The rain came down in sheets, first soaking Bill Dooley’s jacket, then his shirt and pants. The young coach’s clothing quickly succumbed to the downpour but his focus stayed sharp. He sloshed through the puddles at Kenan Stadium with purpose—his eyes fixed on his players, stubbornly ignoring the weather that surrounded him.
The field conditions were atrocious. The remnants of a hurricane hit Chapel Hill before kickoff against Florida, overwhelming the stadium’s crowned field and leaving jerseys and helmets caked in mud. Wet cleats uprooted grass and made traction impossible. A water-logged ball loosened grips and slowed offenses to a crawl.
“It rained so much if you put the ball down it would float off,” Dooley joked. “We expected rain but that was unmerciful.”
In the bleachers, students and fans didn’t fare any better. Despite enough umbrellas and ponchos to build a dome over the stadium, onlookers were as drenched as the players on the field. There was no reprieve from the rain at Kenan Stadium. If you were watching football in Chapel Hill, you were wet.
This would’ve been an awful day for many things—a picnic, a hike, checking your mail—but it was a perfect day for Dooley. This was the scene of his first great triumph in Chapel Hill.
Coming into Saturday, October 19, 1968, North Carolina was a fraction of the program it became under Dooley. The Heels were just 1-3 on the season and still adjusting to their new coach. Some players struggled under Dooley’s system—unable to handle the structure—but most were taken by the coach’s passion and preparation.
Fans, on the other hand, were slower to come along. Dooley had instilled a winner’s discipline but with a 2-8 record in his first year he didn’t have the results to back it up. Couple that with his plodding, smash-mouth style and it was clear Dooley needed a hallmark win to show the program’s progress.
Florida gave him that chance.
Like so many of Dooley’s teams, the ’68 group was a largely anonymous one. The offense, led by players like quarterback Gayle Bomar, running back Saulis Zemaitis and offensive lineman Ed Chalupka, embodied the three yards and a cloud of dust mentality of the Dooley era. The defense was a tough, hard-working lunch pail unit lacking any semblance of flash.
The Tar Heels’ main strength wasn’t their talent, it was their tenacity.
“It was a kind of punch-you-in-the-face type football,” then sophomore running back Don McCauley said.
Florida’s excellence on the other hand wasn’t so subtle. The Gators’ talent beat you over the head—figuratively and literally. Led by All-American running back Larry Smith and defensive end Jack Youngblood, the Gators came to Chapel Hill undefeated through four games, ranked in the top 10 and were four touchdown favorites over the beleaguered Tar Heels.
In order to keep pace, Carolina was going to need help. They were going to need an act of God. And that’s exactly what they got.
Bill Dooley believed the true test of a football team is how it reacts to adversity. Does it give up? Does it fight back? Florida was certainly more talented than Carolina in ’68 but that didn’t mean the Gators were tougher.
As the rain pounded Kenan Stadium and conditions worsened, both teams were faced with a challenge but only one responded. The Gators coughed the ball up 11 times and North Carolina took advantage, recovering eight of the fumbles.
“The condition of the field was just unbelievably bad,” UNC kicker Don Hartig said. “We had probably five to six inches of rain during the game itself. That’s a lot of rain.”
Smith, who was one of the top running backs in the country, particularly struggled with the conditions. The future Los Angeles Rams running back ran for 142 yards for the Gators but was responsible for four key Florida turnovers.
McCauley said the defensive effort against Smith—particularly on the line—was one of the keys to keeping the Heels in the game.
“He was a real big running back, an All-American,” McCauley remembered. “We kind of shut him down.”
While Smith couldn’t hold onto the ball, Carolina came prepared for the weather.
Dooley anticipated the storm and adjusted his practices accordingly. Each day before the players arrived to work out, Dooley dunked the footballs in a bucket of water to simulate game conditions.
“When the quarterbacks and running backs practiced, they practiced with wet balls,” Dooley said.
The extra reps with the slick footballs paid off as the Heels were sure-handed and precise in their execution. North Carolina fumbled two times and turned it over just once. Dooley was so confident with his team's hands he strayed from his normal conservative play calling at several points in the game. On a key short yardage play in the fourth quarter, Dooley elected for a play-action pass rather than trying to pick up the first down on the ground.
Bomar faked the handoff to the fullback and found running back Bucky Perry streaking down the middle of the field for a 36-yard gain. A few plays later Bomar scored on a 1-yard dive on fourth down to put the Heels up 22-7. Bomar passed for 72 yards on the day and added another 62 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.
“It was just a good fake and it was a big touchdown for us,” Dooley said.
Kicking is all about consistency and routine. To get the same result every time, each step of the process has to be identical.
Don Hartig had his own routine when he kicked at North Carolina. The Greensboro native would set his one-inch tee down seven yards from the line of scrimmage and walk back to his standing position. Once there, he’d wait for the placeholder to get in position and ask the kicker if he was ready. When Hartig said yes, the placeholder would say, “Keep your head down” and Hartig would kick.
It was the same thing every time—almost.
In the rain against Florida, there was no room for routine. The first time Hartig put down his tee, it sank into an inch of water. After the holder positioned himself next to the submerged tee, he started with the usual routine but Hartig wasn’t on the same page.
“He turned to me and said ‘Are you ready?’ and I said ‘Are you kidding?’” Hartig remembered.
The rain may have been bad for the backs and receivers but it was even worse for the kickers. Not only was the ball itself carrying an extra pound or two of water but maintaining stability with your plant foot was next to impossible. Without a steady plant foot, there’s no telling where your other leg was going.
The kicker’s only outlet to combat the weather was by keeping his own body as dry as possible. Hartig tied a plastic bag around his kicking foot and before each kick he’d rip the plastic off and run out on the field. Then as soon as he came off, the plastic went back on.
The bag wasn’t waterproof but it did the trick. Despite his apprehensions, Hartig had a career day, making first-half field goals of 42, 44 and a then UNC record 47 yards.
Hartig credits luck and low stress for his success that day. It might sound counterintuitive but with the muddy conditions, no one expected North Carolina to beat Florida, nor did they expect him to make field goals. Hartig didn’t have any pressure. He could just swing his leg and hope for the best.
“There was no stress,” Hartig said. “I was the loosest I’d ever been on the field.”
The three first-half field goals helped the Heels build an early lead and hold on for the upset of Florida, meaning the biggest difference maker on the field might have been the one guy who was relatively dry—a fact that still makes Hartig laugh.
“It really made you stand out when you were the only guy out there in a clean uniform,” Hartig said. “Everybody else was just muddy. There were pictures from the game where you couldn’t tell the numbers on the players’ jerseys. It was just a mess.”
Hartig knew the Tar Heels’ 22-7 win over Florida was a big upset but he didn’t fully grasp the magnitude of it until later that evening at dinner.
After he cleaned up, Hartig took a date to the Angus Barn in Raleigh. The restaurant was packed with fans from the local ACC games and Hartig put his name on the waiting list before walking back to the lounge to sit down.
When his name was called over the loud speaker, Hartig started walking up to the hostess when he heard whispers.
“People were saying ‘Hey, that’s the guy who kicked all the field goals,’” Hartig said. “That was the first inkling I had that it was something really special.”
The victory over Florida marked the first big win of Dooley's career and ensured that people took notice of the improving Tar Heels. Carolina finished the season just 3-7 but the wheels were set in motion toward the back-to-back ACC championships the Heels won a few years later.
“It was a very important win,” Dooley recalls. “It builds momentum and builds confidence when you beat someone like that.”
The upset over Florida also gave players a hint of what the program was capable of accomplishing. McCauley said he saw several talented recruiting classes on the horizon and was excited for the future.
“It made it easier for me as a sophomore to buy into the program because it’s like ‘Geez, we just beat a top 5 team. We can do it here,’” McCauley said.
With the rainy conditions of the game, some said the win was luck but McCauley said that didn’t diminish the accomplishment.
“Both teams had to play in that weather,” McCauley said. “They had an off day and we hung in there and didn’t make a lot of mistakes.”
Florida was understandably less pleased with the outcome of the game and never recovered in ’68. The Gators were just 2-2-1 over the final five games following the upset to Carolina.
The late-season collapse isn’t surprising considering a story Hartig heard following the loss. At a pep rally before the next Florida game, Hartig said, the fans in attendance started chanting “We want Carolina! We want Carolina!” A team that once had national championship aspirations was still focused on UNC.
“Yeah, they were pretty upset with us,” Hartig said.