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Should UNC basketball stay away from football?

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Why can’t football stand on its own...and should it?

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NCAA Football: Louisville at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

You heard it, I heard it; the sneering that came from fans of other schools when UNC decided to hold their National Champion Ring Ceremony during Saturday’s Louisville game. “Typical UNC” goes the taunt, in that even during football season they can’t get away from basketball. The implication there being that football should be football only, basketball should stay in their corner.

We’ll set aside the fact that most of these taunts are coming from fans who haven’t had to worry about a ring ceremony in a long time...or ever. There is something there worth talking about: Why can’t football stand on its own to where they don’t need an assist from the basketball team? Does it even matter?

There are a couple of issues with the ceremony happening yesterday—we’ll call them “practicality” and “principle.” The bulk here will be arguing the principle of it, but let’s address the practicality.

First off, the idea of a ring ceremony for the NCAA Champs is not new. A quick Google search finds stories that pop up for Villanova and UConn. Teams can choose to do it privately if they want, but when teams win, it’s usually customary to have something for the fans that supported the team along the way. So, if you’re going to have a ring ceremony, and you want fans to be there, you need to have it when players can attend.

“So why not do it during Late Night with Roy?” You may ask. Well, that would be great if not for the fact that the NBA decided that perhaps having teams play three games in four nights was a bad idea. The decision is causing the season to start earlier this year, one week before LNWR.

Teams are finishing their training camps, so that knocks out first round picks Justin Jackson and Tony Bradley from attending, plus Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks who have Gatorade League deals. That’s only three of your starters and the Sixth Man, and something to consider when you have multiple players drafted to play in the NBA.

You’re not going to do it later in the season unless you try it during the NBA All-Star break, but really, that’s too late to look back on the previous season. You want to have those who returned focused on the current year, and having the ceremony before the season begins allows them to turn the page. It’s why the banner ceremony will be the last thing to celebrate of the title, during LNWR.

So the only answer is to have it during the football season, and really why not? It’s a way for thousands of fans to take part. You can nitpick over the game that was chosen, but let’s be honest, if it were any other game you wouldn’t have had this great moment:

The bigger issue here is the principle of football using basketball to get attention. I’d argue that it is actually a good thing that basketball is so involved with football, and more importantly, it would actually be detrimental for both programs to actively work against each other.

For explanation, let’s go back to Mack Brown. In 1999, two years after Brown left for Texas, Art Chansky released a book, Dean’s Domain. The book made headlines for proclaiming that Roy Williams was the hand-picked successor to Coach Smith, but the meatier story was the fight over the new AD that had happened the summer prior to his retirement.

As John Swofford moved on to Greensboro to head the ACC, UNC narrowed the field to two guys, one preferred by Brown, one preferred by Smith. The one preferred by Smith won, and it’s how we got Dick Baddour as an AD. A few months later, according to Chansky, Smith’s retirement served as a huge distraction to what was Mack Brown’s best season, and ultimately made leaving UNC easy for him. The fact that he got an offer for a school that focused on football first, when compared to what he was dealing with, made it no debate in his mind.

That moment was a huge turning point for the Carolina program, and not in a good way. The wall Smith built around basketball cost UNC the best football coach they had in ages, and the program immediately declined, not even coming close to its 1997 levels since. In three short years, a team that had made two straight Gator Bowls missed two bowls in a row, and had an embarrassing loss to Furman in Kenan.

Flash forward to 2004. I’m an alum back in town for UNC-Miami in football, probably to this date the best modern game played in Kenan, and I’m in the tunnel between the stands and the old field house. I look up, and there’s Roy Williams with members of the basketball team on the balcony of that field house, looking on and soaking in the game. It was a very visible statement by the coach, not being up in the box but very visibly supportive of the football team in a big game.

Honestly, though, it was more than that. Roy Williams may be the coach of the team that fans consider their first love, but he is an alumnus of UNC, as well as a big fan. He attends multiple sports, including baseball games on his own. No one says that Roy needs to stick to basketball when he’s sitting in Omaha with the Diamond Heels at the College World Series. His presence is a sign to all coaches that he wants UNC, not just his team, to succeed, and actively roots for it.

So, back to football, that moment in 2004 I referenced was one of a few bright spots in Kenan over the past 20 years since Brown left. It’s difficult as a program to stand up on your own two feet when you can’t be consistently good. Even historically great programs struggle to fill their stadium when fans aren’t sure of what to expect.

Our neighbors over in West Raleigh have had attendance issues of their own, and they aren’t immune to having the basketball team make an appearance at a football game. The reality is, people in general aren’t going to spend a lot of money to go to an event unless they are sure they are going to see a good product.

The problem is that in 2017, athletic departments can’t afford to just let football figure it out on their own. The cost of the programs, plus their importance to the huge television contracts that have been signed make their success at every high-level D1 program essential. Their success gets them on TV, where ratings for an average week in college football far out surpass those for even the best regular season basketball game.

Get on TV more, get the attention of recruits. Get the attention of recruits, build a better program. Build a better program, get more folks in the stands, and more money donated to the athletic department as a whole. So, any way you can get an edge to help your football team succeed, you take it.

But there are two sides to this coin, and the other side is Larry Fedora willingly accepting this help from basketball. We know the handicaps he’s been given by now, and while football may be king overall, basketball still is the way to the heart of a majority of Carolina fans. The Mack Brown experience taught us that, and if it wasn’t clear before, the 2015 rebrand that brought argyle into every uniform should have.

A coach is not going to succeed at UNC unless he at least has a good working relationship with basketball; a fact that had to be made clear to Fedora when he was hired. And honestly, why shouldn’t the leaders of the two revenue sports work together to the betterment of both programs? When the two work together, they can help each other. How many football recruits came to UNC-Duke in the Smith Center, and how many basketball recruits came by Kenan on Saturday?

The argument can also be made that Williams is aware the athletic department as a whole needs to be top-notch. Since the Smith Center opened, Kenan has been upgraded multiple times, the second new football practice facility is under construction, Carmichael has been completely overhauled, Soccer and Lacrosse will soon be playing in a new stadium, and Field Hockey will be playing in their second new stadium next season.

By comparison, the Smith Center has gotten just some modest upgrades. If Williams had wanted to try to exert some more authority, the much-discussed changes to the Smith Center would have happened by now. All of these upgrades are because boosters donate the money, and that doesn’t happen without Williams helping out.

Look, I get it. In the end, every program wants to get to a point where they can be a powerhouse in football. I’m sure if you talk to Fedora in a moment of honesty he wishes that they didn’t have to find ways to get more fans into the game, and that football could stand on its own two feet. There are plenty of fans who want this as well, but the days of one sport dominating an athletic department solely are almost over.

If you are going to work with the other revenue sport, and that sport has the heart of the fans, why can’t it be a good relationship? Williams clearly wants the University as a whole to succeed, and has made it a point to be there to help when asked. The department as a whole had one of its best years ever in 2016-17, and part of that is because of the mindset of all the athletes supporting each other. Even if football ever gets to the point where it’s fighting for the playoffs, the two departments will continue to feed off each other.

Ultimately, the lesson learned from that 1997 debacle was that neither side can wall off their sport. It’s created a mutually beneficial partnership between the two revenue sports. Outside fans may sneer, but scenes like Saturday are what you want to see in an athletic department. It may be one that helps ensure a football program keeps its gains this time instead of letting them slip away.