The theme of “family” radiates throughout the University of North Carolina’s campus in Chapel Hill. Tar Heel fans have embraced that feeling and it can be felt just about everywhere you go — walking down Franklin Street, grabbing food at your favorite restaurant, shopping at the local grocery store, or seeing parents with their children decked out in Carolina blue heading to the Dean Dome for a game.
While the atmosphere in the Dean Dome and around Chapel Hill is arguably one of the best in all of college sports, there are also large numbers of Carolina fans found everywhere the team goes on the road. Teams love playing in front of their fans, and for good reason. The emotional boost of an arena that is fully behind you can basically serve as a sixth man.
Fans in North Carolina anticipated UNC getting another chance to play close to home this year in the NCAA Tournament with a First Round site in Columbia, SC. While playing so close to home would have been good for the local die-hards, the Tar Heels were shipped to Columbus, Ohio, instead.
Nothing about Ohio screams “Tar Heel Nation” from the outside looking in, especially with the presence of Big Ten football powerhouse Ohio State in the area. Well, as it turns out, there is a Tar Heel Nation that exists in the Buckeye State, and it is a much bigger presence than you think.
The Tar Heels have not only developed a fanbase in central Ohio, they also have developed a relationship with high school players and coaches, particularly in the city of Pickerington, which is just outside of Columbus. Pickerington is the home of sophomore forward Sterling Manley.
Manley’s father called UNC getting sent to Columbus to open the tournament instead of Columbia or Jacksonville a blessing. Although his son has missed a significant chunk of the season with a knee injury, everyone was excited for the chance to see him play in Ohio again.
Needless to say, Sterling was excited as well.
“They said ‘North Carolina’ and we all said “Yeaahhh, lets get it, lets go,’” Manley told the media. “Then when they showed the bracket Columbus was the first spot, and I was like and we got hype and Coach (Williams) was like, ‘Go home, big fella, go home.’”
After Roy Williams managed to bring in the former Pickerington Central star last year, he also signed 2019 point guard Jeremiah Francis. Ohio State heavily recruited Francis, as did other regional powers, but Jeremiah decided that Carolina was the right place for him.
One of the beautiful things about college sports is seeing a city that produced high-caliber talent rally around a particular team to support their own. While there is without a doubt a number of fans in Ohio that have rallied around the Tar Heels thanks to Sterling Manley, Francis claims that Tar Heel Nation has always been alive and well in the Buckeye State.
“Yeah I believe there are a lot of Tar Heel fans in Ohio,” said Francis. “Just seeing what they have done in the past made other people just love the program and all the players they have produced, and Coach Williams being a great coach brings fans from everywhere and everybody loves watching Carolina Basketball.”
There’s no denying the level of prestige that surrounds a program like UNC. The relationship that Roy Williams developed with Manley and Francis is something that has been huge in both players’ lives, but it has also had a big impact on Pickerington as a whole.
“It’s impacted it a lot,” Jeremiah Francis said. “We have plenty of High major D1 talent in the past years, but none of those have been to a ‘Blue Blood’ program such a North Carolina. It means a lot to be the first couple of players to commit to such a beautiful university.”
Francis, who is recovering from season-ending knee surgery, will hopefully be fully healthy and reunited with his former teammate when the season tips off in November. Their familiarity could really benefit the Tar Heels.
“I think [our] chemistry is great on and off the court,” said Francis. “I believe there is still room for that to grow — knowing that he will be my big man for some years is also great as well!”
Those Tar Heel ties expand beyond the recruiting trail too. There are plenty of die-hard fans in the Buckeye State.
Like many Tar Heel fans, Corey Poches’ dad shared his love of Carolina with him at a young age. Their connection as father and son was strengthened by their mutual love of all things Tar Heels. Corey lost his father to cancer when he was just seven years old, but his dad’s memory lives on in the love of UNC he passed on to his son.
“When my dad was really sick, he had the chance to take me to one final Tar Heels game as he knew that he didn’t have much time left. Even being so small, I remember it like it was yesterday, when the end of game hit, my Dad ran down to the floor, grabbed Dean Smith, and made sure to get a photo with Coach Smith, myself, and him,” said Corey.
“Since my dad passed away, I have carried on his legacy through my love of the Tar Heels. There is not a game I miss, and I have promised myself to get to at least one Tar Heels game a year. As soon as the first and second round assignments were announced, I bought my tickets for both Friday (and hopefully Sunday with a W on Friday).”
Sometimes a love for UNC is more of a choice than an inherited trait, as was the case for Zach Hilborn. He was born and raised in Marengo, Ohio, by a father who roots for Duke. Zach wanted to be different, so he picked the better blue.
Hilborn has lived in Ohio for all 28 years of his life, but he makes sure to catch all of the Carolina games that end up on television there. One of those games stands out above the others in his mind, and for good reason.
“During our 2017 Elite Eight game against Kentucky, Central Ohio was under a tornado warning and CBS cut away from the game during the final minute. However, I was able to FaceTime a fellow UNC fan who lived in Florida and was able to watch his tv so I was still able to see Luke Maye hit the shot,” Zach said.
For some Ohio fans, the connection to the University of North Carolina runs so deep that it becomes a generational affair. UNC fan Todd Lotz is a current Westerville resident originally from Greensboro, NC. He has been a Tar Heel fan since the day he was born, and a lot of that has to do with the ties his family has with the program.
“My uncle, Danny Lotz, played on the 1957 national championship team,” Lotz said. “Another late Uncle, John Lotz, served as one of Coach Smith’s assistant in the late 60’s-early 70’s, then retired as Associate Athletic Director for Campus and Community Relations.”
Perhaps some of the greatest Tar Heels fans in the world are ones that not only are die-hard fans that live outside of the state, but also go through great lengths to see their team achieve great success. The Ward family fits this mold, and they are no strangers to seeing the Tar Heels cut down the nets in person.
“We have attended UNC games across the country,” Sean Ward stated when asked how he and his family keep up with the team, “including New York City, Las Vegas and Chicago. My dad and I were at the 2009 championship game in Detroit, and my brother went with him to Phoenix for the 2017 championship. If we can’t get to games, we all will watch it at our house together.”
For Marietta, OH native TR Amrine, the origins of his love for Carolina basketball stem from one powerful force that a lot of Tar Heel fans that grew up in the 90’s can relate to. You may have heard of him, as he eventually became the greatest basketball player on the planet.
“I’ve been a Carolina fan since I was a kid, during the height of the Michael Jordan era. I remember latching on to the Tar Heels because of MJ. During the 1994 season, my mom wrote a letter to Coach Smith asking if we could come watch a practice for my birthday. Not only did we hear back from him, he invited us to a game and to the basketball office to meet him. Definitely one of the most surreal experiences of my life. Needless to say, I was a fan for life after that.”
There are also those who have lived in Chapel Hill, gotten the full Carolina experience, and now have to stay connected to the team they love from a distance. Marseille Mosher is a 2013 graduate of UNC who has lived in Cincinnati for the last six years. She was raised by two Carolina alums in Roanoke Rapids, Virginia before her time in Chapel Hill.
“There are a decent amount of alumni and fans here in Ohio, it’s just tough sometimes being in UK, Xavier, and UC territory during basketball season,” Marseille told us.
Mosher has since gone on to lead the Cincinnati Carolina Club for alumni. They’ve recently been meeting up to cheer on the Tar Heels at a bar in Cincy called Rudinos that originated in the Triangle back in 1995.
Whether they were born into it like Poches, Lotz, and Mosher, or chose it to be their home like Manley and Francis, the love of Carolina is something that runs deep, no matter how it originated. Regardless of whether someone visits Chapel Hill for every game day or has to keep up with the team from afar, those who bleed Carolina blue know that they have one very important thing in common: the feeling of family.
Thankfully, the difficult road for Manley this season didn’t prevent him from getting shown the love from his hometown crowd. The largely pro-UNC crowd in Columbus. greeted him with a loud ovation when Manley checked ran to the scorer’s table in the waning minutes of the Tar Heels’ game against Iona. He scored on a fast break layup with 19 seconds left in the game in front of a large number of friends and family.
Those two points may not have had a huge impact on the game, but they felt special nonetheless. The kid from Pickerington was home, playing in front of both those who love him and those who love the Tar Heels, and the feeling of family that spans the distance between Columbus and Chapel Hill was abundantly evident to everyone in attendance.