AJ's Monday Musings

As the Atlantic Coast Conference makes a public bid to increase its football viability, one must wonder exactly what North Carolina fans feel about the future of the Tar Heels.

Carolina has a fine gridiron history, one that includes four top-10 finishes since 1980, and certainly one much better than its reputation states. Names like Charlie "Choo Choo" Justice, Don McCauley, Lawrence Taylor, Brian Blados, Dre Bly and Julius Peppers just don't come from ho-hum programs.

While the Heels haven't fully reached their potential despite coming oh-so-close during the Mack Brown days, UNC has done enough to justify itself as a quality major program in spite of its somewhat uncomfortable settling amongst too many other programs with similar historical perceptions.

Although Brown had things going well in Chapel Hill, too often the rub on his teams was that they didn't play anyone. Brown preferred non-ACC clashes against the likes of SMU, Tulane, UTEP and Ohio U., and not enough games against programs that with victories, would have enhanced UNC's image.

Beating TCU, Indiana and Louisville did nothing for Carolina's rep, but did add wins to the Heels' total and likely got them into some decent bowls that losses against powers would have negated.

When the 8-0 and fifth-ranked Heels hosted Florida State on what ESPN proclaimed "Judgment Day" in November 1997, all of those games against Mack Brown patsies didn't matter until Carolina revealed a softness that hasn't completely worn off. Carolina lost that night, 20-3, and in many respects hasn't recovered.

Many have argued the Tar Heels simply weren't ready for such a big game because they hadn't played enough physical, tough-minded teams. The ACC was and is a solid conference, but tuning up with the Hoosiers and mediocre Stanford Cardinal outside the league just didn't cut it. Hence, UNC was left with a trip to the Gator Bowl where it routed a so-so Virginia Tech club three weeks after Brown bolted for Texas.

Six years later and entering John Bunting's third year as head coach, Carolina's direction is a bit unknown. While Bunting appears to have the tools to take UNC back to where it once was, the jury is still out. One thing that is certain, however, is that Bunting will sink or swim playing the best possible opponents he can.

Not long after taking over for the failed Carl Torbush experiment, Bunting agreed to have his first team open up at defending national champion Oklahoma on national TV. That the Heels also had a date at Texas weeks later didn't affect Bunting's decision. The new coach, a former star linebacker at Carolina and longtime NFL linebacker and assistant coach, had designs on toughening up the program, and to him, there was no better way than taking on the best teams available, including the Sooners on the road.

Carolina lost somewhat convincingly that night and also weakened in the second half in a lopsided loss at Brown's Longhorns, but Bunting had sent a message: play the best if it makes you (us) better!

As admirable as that was, many folks would shudder at such a slate coming off the 3-9 campaign UNC experienced last fall. In reality many are thinking Carolina should align itself with like-programs, yet others believe the Tar Heels should continue to face the best clubs possible. They figure that in time, Bunting's football mind and the usually excellent recruiting tool that is Chapel Hill and what UNC has to offer will elevate the program to top-15 status.

An easy schedule coming off a season in which UNC was a missed long field goal away from last place in the ACC would be rather appetizing. But that isn't the case. The Tar Heels host Syracuse and Arizona State and travel to Wisconsin and East Carolina this season. Add the ACC schedule and the challenge is immense. But it should be interesting, and UNC fans will know sometime in late November exactly where this team stands up against the rest of the nation, perhaps unlike in 1997.

It makes more sense, for the understanding of the program's health, its direction, and its viability, to play a tougher schedule, even if it means a missed trip to the Tangerine Bowl or an at-large slot to the Humanitarian or Fort Worth Bowls. Bowl games are great for historical purposes (although recently cheapened), but knowing where you stand as a program is more valuable.

Sure, the Tar Heels could play Arkansas State, Eastern Michigan, Idaho and, say, Vanderbilt for good measure, and end up in a solid bowl game with a 3-5 ACC mark. But what would Bunting and the UNC fans really know about their program?

Very little.

In the coming years UNC has series scheduled against Virginia Tech, Miami, Notre Dame, Colorado, Wisconsin, as well as Utah, Louisville (better than the last time they met), and ECU again. No doubt such affairs will give Carolina a solid barometer where it stands, but should the Tar Heels play more quality to big time opponents?

I think so. Play Auburn, West Virginia, Ole Miss, Michigan State, and Texas A&M as very good but beatable programs, and USC, Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State and Washington to truly find out where UNC football resides.

If the ACC is trying to do its part, why not UNC too?

This week's question is would UNC football fans prefer a four-game (assuming the NCAA keeps a 12-game slate past next fall, which appears likely) non-conference slate against a medley of powers, BCS programs with a patsy, full of powers, or full of patsies? What kind of schedule do you think Carolina football should take on, and what do you think is the best course of action is for the program?

I will select three responses to post in next week's Musings. Please send all responses to" totlsprts@aol.com.

READER RESPONSE

From Michael Sousa, Raleigh

Having been a season ticket holder for 5 years, going on 6, I can tell you that I think of myself as being more committed and intense than most of the fans around me. Even though the crowd is younger, for the most part, at football games than basketball games, I still think that for some reason the fans are just picky.

I DEFINATELY would like to see expansions to the stadium in the future and believe that the new Megatron will attract more people, but quite frankly wins are the only thing that can fill up the stadium.

I love Coach Bunting and I think he and Roy Williams are possibly the best Football Basketball coaching combination in the country, but Coach Bunting is going to have to make some scheduling decisions. He will have to schedule games that people will want to watch (not a home opener against Miami, Ohio), but at the same time does not need to get in the habit of scheduling matchups with top 5 teams in the nation and expecting some of the lazy, picky fans to show up; at least until Carolina is of that caliber.

Additions to the stadium will be attractive and will make more fans want to buy tickets, but the problem is that the people who already have tickets do not want to come to the games. I don't know if you have considered this, but parking is a major issue at Kenan Stadium. Because of the landscape that it is built on and the general lay out of Chapel Hill, most all parking lots, other than the $$$$ ones 100 yards from the gate, are a hike from the stadium, making it a hassle for fans to simply park their car and walk to their seats.

Also, all of the lots are separated, taking away the family atmosphere that is present at, for instance, Carter-Finley Stadium for the Wolfpack from NC State. In conclusion, I think that by re-thinking the parking situation, scheduling winnable games with competitive opponents, and making other expansions to show the commitment the university has to the football program, the UNC's potensial is sky high.

From Blair Hinson, Charlotte

I agree totally with letting Kenan grow...Build and grow or become dook with no program to speak of at all in football..

From Roland Jones, class of 1972

While Kenan Stadium may be the prettiest stadium in the country, it is also among the worst for a football experience. Traffic is atrocious. If you don't arrive at least two hours before the game, you may not get into the stadium before the second quarter. And the pre-game atmosphere is ridiculous. "Hey, let's head over to the Hill early so we can tailgate in the hospital parking deck. And don't forget to bring something to hide your beer!"

Compare that with football Saturday at any of the other schools mentioned in your article. Clemson is a great place to see a game. State has great parking close to the stadium and you can tailgate outside!

I am a true Tar Heel fan, but I HATE going to football games at Kenan. I would rather sit at home, watch the game on TV and avoid the traffic. If Carolina were to consider expanding Kenan, I would vote instead to move the stadium off campus. Find a place with easy access to I-40 and I-85. Have a huge field for parking. Encourage people to come early to tailgate with friends in the fresh autumn air - I just can't see setting up a grill in a parking deck. Build the stadium to seat 100,000. Charge a reasonable price for season tickets rather than using exclusivity to extort additional funds for the privilege of buying season tickets. Make the experience fun for the average family.

Carolina is nothing but CORPORATE. Want season tickets? Add on $1000 for the opportunity for nosebleed tickets. Who do you think is buying tickets? Joe Carolina Fan? I remember Mack complaining about people being late to games and leaving early. I have heard similar rumblings from Coach Bunting. Carolina is not fan friendly. If the school really wants fans, make the experience fan friendly. As it is, it is a corporate site to see and be seen. It should be a football fan's place to see football!

I have had season tickets in the past. I can afford to buy them now. But I go to football games to watch football! I prefer to do my socializing before the game. And I do not enjoy spending an hour and a half in the car going to the game - from my home in Raleigh - and another hour and a half going home. Until Carolina football becomes fan friendly, I will continue to go to one game each year and watch the rest of the games on TV.

Go Heels! Just move the stadium.

From no-name

You should have something to do with fund raising before making such a ridiculous recommendation. Adding to the stadium is not even interesting as an academic topic. You are way off base.


Senior writer Andrew Jones is in his seventh year with Inside Carolina. He also covers the ACC for the Wilmington Star-News/Morning Star and can be reached via e-mail at: totlsprts@aol.com.


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