PART I - A MAGICAL YEAR OR JUST AN ILLUSION?
College football pundits are frequently asked if John Bunting can get North Carolina in the Top Ten on a regular basis. Although the potential is there, especially for such a high-profile school like UNC, it's an unfair expectation to dump on a new coach.
After all, when have the Tar Heels ever been a consistent fixture in the Top Ten, something many UNC fans often choose to ignore. However, this is the school that fielded arguably college football's best special teams player ever in Charlie Justice, its greatest defensive player in Lawrence Taylor and a number of 1,000-yard rushers that would make the likes of Nebraska and Ohio State green with envy!
Still, for all that glory, Carolina has avoided a consistent placed alongside the nation's college football elite. So, why thrust Bunting into a situation of unattained proportions, and where do such expectations arise?
SPOILED BY RECENT SUCCESS
Regardless of how fans feel about Mack Brown, one must recognize he elevated the Tar Heels to the nation's college football elite. Some of Carolina's worst teams, however, were in Brown's first two years and some have argued his better teams were overrated. Still, Brown eventually led his Heels to a pair of consecutive Top Ten finishes (1996 and 1997) before setting off for a higher profile at Texas.
Even diehard Carolina fans recognize that for all of the success, there was something missing in Brown's teams. And one glaring deficiency prevented the Heels' acceptance as a football power.
In six tries, Brown's Tar Heels never overcame Bobby Bowden's Florida State juggernaut. Despite recruiting prowess - earning him the title of "Coach February" - Brown never got the Heels over the hump and UNC couldn't gather a foothold among the nation's football elite long enough to establish the Heels as a Top Ten power beyond his immediate tenure. True, Carolina placed in the Top Ten in the two years prior to Brown's departure, but both came with an asterisk attached as UNC failed to win the Atlantic Coast Conference championship and scored a total of three points in its two clashes with the Seminoles.
Carl Torbush inherited Brown's program, and quickly became a footnote after three mediocre seasons. Unfortunately for Tar Heel fans, that formula was consistent with the program's history.
SUCCESS FOLLOWED BY MEDIOCRITY
Before Brown's name was ever whispered about amongst Chapel Hill's majestic pines, Dick Crum patrolled the Kenan Stadium sidelines. To some, the mere mention of his name can still shake the needles off of a few of those luscious trees. Still, even Crum guided the Heels to the brink of national acceptance.
Unlike Brown, the Crum era started off with a bang. The former Miami (OH) coach guided the Heels to a Gator Bowl victory over Michigan in just his second season the helm. His teams enjoyed a pair of consecutive 10-win seasons (1980 and 1981) - and top ten finishes - but couldn't maintain that status.
Eventually, Crum saw those seasons followed by mediocre ones, winning just 22 games in his final four seasons. That quagmire of mediocrity sealed his fate and UNC turned to Brown for guidance in 1988.
Bill Dooley, brother of legendary Georgia head coach Vince Dooley, preceded Crum. In 1968, Dooley took over a lethargic Carolina program that saw only three winning seasons over the previous eighteen years. Dooley didn't have much to work with, but quickly turned Carolina into a winner and notched a pair of ACC titles in 1971 and 1972.
Still, once again the mediocrity bug bit, and Carolina didn't reach the ACC peak again until Dooley's final season in 1977.
Even Carl Snavely, considered by many to be the best football coach in Carolina history, was felled by the success to mediocrity model. In his second stint at the helm in 1946, Snavely, with help from two-time Heisman Trophy finalist Justice, led the Heels to the Sugar Bowl. He continued Carolina's rise in national stature with a trip to the Cotton Bowl (1948) and another trip to the Sugar Bowl (1949). But that ascension was brief as Snavely and UNC suffered through three consecutive losing seasons from 1950 through 1952.
STRONG TRADITION WITHOUT REPRESENTATION
Despite all the names that hang from banners in the Kenan Center's Hall of Honor; ranking 20th in all-time football wins; the NFL rosters laden with former Tar Heels; the beautiful facilities echoing a solid football foundation, the Heels' search for football credibility continues.
For that matter, in 113 years on the gridiron, North Carolina has enjoyed only one undefeated season. W.A. Reynolds' 1898 team outscored opponents 201-8 en route to a perfect 9-0 record. Since then, the Heels have only come close to reprising that success, ending twelve seasons with just one loss, thus keeping UNC away from elite status
Indeed, the potential is there for Carolina to become a consistent fixture among the Top Ten. Yet, considering Carolina's past, is it fair to thrust such expectations onto a second-year coach? Then again, if not now, when?
Brad Dopke has been covering college football for over six years, beginning with The College Game online and print magazine and as a syndicated free-lance writer/analyst. He is also editor/publisher of the college football site Dopke.com. He has also been a regular guest on numerous radio shows nationwide and has worked closely with Division I and Division II schools on various issues such as gender equity, operational costs and scheduling.