Mark: A Frozen Sportswriter Speaks

<i>Inside Carolina</i> is excited to announce the return of columnist and staff writer Mark Simpson-Vos today! Be sure to check <i>IC</i> each Tuesday this season for his latest column.

All this talk of poor Ted Williams makes a man think about what it would be like to be frozen.

Not permanently, of course. We'll assume for the moment that they can flash-freeze you like a piece of haddock, keep you indefinitely (begs the question: what about freezer burn?), and then warm you to normal when the time is right, which we're supposed to believe is the reason the Splendid Splinter agreed to let his son put him on ice.

No, imagine being cooled down to a state of suspended animation, left there for, say, two years, and then thawed and restored to your average life as, say, a part-time sports columnist. Now, say the freezing began on March 31, 2000, and the two years later ended right about now. And let's say, for argument's sake, that your beat is the North Carolina Tar Heels.

Friends, welcome to my life.

No, I haven't been experimenting with cryogenics, but looking at the landscape of Tar Heel Country from my current vantage point, I can't help but feel a little like Mel Gibson in "Forever Young." Okay, I never feel like Mel Gibson. Let's say Brendan Fraser in "Encino Man."

The last time I spent significant time musing over and writing about Carolina football, Bill Clinton was our president, the stock market was holding well above 10,000, and Carl Torbush was gearing up for his third year of spring drills. Sure, there were a lot of people calling for Torbush's job in the spring of 2000, but there were also a few people who looked at the returning talent and figured the man was ready to bounce back strong.

But of course the real action in the spring of 2000 was on the basketball court. The maddeningly inconsistent Tar Heels had just completed a brutal stretch run in the ACC under Bill Guthridge, having dropped an unthinkable 13 games overall before limping into the NCAA tournament. But a team wearing strange uniforms that looked nothing like Carolina's old standbys suddenly gelled around freshman sensation Joseph Forte. Rattling off four straight wins in dramatic fashion, the Heels found themselves in yet another Final Four, ready to take on Florida for a spot in the national championship game.

I still remember the stunned disbelief and sheer joy that last weekend of March. I wasn't writing then, so I had no qualms about whooping it up over Carolina's surprising run. I watched the game from a beach house on the Outer Banks. I remember how we didn't bother to check out the ocean view when we arrived--we just threw our stuff in a closet and pulled up chairs next to the TV to watch the big game. I admit I haven't verified my recollections with a videotape, but I seem to recall it was a good game for a while. Having survived a fierce opening run, the Heels were hitting big shots to keep in close. Then they surged in front with less than 15 minutes to play, although Ed Cota was in foul trouble, I remember thinking, "Son of a gun. They might win this thing."

Fade to black.

So I wasn't frozen, and I wasn't struck by lightning. I haven't spent the last two years in a coma. In fact, I've written a good deal about other things, and I've even watched what purported to be some Carolina games. I might have been dreaming, but I vaguely remember a bowl game, a big basketball win streak, and a number-one hoops ranking at some point in there. Didn't UNC have a quarterback named Curry who turned out to have a pretty good arm? And the Heels kicked the junk out of the Seminoles, right? Wait, on that one I must have been dreaming.

Okay, I remember some things and have been paying nominal attention, but as a North Carolina fan and Inside Carolina contributor, these two years have felt like a long, painful sojourn in dark oblivion.

But now I'm back, and it looks like a whole new place around here. Leave aside the changes at Inside Carolina, my sports-job-away-from-job. You think Encino Man had an adjustment? In football, it isn't quite so bad, I suppose. But there's a lot to learn. Torbush and Company are long gone, and we now live in Bunting's World. My favorite spice blend, Curry and Peppers, is history, and now we're gearing up for a quarterback battle between a couple of transfers … wait … one transfer in and one transfer out and in. See what I mean? An adjustment. But maybe it's a good one. It sure looks like it on paper, with a strong season behind us, a good core of talent on offense, and an enthusiastic, demanding coaching staff to whip the new fellas into shape.

But basketball? Waking up to the new Carolina is like being blindfolded, spun around, and set down on the moon. Just a wee bit disorienting. And a little frightening. Take, for instance, the fact that in March 2000, most fans thought a 13-loss season was about as bad as it could get in Chapel Hill. And who are all these 18-year-old kids we're looking to for sports salvation? Guess we'll find out soon enough. Phew. What a difference a couple of years makes.

But I don't need to remind anyone reading this of where we've been. I've been paying enough attention to know that the ups and downs of UNC athletics have been dissected more messily than an eighth-grade science project. The point is, they took me out of the freezer, and I'm ready to start studying the new sports scene, learning new coaches' faces and new players' games. It ought to be fun finding words to describe the days ahead for Carolina athletics. Fact is, for all the disappointment and upheaval, I missed getting an up-close view of Tar Heel sports and having a place to share some thoughts about what I see.

So, I'm back.

Now, the question is, are the Tar Heels?

You can email Mark at

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