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Tar Heel Firsts: UNC’s first ACC football championship

With the Carolina football program on the rise in the ACC, let’s look back at the first time they ever won the league.

NCAA Football: California at North Carolina Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

With the presence of Clemson in the conference in their current state, North Carolina will be hard pressed to go into a season as the favorites in the ACC. However in this year and hopefully others in the future, they are a really strong darkhorse pick.

Since they and several other school broke away from the SoCon to form the ACC, UNC have won five conference titles. They’ve won six ACC titles in total, with the most recent coming in 1980 under Dick Crum. Most of them came in the 70s during the Bill Dooley era, during which they won three. To find the very first, you have to go all the way back to just a decade after the founding of the league.

Jim Hickey was in his fifth year as coach when UNC began the 1963 season. He had gotten the job after Jim Tatum’s untimely passing, having been an assistant on his staff. Tatum had raised the expectations of the program after leading them to two-straight winning seasons, their first two since 1949.

In Hickey’s first year, the Tar Heels went into the season ranked but fell out after losing the first two games of the season and finished 5-5. The next three seasons, they went 3-7, 5-5, and 3-7. Despite the disappointing prior years, UNC did return a lot of player for 1963, so there was some stuff to be hopeful about. Turns out, hopeful would be the right emotion.

Carolina began the season against Virginia, who they had mostly owned in Hickey’s tenure. That would continue as they won 11-7 to begin the new season. What followed was a 31-0 loss to Michigan State, who went on to finish the season ranked in the top ten, so not too much shame there.

Over the next five weeks, the Tar Heels reeled off five-straight wins, holding opponents to just 24 points in that time. The fifth of those was a 28-7 win over Georgia, giving UNC their first win over the Bulldogs since 1949, breaking a six-game losing streak.

Next up was Clemson, who were coming off two-straight wins, but had gone 0-4-1 in their five games to start the season. Despite UNC seemingly having all the momentum, the Tigers came into Chapel Hill and beat them 11-7.

That loss that meant, while UNC had beat them, they were now tied with NC State atop the conference going into the final weeks of the season. Both teams sat at 5-1 in ACC play going into the final two weeks of the season. In a non-conference game in the penultimate week, UNC handled Miami to improve to 7-2.

Over in Raleigh, State easily beat Wake Forest, putting all the pressure on the Tar Heels. Carolina had to go to Durham to face a solid Duke team in their final game. It wasn’t easy but UNC squeaked through with a 16-41 win. Officially, UNC and NC State are co-champions of the 1963 ACC football season, but I think everyone reading this is of the belief that the Heels win the tiebreaker.

Receiver Bob Lacey would be named an All-American for his 568 receiving yards on 51 catches and one touchdown. This and another good year in ‘64 would lead to running back Ken Willard getting selected second overall in the 1965 NFL Draft. UNC would wrap up their campaign with a crushing 35-0 victory over Air Force in the Gator Bowl, finishing the year at 9-2.

Hopefully some time soon, we can add a UNC football team to the likes of the ‘63 squad on a pantheon of Tar Heel football greats.

Sources

https://northcarolina.rivals.com/news/no-25-bob-lacey

https://www.sports-reference.com/cfb/schools/north-carolina/1963.html

https://www.sports-reference.com/cfb/schools/north-carolina-state/1963-schedule.html

https://www.sports-reference.com/cfb/coaches/james-hickey-1.html

https://www.sports-reference.com/cfb/players/ken-willard-1.html