A New Blue Dawn

Senior Day against Maryland was a pretty typical game for the 2012 Tar Heels. The Terrapins, perhaps motivated by the decision to leave the ACC in favor of the Big Ten, served as a mediocre but spirited opponent. Carolina fans had obvious reasons to be frustrated, as the Tar Heels repeatedly allowed big plays on the defensive side of the ball. The special teams performed particularly poorly, fumbling a kickoff return just before halftime to allow Maryland to take a 28-21 lead, and then gave up a touchdown on the kickoff to start the second half because they only had ten men on the field. The Tar Heels fought back in gritty fashion, though, with Bryn Renner throwing for two big touchdowns in the second half, leading to a 45-38 win. Overall, the defense was pretty bad (excepting one big interception on Maryland’s first drive), the offense was pretty good, Gio Bernard was brilliant (27 carries for 163 yards and a touchdown), there were some troubling mental mistakes…but the Tar Heels managed to emerge victorious. Sounds pretty familiar.

The inconsistency of the Tar Heels in any given game modeled their season as a whole. There were some clear highs this year: Gio Bernard’s late punt return touchdown to beat NC State for the first time in six tries, setting the record for points scored in a single game by a UNC squad in the 66-0 win over Idaho, four Tar Heels making 1st Team All-ACC (Bernard, Jonathan Cooper, Sylvester Williams, and Kevin Reddick), and winning the ACC’s Coastal Division on a tie-break over Miami (had either team actually been eligible to win anything). There were also some obvious lows: Losing to Duke for only the second time in 23 years, giving up a record 68 points at home against Georgia Tech on Homecoming, and getting blown out in the first half against Louisville come to mind most easily. It has been a season of unpredictability, to say the least, its meaning hard to define because of the postseason ban and the implementation of a totally new coaching scheme.

I’m really at a loss for words to describe how I feel about this team and this season. It happened. I was there, and I experienced the good, the bad, the ugly, all of it. Sure, we didn’t go to a bowl game or the conference title game. We didn’t go undefeated. But it was still special. Every season has its moments and memories that you will always carry with you, and this one was no different. Ultimately, I’m glad we’ve completely closed the door on the Butch Davis Era and can finally move forward as a team and university. There will be no bans, no asterisks, no drama as we look to next August. A new Blue Dawn, at last.


The Light at the end of the Tunnel

It’s finally here ladies and gentlemen…. the last game of the 2012 University of North Carolina football season. Wow, this season has absolutely flown by and, for me; this is when depression sets in. After Saturday, the countdown begins to the opening kickoff of the 2013 season (August 31, 2013) in Columbia, South Carolina. That’s right – 279 days till the flagship school of South Carolina and the Ole’ Ball Coach Steve Spurrier and his Gamecocks take on the flagship school of North Carolina. And if you’re like me, you will be counting down every one of those 279 days through national signing day, spring practice, summer workouts, ACC media day and the pigskin luncheon.

With that being said though, this has been a long and winding road for this group of seniors who have lived through 2 ½ years of an emotional roller coaster of change. Not many college football players can say they lived (and endured) through two head coaches, an academic fraud scandal, NCAA sanctions, scrutiny from peers, University faculty and officials, and constant negativity from local fan bases and major local media outlets in particular the Raleigh News & Observer. Within all of this adversity, a group of young men were truly developing before our very eyes not only on the field, but in the community as well (see last week’s column about Jonathan Cooper and Gentle Giants http://chapelboro.com/Gentle-Giants/14110127?pid=278297 ). These seniors have become valuable members of the University community and, despite the controversy that has surrounded their tenure here, will be remembered with fondness and distinction in Chapel Hill.

With the new hiring of Coach Fedora this past December and the reality that the 2012 Tar Heels would not be eligible for post season play, our football program was at a crossroads. All players had the right to transfer to a different University without sitting out a year and a special group of Tar Heel seniors led by Kevin Reddick decided to make a stand and finish what they had started. When Coach Fedora laid out the options to his Seniors during a meeting, Reddick was one of the first to address the possibility of leaving. “After we told the seniors, ‘Hey, you guys can leave if you want. You can do whatever you want,’ “Coach Fedora said.” Kevin was the first one to stand up and say, ‘I’m not going anywhere. We’re going to have a great season here next year.’ ” This shows the kind of character that is instilled in these young men not only by this University but also by the role models who have molded these athletes from prospects to lettermen. The parents, guardians, mentors, pop warner coaches, teachers and counselors all deserve credit for helping to make a forgettable situation a positive and something that the entire program can – and will – build on.

The reason why I bring this up is because Saturday will be the last time that the majority of these seniors will ever play the game of football and ever be a part of a family atmosphere and brotherhood like the one at UNC. I was fortunate enough to get to experience two Senior days (due to a medical hardship) so I know exactly what these guys are going through this week. The week will fly by and the players will experience a sense of loss as they experience everyday moments for the last time – the last Monday practice, the last game plan meeting, the last Tuesday lift session, the last time out with the guys for the weekly dinners. And as they walk through the tunnel and hear the final roar of the crowd and run through the smoke, they will remember back to the day four or five years ago when they first walked through the tunnel with the magic of college football and Kenan stadium awaiting, and they’ll feel as if it passed in the blink of an eye.

As hard as it is for the players to know that the end is near, sometimes the parents or guardians take it that much harder. They have supported and fostered the growth of this player from the days when he couldn’t tie his own cleats to now seeing him play for the last time. Maybe this player achieved his goals and lived up to his potential and maybe he didn’t. Either way, the end is here and it’s a sobering time for all involved. What I hope comes out of this last Saturday and what I think we’ll see is two things:

  • 1) A great effort by this football team and a program that is prepared to send these seniors off with a win while looking forward to building the foundation for next year and years to come.
  • 2) A packed stadium that allows everyone in the community the opportunity to spend a Saturday in one of the most beautiful stadiums in college football. Let’s all soak it in while we can because 279 days is a far ways off.

Please make sure to tune in one hour after the final whistle to 97.9FM to listen to more post game coverage with Paul Connell and myself on “ON THE HEELS.”

Smart. Fast. Physical. Happy Thanksgiving!!!


Recruiting Wars

“Run Gio Run” has become a constant chant that builds and builds each Saturday as we anticipate Gio Bernard accelerating through a hole and with one cut, he’s off to the races.  So it wasn’t too surprising when the Hurricanes of Miami saw up close “Run Gio Run.”  Many times.  A monster performance in Gio’s homecoming (he grew up in Fort Lauderdale and went to nearby St. Thomas Aquinas High School) propelled the Heels to a gutty 18-14 win while knocking Miami from the ranks of the ACC unbeatens (Canes are now 3-1 in league). 

“Gio the Great” rushed 27 times for a grinding as well as electric 177 yards (a 6.6 average) and registered two first half touchdowns.  Additionally, he caught four passes for 36 yards, including a 16 yard, shoe string grab on 4th and 6 that would make even Jerry Rice proud.  That catch kept the momentum going on a key drive and led UNC Coach Larry Fedora to say, “Gio’s a complete player.  Whether it’s pass blocking on protections, catching the ball or running, he’s going to do whatever he can to help us win.”  Coach Fedora calls him complete – I call him the most dynamic player in the ACC this year.  He is running behind an offensive line that ESPN NFL gurus Mel Kiper and Todd McShay have called the best O line in the country so there is a growing chemistry working where the boys up front have Gio’s back and he has theirs. 
Other Florida products wearing the Tar Heel blue made their presence felt on Saturday as well:  LB Tommy Heffernan (Miami, Florida) came up huge with a big time sack on Miami’s final drive and continues to be a new fan favorite with his underdog story and tough play; Tre Boston (Fort Myers, Florida) had a huge game and highlighted great Tar Heel secondary play with one pick and another one called back due to a questionable pass interference call.  Boston is one of three UNC defensive backs from the great state of Florida with the final spot being occupied by Virginia product Tim Scott.  Boston knew what to expect when he said, ”South Florida boys can run, and that’s exactly what I am,” and indeed our defensive skill players were stride for stride with Miami’s running backs and receivers.
So as trilled as I am by getting our first road win in Miami, I’m also excited about what this does for the game within the game.  W’s like this help give Coach Fedora and his staff an upper hand when it comes to the game of recruiting.  Coach Fedora has stated on record very clearly that his first and foremost goal in recruiting is to put a barbwire fence around the state of North Carolina and make sure that the most talented prospects from this state commit to the flagship University in North Carolina where they will have the opportunity to experience what I did six years ago – the magic of being a Tar Heel and everything that it stands for.  I am 100% on board with this strategy but, at the same time, you cannot ignore the hot beds of talent that sit in close proximity to us in Florida and Virginia respectively.  With two great back-to-back wins over perennial Coastal Division  juggernauts Virginia Tech and Miami, Fedora and his staff will have a great selling tool and recruiting momentum when they enter the living rooms of high school prospects this off-season to sell them on the dreams of where this program is going.  The culture change of Carolina Football has been front and center the last two weeks in the ACC and people are taking notice.  You can see below that our current starters have a strong Virginia and especially Florida background and I know we will build on this going forward.   
LT – James Hurst (Plainfield, IN)
LG – Jonathan Cooper (Wilmington, NC)
C – Russell Bodine (Scottsville, VA)
RG – Travis Bond (Windsor, NC)
RT – Brennan Williams (West Roxburry, MA
TE – Eric Ebron (Greensboro, NC)
QB – Bryn Renner (West Springfield, VA)
TB – Giovani Bernard (Fort Lauderdale, FL)
WR – Erik Highsmith (Vanceboro, NC)
WR – Sean Tapley (Jacksonville, FL)
WR – Quinshad Davis (Gaffney, SC)
DE – Kareem Martin (Roanoke Rapids, VA)
DT – Sylvester Williams (Jefferson City, MO)
NT – Tim Jackson (St. Petersburg, FL)
BANDIT – Dion Guy (Washington, D.C)
WILL – Travis Hughes (Virginia Beach, VA) / Tommy Heffernan (Miami, FL)
MIKE – Kevin Reddick (New Bern, NC)
RAM – Gene Robinson (Memphis, TN)
CB – Jabari Price (Pompano Beach, FL)
SS – Tre Boston (Fort Myers, FL)
FS – Sam Smiley (Jacksonville, FL)
CB – Tim Scott (Fredericksburg, VA)
Next stop:  Duke under the lights, protect the Victory Bell at all cost!!
Smart. Fast. Physical.


Consistently Inconsistent

Last week’s blowout of Elon gave Tar Heel fans plenty of reasons to be optimistic heading into our first ACC showdown against Wake Forest last Saturday. The Phoenix certainly aren’t a college football powerhouse, but UNC still excelled in all three phases of the game. The offense played well, scoring with relative ease in putting up our highest point total since Mack Brown was head coach; the special teams were a revelation, with the electric Gio Bernard taking a punt return back 70 yards for a touchdown; and the defense posted a shutout for the first time since blanking Duke back in 1999. Students were truly excited about the football team for the first time in my tenure at UNC, and taking on a Demon Deacons team that struggled to put away FCS-school Liberty last week seemed to be the perfect recipe to keep the excitement level high.

The rain delay that pushed back kickoff by more than an hour and the news that Gio Bernard was being held out due to a knee injury quickly put a damper on my mood, though. The Tar Heels turned in a frustratingly inconsistent performance on both sides of the ball, demonstrating at various times just how good and how bad we can be. The major takeaways from the tough loss to Wake are below.

The Positives:

1. Early Offense:

  • Larry Fedora’s Fed Spread seemed to be clicking early on. A particularly memorable sequence involved a 28-yard AJ Blue rush followed immediately by a big completion to Eric Ebron down the middle of the field, and then eventually another acrobatic grab bv Ebron for the touchdown to take the lead. The “No Huddle, No Mercy” moniker is incredibly apt; forget about having no mercy on the defense, I didn’t even have time to respond to texts regarding the Tar Heels’ drive.

2. Running Back-Ups:

  • AJ Blue and Romar Morris filled in admirably for Giovanni Bernard, rushing for a combined 176 yards on 33 carries. Both showed some playmaking ability and explosive bursts at times, which is encouraging given that no one really knows the prognosis of Gio’s injury.

3. Tremendous Turnover:

  • Tim Scott’s interception just after a UNC touchdown tied the game at 21 was a huge momentum-shifter and just a beautiful play. The front seven didn’t bite on the play-fake by Tanner Price, got good pressure, and Scott jumped in front of the throw and took it back to Wake’s 8-yard line. The energy of the players after the pick was palpable through the TV. If you had polled Tar Heel fans after that play, I think most would have said that we would end up winning.

4. “Special” Special Teams Plays:

  • Kevin Reddick had tremendous coverage on a punt with about seven minutes left in the game, bringing down Campanaro and pinning the Deacs inside their 10-yard line down six. It’s one of those plays that get lost in the shuffle when you lose, but had we been able to come up with a quick stop on the ensuing Wake Forest drive, it would have been one of the key moments in the contest. Also, Casey Barth hit two field goals to pass his brother Connor for the all-time UNC record for field goals made. Unfortunate that it couldn’t have come in a win, but it was still a nice moment for a fan-favorite.

The Not-So-Positives:

1. Concussive Forces:

  • With the offense driving again midway through the second quarter, Renner attempted to scramble in for a touchdown and got absolutely obliterated by a Wake defender. The slow motion replay showed Renner turn toward the bench, point at his head, and then collapse onto the ground before being examined by trainers. On the hit, my roommate and I immediately turned to each other and said, “He’s concussed.” The cameras later panned to Renner talking on the sideline phone with a goofy grin on his face, and I assumed there was no way he could return to the game. Given that UNC is an institution at the forefront of sports concussion research, I felt stunned when Renner was out on the field for the next series. It was soon clear that Renner was not 100%, as on consecutive plays he took a sack, missed a throw, and then fumbled on another sack. With the quick decision-making and on-field adjustments needed in Fedora’s offense, if the quarterback isn’t completely focused mentally, the offense isn’t going to work effectively. While he looked better after halftime, Renner still fumbled a snap, missed a number of throws and looked somewhat out of sorts, especially on the second-to-last drive of the game. In a weird way, I hope that Bryn was simply playing poorly, because I don’t want to believe that the coaching staff would put him in if he had any sort of head injury.

2. Defen-sieve Effort:

  • The Heels struggled to get pressure all day on Tanner Price, generating just one sack and very few quarterback hurries against an inexperienced offensive line that has been hit fairly hard by injuries. This enabled Price to find his receivers, rather, receiver, for big gains; Michael Campanaro was a one-man wrecking crew, catching 13 balls for 164 yards. With no other Wake player catching more than 4 passes and their running backs combining for just 64 yards on the ground, it seems like Campanaro really should have been the focus of the defensive gameplan. Instead, #3 ran free through the secondary and Wake was able to punch the ball in for a touchdown on each of the four possessions that they reached the red zone. It’s true that Fedora’s defensive system is predicated on generating turnovers more than limiting yardage by forcing three and outs, but the Tar Heels had trouble doing both on Saturday.

3. Perplexing Penalties:

  • UNC was called for 8 penalties, incurring 87 yards of damage. It would be one thing if they were false starts as a result of a raucous crowd, but several were simply inexcusable, bonehead plays. A running into the kicker penalty permitted Wake another shot to add a field goal just before halftime, and a horse collar tackle gave Wake a first down on what had been a third down stop. Additionally, two personal fouls were called against the Heels on special teams plays, including one on the kickoff return after Wake scored to take the lead with two minutes left, which forced the offense to start on its own 13-yard line. Those are the kinds of avoidable penalties that make fans wring their hands in frustration, and are ones that I’m sure Coach Fedora will be addressing before the Heels head to Louisville next week for what will likely be an even tougher matchup.

Heartbreak Heels

Larry Fedora got his first taste of the ACC, playing on Tobacco Road and, unfortunately, the culture that has dogged Carolina football for a long time. It may take him three cans of Red Bull to help him swallow all of it.
Sure, the Tar Heels withstood an hour storm delay in a small visitors’ locker room, sat out Giovanni Bernard with a still-sore knee and played with a dinged up center and ding-donged quarterback after Bryn Renner had his bell rung in the second quarter of the 28-27 loss at Wake Forest.
But despite uneven play all afternoon that included eight penalties and a bunch of other miscues, they still had the game in hand and could not finish the job. That has happened to so many Carolina football teams over the last 15 years that the Tar Heels have not won more than eight games in any season since 1997. And, if you watch the NFL, you know how many players they have sent into pro football during that span.
Man, this one was a heartbreaker for a new coach trying to help us forget old reminders. Fedora’s team mangled his mantra by playing not so fast, TOO physical at times and not very smart at all. Hopefully, this can be one giant teaching moment for Fedora and his staff because if you can truly learn from defeat this was the mother lode of losses.
Carolina actually played gallantly for much of the afternoon in Winston–Salem, taking the lead on Eric Ebron’s acrobatic TD catch in the first quarter and shutting down the Deacons for all but the last five minutes of the second half. But when it came down to making the drive-sustaining or drive-stopping plays, the Heels were as imperfect as they looked perfect last week against little ol’ Elon.
In the second quarter, with a 7-point lead, cornerback Jabari Price made a great tackle for loss that set up a third-and-long for the Deacons. Wake’s lefty QB Tanner Price, who proved sensational all day, hit his favorite receiver Michael Campanaro over the middle for a gain that was short of the first down.
The 5-11 Campanaro, Wake Forest’s Wes Welker who finished with 13 catches for 164 yards, begged the officials for a horse-collar penalty on the play and got it. A few downs later, Price picked up a dribbled snap and took the broken play in for the tying touchdown.
The Tar Heels went back in front on a drive, ironically, that could have cost them the game. Renner ran right and a saw a seam to the end zone. But his teammates did not hold their blocks long enough and the Deacons pan caked Renner into what looked like a concussion. He, in fact, waved to the bench for help right after going down. Marquise Williams came in on fourth down and gave it to A.J. Blue for the score. The converted quarterback ran for 106 yards starting for Bernard
After Wake tied the game again, a woozy Renner returned for the next series and while getting hit from behind lost the ball, which Wake turned into a touchdown that provided a 21-14 lead at halftime. The Deacs even obliged the Heels by missing two tries at a field goal as the half ended.
“We really didn’t do anything different at halftime,” a perturbed Fedora said after the game. “It was more of an attitude adjustment. Just go out there and play.”
Play better. And they did, dominating the third quarter with 13 unanswered points and a hundred-yard advantage over the declining Deacs. After freshman Romar Morris, who had 70 yards subbing for Blue, tied the game, the Heels were back in the red zone twice and could only come away with field goals. If either were a touchdown, Wake could not have won.
In fact, after Tim Scott’s interception of Price’s only mistake on the day, the Heels were inside the five when WR Erik Highsmith grabbed the man he was blocking and was called for a holding penalty that pushed Carolina back 10 yards.
So Casey Barth tied his brother Connor for the most FGs in UNC history. When he surpassed him with his next kick, it gave the Tar Heels a six-point lead and their fans who know about Wake Forest at home a stomach ache because the Deacons were still within a touchdown of winning. Wake Coach Jim Grobe has won 61 times on his team’s last two possessions, and he is now 13-2 at home against his three Tobacco Road rivals.

Thrice Carolina got the ball back with that six-point lead and had to punt it away each time. The defense stifled the Deacs, as well, and it looked like the Heels would hang on to go 2-0 on the season.

But then came boners that will have Fedora chewing on his Red Bull can, like the facemask penalty that helped Wake keep its 93-yard winning drive going after Tommy Hibbard’s punt and Kevin Reddick’s tackle pinned the Deacs at their own seven with 5 minutes to play.
And, after Wake scored to go ahead, the personal foul penalty on the kickoff that pushed Carolina back from its 25 to its 12½. From the 25, Renner had a decent shot of picking up the 40 or so yards to put Barth in range to try the winner. But in the shadow of his own goal line, Renner was target practice for the blitzing back shirts.
The Tar Heels were good aggressive for much of the game, sending a number of Wake players to the sideline including star nose guard Nikita Whitlock. But they weren’t always fast enough against a confusing Deacons’ defense and, clearly, not smart enough to avoid the critical penalties, missed tackles and botched blocks.
“You can’t cry over it,” Fedora said, “ you’ve just got to get ready for the next one (at 23rd ranked Louisville Saturday) and hope you learn from your mistakes.”
We can cry over this one, coach, because we’ve seen the ending before.


Something We Should All Be Rooting For

As students begin classes, and the weather…well, remains hot and humid for now, football is in the air here in Chapel Hill.

Despite the beautiful Carolina Blue sky, a figurative cloud hangs over campus as the local and national media continue to dissect the scandals erupting from the bowels of Kenan Stadium. It is easy to say that many other major college athletics programs likely commit similar infractions on a regular basis, but that doesn’t excuse UNC for its mistakes.

It’s obviously disappointing to know that your team can’t win the conference title nor play in a bowl game before the first coin toss of the season, but I’ll leave it to others to discuss the validity of the punishments handed down by the NCAA.

What I will say is that the continued focus on past wrongdoings is incredibly frustrating. It’s never fun to hear constant criticisms about something you love, and, as a student, it’s especially disconcerting to hear that the academic integrity of your school is in question. UNC’s educational reputation was a big reason I chose to apply to Chapel Hill, and facing many awkward questions from UVA fans and alumni while interning in Richmond this summer was not exactly the experience I had imagined when I was accepted.

In addition to generating a negative impact on future recruiting for athletes and students at large, the scandals are eliminating much of the excitement that would ordinarily accompany a team such as this season’s Tar Heels. Carolina has a number of electrifying playmakers on both sides of the ball, which include star running back Gio Bernard and wide receiver Jheranie “Jay” Boyd on offense and linebacker Kevin Reddick on defense.  Given that quarterback Brynn Renner now has another year under his belt, and given that the special teams should improve with the return of beloved kicker Casey Barth, Tar Heels fans would be eagerly anticipating a decent bowl game appearance and possibly an ACC title without the penalties. Instead, the football team seems to be an afterthought at best and a source of shame at worst, with casual fans asking, “When does basketball season start?”

It’s really an unfortunate attitude, especially considering the arrival of new Head Coach Larry Fedora.  With his frenetic spread offense and creative special teams, Fedora was the perfect choice to replace the bland Everett Withers and get Carolina fans energized about football again. The guy is a walking Red Bull advertisement, downing several cans a day, and his motor never seems to stop.

The team even had a series of spring practices starting at 6:00 AM dubbed “Blue Dawn” (explanation video here), with Fedora yelling encouragement and involving himself in drills (check out a fan favorite example here). Most importantly for this season, his passion for the game extends to the fans. Fedora has taken time out of his schedule to meet with various student groups, including Carolina Fever (some of the most dedicated fans), Greek organizations, and incoming freshmen during orientation. His message is simple: Be early, be loud, and have fun. Having seen the student section quiet and half-empty just before noon kickoffs, his mantra is appropriate and well-targeted.

Kenan Stadium could be one of the premier gameday atmospheres in all of college football, though. We have just seven home games a year to get together with our friends and cheer on our fellow classmates. Regardless of what’s happened in the past, the football team still represents UNC.

Isn’t that something we should all be rooting for?


Unfulfilled Potential

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.
Renner and Blue Zone SeatsOfficially 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.