Saturday’s less-than-satisfying victory over Rutgers could be considered a microcosm of Carolina’s entire football situation. Let’s call it unfulfilled potential.
First, the stadium. You would think, after the Tar Heels’ exhilarating opener over James Madison on Labor Day Weekend in a near-sold out Kenan, the second Saturday crowd (listed at a generous estimate of 53,000) would be even better against a tougher opponent on a cooler afternoon.
But the turnout was, in a word, disappointing. Notable sections of Kenan were unoccupied especially in the club seats of the Blue Zone, which university officials say are about two-thirds sold out at this point, and they are giving other tickets to prospects they hope will turn into buyers.
However, from inside the stadium and on TV, the Blue Zone looks embarrassingly barren as if no one wants to sit there. It supports the age-old notion that the end zone is the cheap seats or student section. No matter how many tickets are sold or have been given away for the first two games, more blue chairs were visible than blue shirts in them.
Officially named the Charlie Loudermilk Center for Excellence, for the owner of the Aaron’s empire and a loyal UNC supporter, the Blue Zone is really an ill-conceived compromise to the original Phase II of the Kenan project, which was to have the suites and a club section along the home sideline, where such premium seating belongs.
But, long before the football scandal broke, there was a serious need for a new academic support center. When the most recent recession hit, UNC revised the plan to combine the academic center with suites and additional seats that Butch Davis wanted and move them to the worst vantage point for football viewing.
Davis even recorded a hokey promotional video touting the Blue Zone as THE place to watch a game because you can see the plays unfold better. Maybe if you are breaking down tape, sir canned coach, but if that were the case every college and pro stadium would have their fattest cats sitting behind the goal posts. The Davis video ended with the question, “Are you in?”
Actually, even those who have bought club level licenses from $750 to $2500 per seat (not including the price of the tickets and Rams Club donation) are “out” most of the time, due to the direct September sun. They go inside to the opulent air-conditioned upper and lower club areas to watch the action on the 116 HD TVs. Television dictates starting times, or clearly Carolina would play early season games at night.
But it’s not exactly a raucous sports bar atmosphere inside, with the children of club seat owners running around a facility that sells beer and alcohol – sort of like Champps meets Romper Room. When you are trying fill up the place, a No-Kids rule is not the best marketing strategy. Maybe finding sponsors to give out caps and sunglasses to all the patrons is a better idea than hiring a daycare crew and building play rooms.
As for the game, a superior Tar Heel team allowed Rutgers to stay in contention due to five turnovers and almost a field-length in penalties that was remindful of mega-talented but undisciplined Davis teams. The honeymoon ended abruptly for sophomore quarterback Bryn Renner, whose three interceptions show that he is still trying to synch up his outstanding athleticism with real time game speed.
Remember, Renner has played against practice defenses for two years, and that he did not get any significant snaps last year makes his adjustment to what he can do on the college level a work in progress. Even with T. J. Yates having his best season, which led to his making the 53-man roster of the Houston Texans and a chance to become the first UNC quarterback to ever take a snap in a regular-season NFL game, Renner realistically should have played some series in 2010, helping his preparedness.
Carolina has great talent on both sides of the ball, some experienced (head-hunting LBs Zach Brown and Kevin Reddick) and some not (human bowling ball back Giovani Bernard), certainly good enough to contend in another weak ACC with only two good teams, Virginia Tech and Florida State. Everyone else, through the first two weeks of the season, looks mediocre or just plain bad. Central Florida 30, Boston College 3? Clemson 35, Wofford 27? Richmond . . . oh, you get the point.
The Tar Heels’ third straight home game against Virginia, which blew a 20-point lead at Indiana before rallying to win on a last-second field goal, should be sold-out. The Cavaliers have a monster defensive end named Cam Johnson, who had a Julius Peppers-type take-away turnover that essentially beat IU. Carolina will have to keep Johnson off Renner’s blind side Saturday. A win would give UNC its first 1-0 start in the ACC since 2004, which is kind of hard to believe.
For history and Civil Rights buffs, the game will also mark the first meeting between two African-American head coaches in Kenan Stadium, with Everett Withers squaring off against Virginia’s second-year man Mike London. Al Groh was still the Cavaliers’ coach for their last visit two years ago, when the unveiling of the Blue Zone grand plan was soured by UVA’s 16-3 win.
After Virginia, Carolina goes on the road to Georgia Tech and East Carolina, neither of which will be easy. But the Tar Heels are still trying to do what Davis promised, become a championship caliber program feared and respected by all opponents. Most of the pieces seem to be there, needing only strong leadership and a solid, long-range plan that embodies all the right ways to do things — not just the Carolina Way.
That’s why hiring a new athletic director with experience and connections in the college ranks, bringing in a fresh philosophy, looms so critical. As stated here before, Chancellor Holden Thorp cannot afford the mistake of choosing someone he knows well or believes can grow into the job. There is serious and immediate business to conduct with the football coaching position, an NCAA probationary period and potential realignment of the ACC.
With the right person in place this fall, and the best possible coach on the sideline next season, UNC CAN fulfill its football potential, which in turn will fill the stadium and dig the athletic department out of its reported $30 million Blue Zone hole.
The new AD needs to be named before October 15, so he can have input into what Thorp and Dick Baddour say at the NCAA hearing two weeks later, particularly if Carolina offers self-imposed sanctions.
And the new athletics boss needs time to properly evaluate Withers and the football program over the last six games of the season, all ACC tests including the vital visit to Virginia Tech on November 17.
By then, the Blue Zone patrons may have even come out of the air conditioning and into the daylight, so it actually looks like the seats have been sold.
If you’re among them, don’t forget your sunglasses and caps.