It was like Mardi Gras had come to Chapel Hill. No, not this past Saturday, but back in 1997 – though it seems a much longer time ago.
A packed house gathered on that crisp November evening back in 1997. Faces were painted, fans screamed, music blared, and the presence of ESPN Gameday added glamour to the party atmosphere. Kenan Stadium had never witnessed an atmosphere like that before, and has not since.
Head coach Mack Brown was in his tenth year at UNC, seeking the crown jewel in the program he had built in Chapel Hill. An undefeated season, playing for the National Championship – it was all on the table that night for the Tar Heels and Mack Brown.
The Tar Heels were undefeated – 8-0. Both teams, UNC and FSU, were ranked in the top five nationally. North Carolina had never beaten a top five team in school history. Bobby Bowden talked in the days leading up to the game of the "crescendo" of success in Chapel Hill.
The Tar Heels lost, 20-3.
The crowd filed out of the stadium quietly looking at their feet, the tomahawk war chant of the visiting Seminoles echoing in their ears.
Mack Brown left for Texas at the end of that season and, as it turned out, competitive college football left Chapel Hill with him. Until Saturday.
This past Saturday Kenan Stadium was about 10,000 shy of capacity, and few of the 53,000 on hand came anticipating a victory. A noon kickoff was on tap for a regionally televised contest well beneath the national media's radar screen. Lee Corso was nowhere in sight.
Florida State had in their two previous games this year looked every bit the juggernaut that had owned the ACC since their entry into the conference.
The Seminoles dispatched Duke in workmanlike fashion, 55-13, and then penetrated the "Steel Field," of the University of Alabama at Birmingham's defense to the tune of 29-7. Just as in 1997, an undefeated and highly ranked Florida State team invaded Kenan Stadium.
The Seminoles were ranked sixth in the nation on Saturday in the Associated Press poll, and fifth in the ESPN/Coaches poll. They were favored to, once again, cakewalk through the football conference mocked by one sports wit as, "FSU and the Eight Dwarfs."
North Carolina had been through two transitions in coaching staffs since that game just five years ago. The Tar Heel faithful witnessed the demise of a football program that went from two top ten finishes in 1996 and 1997 to a team that had lost at home to, among others, Miami of Ohio, Houston, Furman, and Wake Forest. Not to knock any of these programs, but none have ever been mentioned in the same breath as FSU.
The Tar Heels had endured a brutal early schedule this season with a brand new head coach, and had been on the wrong end of lopsided scores at Texas against the selfsame Mack Brown, at Oklahoma against the defending National Champions, and had lost what many pundits viewed as a do-or-die game at Maryland.
Quite naturally, the Seminoles began the day as a 17-point favorite against a team considered by many to be one of the ACC's weak sisters. There was a common perception that UNC had fallen behind in the talent wars so essential to success.
No sports pundit worth his laptop had predicted that the struggling Tar Heels would upset of the Seminoles. One local sportswriter predicted a 48-3 outcome, in favor of – oh, why ask?
The Tar Heels won, 41-9.
The crowd rushed the field, and a determined bunch of students took down a reinforced goalpost – even though it took 41-minutes to do it.