This notion of “Football First” or “Basketball First” fans at Carolina amuses me.
Having graduated from UNC and been around for four decades, I am hard-pressed to think of a Carolina alumnus or rabid fan who roots passionately for one of the sports and disses the other. If you’re a Tar Heel fan, your pull for the Tar Heels. Period.
Now, there are different levels of personal passion, for a number of reasons.
You might like unrushed football weekends in Chapel Hill over traffic jams to and from the Dean Dome. Or you might like the sport of basketball (especially Carolina and ACC style) over the longer, weather-affected gridiron game.
But I honestly don’t know a single person who wants one of the sports to succeed at the expense of the other. Including me, who has been painted by some as a “basketball-firster.”
Indulge me for a moment. I actually like football better than basketball. Having played it from 6th grade through high school, and watched many more college and pro football games, I understand the sport better. Even if you see a football play for the first time, you can clearly watch it evolve from snap to whistle. Aside from the few sets that Carolina basketball has been running for 40 years before it goes freelance, I don’t recognize most of the plays. In basketball, you don’t need to watch the game that way. If the possession ends with a hoop, we are happy.
I fell in love with Carolina in the fall before I ever saw a UNC basketball game. It was at Kenan Stadium on a gorgeous autumn afternoon. Against Clemson. Don’t think we won, but it did not matter. As a city kid, I was hooked on the beauty and pageantry and majesty of it all.
A few months later, at the old Carmichael Auditorium, I was mesmerized by Frank McGuire when he strode onto the court with his South Carolina basketball team. I knew he had a history in Chapel Hill and soon learned the whole story. In those years, Dean Smith was a youngster, still earning respect from his players and the fans who idolized what McGuire had done in 1957.
Personal passion aside, there is also personal access in the makeup of Carolina football and basketball fans. Relatively few could cram into Carmichael as the Tar Heels and Smith became national figures in their own right. Students and staff got a few thousand tickets and the rest went to Rams Cub members, who had begun funding athletic scholarships at UNC.
Nothing really changed when the Smith Center opened in 1986, because the fan base had increased more disproportionately than the seating capacity. Let’s run the numbers.
Of the 22,000 seats in the Dean Dome, say roughly 7,000 go to students and 3,000 go to faculty and staff. That leaves 12,000. The Rams Club donors who financed the building got to buy all of those seats, the higher their gift the better the ticket location and number they could buy. Some bought two seats but others bought as many as 12 and still have them. If it’s an average of four, that means only 3,000 Carolina fans (or families) own basketball season tickets.
Carolina tries to sell at least three times that many season tickets at (now) 63,000-seat Kenan Stadium. Plus single-game seats always go on sale, which happens rarely in basketball. So, simply put, more Tar Heel fans can go to football games than basketball games, and that access may increase their personal pride as well as passion in that sport.
Some see the lucky basketball season-ticket holders as elitists because they possess a commodity. But I am guessing the great majority of Dean Domers also spend football weekends in Chapel Hill, and cheer for the football Tar Heels on Saturdays.
Whether losses ruin their weekends like occasional basketball defeats sour their next days is purely a matter of habit. Carolina has won three ACC football championships since 1966, compared to roughly 10 times that many regular-season or tournament titles in basketball. Plus Carolina has won five national championships, while the football Tar Heels haven’t played in what is equivalent to a BCS bowl game today since Choo-Choo Justice ran wild in the late 1940’s. So expectations are lower and losses are easier to get over in football.
But that doesn’t mean Tar Heel fans don’t want to win as much in football, and we have had so-called big-time teams before – from Bill Dooley in the ‘70s, to Dick Crum in the ‘80s and Mack Brown in the ‘90s. The story hasn’t been so pretty since Brown left in 1997, but that’s because we made some god-awful decisions and managed them poorly, sort of like what happened in the ill-fated Matt Doherty years, which were rectified by the return of Roy Williams.
I wasn’t a close friend of Mack Brown’s, but was close enough to have introduced him to his second wife, Sally, then a successful real estate developer in Chapel Hill. I know he did not want to leave UNC when Texas began throwing steer-troughs of money his way. We had just opened the Kenan Football Center and Brown had yet to move into his office. Sally was making a ton developing high-end neighborhoods in Chapel Hill.
Brown said to Athletic Director Dick Baddour, “If you want football to be as big as basketball, I want to make what (basketball coach) Bill Guthridge makes, and I don’t even know what he makes.” According to Brown, Baddour said that was impossible, that it would bankrupt the athletic department and that football will never be as big as basketball at UNC.” Even if you believe that, you don’t say that, especially to a football coach you are trying to keep.
The loss of Brown was the first of about a dozen major personnel blunders committed by Baddour, who eventually at the direction of Chancellor Michael Hooker offered Brown what he wanted. But, by then, Brown had accepted the Texas job, where today he is among the highest paid coaches in the history of college athletics.
Brown left a top-ten program in the hands of career assistant Carl Torbush, followed by loyal UNC alum John Bunting, both of whom for different reasons killed Carolina’s recruiting momentum. Brown’s NFL talent-laden Tar Heels turned into ACC middleweights that earned an occasional minor bowl bid. Even Butch Davis, with all the money and facilities he commanded, could not get to more than the Music City Bowl and left Carolina 0-4 versus N.C. State. Those relative failures make many UNC fans turn to basketball before they really want to.
I sat in Baddour’s office after Davis was hired, supposedly to explain why I had told someone that the Board of Trustees and not the athletic director had found our latest coach. This was after Trustee Paul Fulton was strutting around the Bobcats Arena one night, accepting handshakes and homage like Vito Corleone, saying it was a “team effort” to reel in Davis.
I asked Baddour if he was heartbroken over what had happened to Carolina football since Brown left, as I was, and said I did not care who hired Davis and was just glad he was here. Baddour leaned forward and said, “I hired Butch Davis.”
“Great, congrats, now let’s win some football games,” I responded. We shook hands and parted pleasantly.
But, of course, it did not go as any of us had hoped or, frankly, expected. Davis lost a lot of equity with Carolina fans when his new agent, Jimmy Sexton, wrangled a $291,000 raise and contract extension out of Baddour after going 4-8 his first season. Highly ranked recruiting classes did not produce highly ranked teams, rather disappointing fourth-quarter finishes in too many games and, eventually, the scandal we are all living through today.
There are no Basketball-first fans at Carolina, as far as I can tell. I have written five basketball books because, thankfully, someone wanted to buy them. If there were a market for UNC football books, experts like Lee Pace would have written several by now. Ironically, there finally may be some interest in one, but that’s because people would want to know exactly what has happened over the last 15 years. And it would not be a pleasant story.
Maybe such a book will have a happy ending. All Carolina fans, from what I can tell, would welcome that.
Don’t you agree?