brief hope in 2001, especially since new Carolina basketball coach Matt Doherty struggled (to put it mildly) after a hot start. Bunting was able to get the program’s first win over FSU and a return to the Peach Bowl. Then, he promptly failed to make a bowl the next two seasons, probably the best chance for football to pass basketball thanks to the continued struggles of Doherty. There was the brief glimmer in 2004 and the win over Miami, but by that point Roy Williams had returned to Carolina and had a national title contender. Any chance of momentum for Bunting died in 2005, and Carolina Football being what it was, he got to stick around for another lifeless 2006.

Then Butch Davis comes in, with his reputation of building a winner at Miami, and again brings hope. He builds the team to a couple of 8-5 records, and gets Carolina into an opening season showdown against LSU to start the 2010 season. This was finally it. You had a coach who was rebuilding the program and the name, and was getting Carolina in a prominent season-opening game.

Lucy was especially cruel with this football.

You know what happens from here. A couple of players tweeted about being in Miami, players were either suspended or kicked off the team, and the problem with the AFAM department was discovered. To pour salt in the wound, Davis wasn’t let go for any of this until the very start of the 2011 season, creating a dead season of recruiting for an assistant who clearly wasn’t going to be retained.

Larry Fedora came in under this, and seemed to legitimately try to change the conversation. His first season brought about this memorable play:

Fedora had the team on an upward trajectory. Two bowl games leading into the 2015 season, and then that magical run despite the loss to South Carolina. The team had something that hadn’t been seen before: resilience. Even in that title game, Carolina was never fully out of it, and it took a bogus offside call to end their hopes.

In retrospect, that ACC Championship game was the high mark of the Fedora tenure thus far.

Carolina played in the highest-level bowl in years and were thoroughly out-matched against a Baylor team that just ran the ball down their throats, despite missing key players. That Art Bryles would later be fired once it was discovered some of the things he was hiding in his program would just make the sting worse. Then the team couldn’t do any better than 8-5 despite being led by a quarterback who would be picked number two in the NFL Draft, and the season included another embarrassing defeat in a bowl game where the star player was sitting out.

Last season? We won’t rehash it here, but I think I’ve made my point. Any time you get genuinely excited about the chances for this program to rise to national prominence, they sink right back down to ground level and talk quickly turns to basketball. Why get your hopes up just to be let down again? Torbush was the architect of one the best defenses, but couldn’t sustain success. Bunting came in hot, but withered at the end. Davis rebuilt the program only to let lose the biggest scandal in the history of UNC sports.

If there is a lack of excitement this season, it’s because it sure seems like history is repeating itself. Objectively, while Fedora has done a lot to contribute to the fall, it’s tough to fully blame him considering both the situation he came into and the unforeseen difficulties of the events of 2010. Even this season is starting off on a bad...foot...with the multiple suspensions based on selling shoes.

I hope Fedora can change the narrative. There are a lot of reasons to think he will. He has his best recruiting class ever, a ton of talent on offense, and the potential for the best defensive lines he’s had. He also has a schedule that provides a chance for some real momentum, and a new redshirt rule that should allow him to rotate this talent around and finally build a full roster for the first time in his tenure.

But if Carolina can’t escape Berkley with a win this weekend, it’s going to feel an awful lot like history repeating itself.