Football in a Forest

'Football in a Forest' Excerpt: Tigers by the Tail

Excerpt from the new UNC Football book "Football in a Forest—The Life and Times of Kenan Memorial Stadium."

Carolina 45, Clemson 0
August 31, 1996

For two decades forward from the early 1970s, no school inflicted more misery, frustration and physical and emotional wreckage to the Tar Heels than the Clemson Tigers. Before the “Curse of Charlottesville” lingered into its third decade and before Bobby Bowden and the Florida State Seminoles had their way with the ACC in the late-20th century, the omnipresent orange from the Palmetto State rendered its special brew of Tar Heel bile.

There was the Tar Heels’ five-point win in Death Valley in 1980 on the back of a Lawrence Taylor sack to help secure an ACC title, but over twenty years the Tar Heels lost seventeen games to Clemson and only once prevailed in Kenan Stadium. That the Tigers were running roughshod within the state of North Carolina in recruiting in the late-1970s and early ‘80s only added to the unpleasantries. Who among us doesn’t rue the Tigers’ 10-8 win in 1981 in Chapel Hill and what might have happened had Carolina gotten a touchdown instead of a safety when Danny Barlow swatted Dale Hatcher’s punt late in the first half?

So it was that more than two decades of frustration was unleashed like a tsunami on opening day of the 1996 season when the Tar Heels buried the Tigers 45-0 in Kenan Stadium.

Mack Brown was in his ninth year as the Tar Heel head coach and had led the program through stages of rebuilding, stabilizing and ascending toward a 10-3 record, a pounding of Southern Cal in the season opener and a Gator Bowl berth in 1993. There was a two-year leveling-off period—marked by a “bend-but-don’t-break” defensive mindset in 1994 and an interception-plagued offense in 1995—but in the background Brown and his staff were razor-sharp in recruiting and were stockpiling a defense loaded with fast, smart and aggressive athletes.

The 1996 season marked the arrival of new offensive coordinator Greg Davis and the installation of a “West Coast” attack and the further evolution of defensive coordinator Carl Torbush’s kamikaze approach of kinetic pressure and playing press-coverage with his cornerbacks.

“By 1995 you could see there was a very good defense developing at Carolina,” says Ken Mack, an assistant on George Welsh’s staff at Virginia through 1995 who joined Brown’s staff for the 1996 season. “When we were studying tape the week of our game in ’95, we were a little worried. We put a strong emphasis on running north and south and protecting the football. We knew how fast they were. If we tried to run east and west, we knew we’d get run down.”

The Tar Heels upset the No. 9 ranked Cavaliers 22-17 in early October of ’95 as Omar Brown, the Tar Heels’ free safety, broke up two Mike Groh passes on Virginia’s last-gasp offensive threat. That year the Tar Heels started five sophomores and a freshman on defense and had chucked a conservative defensive mindset from ’94 into an aggressive scheme designed to showcase the Heels’ remarkable speed.

Another key piece of the puzzle was the 1996 arrival from LSU of secondary coach Ron Case, an old coaching ally of Torbush’s who was a proponent of teaching press-man coverage to his cornerbacks. It was a startling new look when the Tar Heels lined up against Clemson in the first game with Dré Bly and Robert Williams aligned in the faces of the Tiger receivers, their hands in front of their chests, ready to fire out at their opponents’ numbers on the snap of the ball.

“Ron Case changed the whole philosophy,” says Allen Mogridge, a linebacker that year who later played offensive tackle and then was an assistant coach on Butch Davis’s staff. “They called him ‘The Hands Man.’ When you played DB for Ron Case, you played with your hands and you played in their face. Of course, it didn’t hurt we had the kind of guys we had on the front line pounding the quarterback. That made the DBs’ job pretty easy.”

By the time Case saw what Bly, Williams, Reggie Love and Terry Billups could do in spring practice in 1996, the Tar Heels had their plan.

“We were playing seventy-five percent press coverage at LSU, and I wanted to do it here but didn’t know if we could,” Case says. “That first spring, we locked our own receivers down really good, so I knew we could do it. The kids thrived on it. But you’ve got to have a great front seven to make it work really well.”

Indeed they did: Greg Ellis, Vonnie Holliday, Russell Davis, Mike Pringley and Rick Terry among them, all of whom would have successful NFL careers. Ditto the linebacking corps of Kivuusama Mays, Brian Simmons, James Hamilton and Keith Newman.

“That was a sick defense, they were insane,” Mogridge says. “They could do whatever they wanted. Those guys could flat-out run, every single one of them. I don’t know what K. Mays ran in the forty, but tackle-to-tackle there was no one faster. Dré Bly had thirteen picks that year because no one could throw on Robert Williams.”

The Clemson game was the most anticipated opener since two Top Ten teams faced off to open 1982 when the Tar Heels traveled to Pitt. The game was also significant because of what fans found upon their arrival at Kenan Stadium—beyond the west end zone was an expanse of red clay, a couple of Caterpillar machines and an operations trailer, the wooden bleachers previously set within the woods now gone so that the Frank Kenan Football Center and 8,000 new permanent seats could be built in time for the 1997 season. The $50 million project was engineered by Athletic Director John Swofford at Brown’s insistence in order to keep Carolina’s facilities up to speed with its competitors within the ACC and beyond. The project would take the stadium’s capacity from 52,000 to 60,000 when completed.

“Kenan Stadium’s natural setting is unique, and we’ve tried to keep it intact as much as possible,” Swofford said. “But for this year, we’ve got to work around the fact we have a construction site in one end zone.”

Carolina led 10-0 at halftime, and after playing coy with play selection in the early going, Davis opened it up in the third quarter. Quarterback Chris Keldorf, a recent transfer from a California junior college, hit L.C. Stevens with scoring throws of fourteen and forty-five yards to turn the game into a rout. Meanwhile, the Carolina defense was allowing Clemson only ninety-one yards of offense—an average of 1.8 yards a snap. The Tigers never crossed midfield in the second half. Add the fact that Carolina won the turnover ratio four-to-one and its trio of freshman kickers performed admirably, and it’s no wonder the Heels barely broke a sweat in pouncing their old nemesis.

“More than anything, it was our day,” Brown said. “Not many good things happened for Clemson.”

Football in a Forest


“Our defense was awesome, flat out awesome,” Keldorf said.

Though the Carolina offense would be potent over two years with Keldorf and Oscar Davenport at quarterback and Leon Johnson at tailback, the big story was its smothering and bludgeoning defense. The Tar Heels posted a 21-3 record, with the defense allowing an average of just 217 yards and 11.5 points per game while ranking No. 1 nationally in one of those categories each year.

One of the best photographs ever captured in Kenan Stadium was taken later that fall by Chapel Hill photographer Bill Richards. Louisville came to Chapel Hill and gained only one yard rushing as the Tar Heels collected a 28-10 win on the way to their 9-2 regular season and sound thumping of West Virginia in the Gator Bowl.

The lighting on that late afternoon in November lent a surreal quality to the image that shows (L-R) Simmons, Mays, Ellis, Holliday, Davis, Newman and Brown. The players are swathed in darkness, the sunlight awash on the far grandstand, and no faces are visible, even up close in an enlarged version. Opposing offenses ventured into the dark hole of this defense and never came out alive. There’s unity, a sense of purpose and a calm-before-the-storm element resonating from the image.

The following spring, several players talked about what it was like to watch the avalanche of anarchy take hold on their opponents.

“Their blocking schemes get confused and they start arguing with one another,” said Mays, the middle linebacker. “It leads to chaos and you keep coming with more and more and more.”

“By the third quarter, you can see it in their eyes,” said Ellis. “Like they are saying, ‘Oh no, I’ve got to pass block this guy one-on-one.’ I’m watching for that look. When I see it, I’m gone. You know you’ve got them beat.”

“You can see them start to get frustrated,” added Holliday. “They’ll start arguing. You see that and you start talking and egging it on a little.”

The unit was so good that Torbush rode its coattails of success into the Carolina head coaching job in 1998 when Brown left for Texas. Years later, he would say he’d never coached a defense where he felt, “You went into every game and felt like whatever you did, you’d be successful.” Clemson learned that reality on opening day in 1996 as did others throughout the ACC and beyond over two seasons.


Football in a Forest


COFFEE-TABLE BOOK ON KENAN STADIUM TO BE RELEASED

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – A 240-page oversized book with half text and half photos/memorabilia celebrating the 89-year existence of Kenan Memorial Stadium will be released in early August and available for the kick off to the 2016 football season.

Football in a Forest—The Life and Times of Kenan Memorial Stadium was conceived, authored, edited and published by Chapel Hill writer and broadcaster Lee Pace, a 1979 University of North Carolina graduate with long ties to the Tar Heel football program.

“I love history, tradition, architecture and aesthetics, and I’ve long thought Kenan Stadium would lend itself to this type of book,” says Pace, whose Extra Points newsletter and internet feature on Goheels.com has covered Carolina since 1990 and who’s been the radio sideline reporter since 2004.

“It’s the Wrigley Field, the Merion Golf Club of college football,” Pace says. “Though the University has literally grown around the stadium over nearly a century, it remains an oasis in the center of campus and figures so prominently in the lives of many in the UNC community.”

Pace tells the chronological story of the stadium from its inception in the mid-1920s and opening in 1927 through modern times. He recruited writers from Sports Illustrated and the New York Times best-seller lists to contribute essays on their experiences in Kenan—including James Dodson, Tony Barnhart, Larry Keith and novelist Jill McCorkle—and the book is richly illustrated with vintage photographs, antique game programs and ticket stubs and dramatic images capturing the excitement of the Tar Heels’ 11-3 and ACC Coast Division championship season in 2015.

Most notable among the images are a series of shots taken by Boone photographer Jordan Nelson from a drone circling the stadium at twilight and dusk during Carolina’s home season finale in November 2015 against Miami.

The book retails for $39.95 and will be available in early August by mail, phone or on-line orders from Johnny T-Shirt of Chapel Hill by clicking www.johnnytshirt.com or calling 800/554-6862. It will also be available at other retail outlets and book stores in the Chapel Hill area. The book is being published in conjunction with the Carolina Lettermen’s Association, a group of some 1,000 former Tar Heel players, managers, trainers and videographers.

Pace has 25 years of book authoring and publishing experience, and the book was designed by his wife Sue, a 1982 UNC graduate. They have been involved in one or more facets of publishing commemorative books for entities such as Pinehurst Resort & Country Club, Pine Needles & Mid Pines Resorts, the Carolinas Golf Association, Secession Golf Club, Forsyth Country Club, Linville Golf Club and Eseeola Lodge, Myers Park Country Club and Blowing Rock Country Club.

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