North Carolina football had seen 10-win seasons and conference championships prior to 1946. However, due to the non-existence and then scarcity of bowl games, it took until the 1946 season for the Tar Heels to ever appear in one.
Carl Snavely was in his second season in his second stint at the helm in Chapel Hill. He had gone 15-2-1 in two seasons from 1934-35, but then left for Cornell when the then-school president decided to de-emphasize football. During his time with the Big Red, he led the team to a 8-0 record in 1939, a season for which the school claims a national championship, although several other teams probably have stronger claims.
As Cornell’s records started to slip, Snavely returned to UNC for 1945. However, it was the following season when things started to turn around, thanks to a freshman from Asheville.
It shouldn’t be shocking that the school’s first bowl bid coincides with the first year of the school’s most revered football legend. Charlie “Choo-Choo” Justice came to Chapel Hill starting with the 1946 season after having spent four years serving in the Navy. Needless to say, he made an immediate impact.
UNC’s 1946 season began with a 14-14 tie at Virginia Tech. It was arguably the team’s worst result of the season as Tech went just 3-4-3 that year. After that, the Tar Heels bounced back with four-straight wins, beating Miami, Maryland, Navy, and Florida. Justice pulled off the impressive feat of returning both a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown in the Florida win.
The 4-0-1 record saw UNC go from unranked up to #9 in the AP poll. They then were tasked with traveling to Knoxville to take on #10 Tennessee. The Volunteers came out on top in a close contest, but considering their #7 finish in that season’s AP poll, that’s far from a terrible loss for Carolina.
The Heels would not lose again in the regular season, beating all of William & Mary, Wake Forest, Duke, and Virginia by 15 points at least. The Duke win in particular was the school’s first in the rivalry since 1940. UNC’s 8-1-1 record saw them finish the regular season #11 in the poll, win the Southern Conference, and earn a berth in the Sugar Bowl.
Waiting for them in New Orleans was Georgia. The undefeated Bulldogs came in the game undefeated led by their own star halfback named Charlie, Charlie Trippi. At number three in the polls, Georgia still very much needed a win to stay in the national championship conversation.
After a scoreless first quarter on January 1, 1947, UNC took a lead in the second quarter on a Walt Pupa rushing touchdown. They took that lead into the half, but controversy struck when the game resumed.
In the third quarter, a Pupa pass was intercepted by Georgia’s Joe Tereshinski. As the Bulldog player was being tackled, he lateraled the ball to a teammate who took it to the UNC 14 yard line. Problem was, it was a more of a forward pass than a lateral. The referees missed the call and set Georgia up in great field position, from which they promptly tied the game.
The Tar Heels retook the lead with a field goal later in the quarter, but Georgia scored 13 unanswered points to finish the game and win 20-10. Justice was held to just 37 yards.
It explains a lot about the cursed nature of UNC football that this is how their bowl history started.
Powell, Adam. University of North Carolina Football. Arcadia Pub., 2006.