About 20 years ago, when Dean Smith had caught his second wind and was again dominating the ACC and college basketball toward the end of his coaching career, he was asked about his sport overshadowing all others at UNC.
“A basketball school?” Smith mused. “We’re a women’s soccer school.”
Smith was giving well-deserved props to one of his indirect protégés, Anson Dorrance, who by then had already won about 10 national championships, and when his women did not bring home the NCAA trophy it was tantamount to John Wooden not winning it all in his prime.
Dorrance, as a UNC soccer player and then young coach, had become a student of the way Smith organized and tutored his team, using many of the measurements and methods that he observed as a privileged character allowed to attend Smith’s private classroom practices.
Dorrance, of course, is still going strong, and Roy Williams, one of Smith’s successors to the Carolina Basketball Empire, has won two of his own national titles and will be a preseason favorite to bring home a third in 2012. But Smith’s legacy, Dorrance and Ol’ Roy all have to step aside this time of the year.
Carolina is a baseball school.
What Mike Fox has done with the once-sleepy version of the national pastime at UNC is no less amazing than what Smith and Dorrance have accomplished in their sports. Remember, in the days Carolina was coached by Walter Rabb and Mike Roberts, the diamond Tar Heels were what most amateur baseball represents in this country — a sweet way to move from spring through summer. The old stadium beside Avery Dorm usually had a few hundred fans in the stands when the Tar Heels played. Sure, an occasional Duke or N.C. State series brought bigger crowds, but those games were for local pride as Clemson generally owned the ACC and contended for the College World Series.
When the ACC expanded for football reasons, it really screwed the pooch in basketball but over 12 years the additions of Florida State and Miami had the most impact on baseball. While the two Sunshine State schools were diamond-dominators, that began to change when UNC hired Fox, who had played on one of the Tar Heels’ two previous College World Series teams in 1978.
It took Fox a few years, but he figured out why it seemed so hard to reach the hallowed aura of Omaha, Nebraska. Since Chad Flack’s dramatic home run in the regional round at Alabama five years ago, Carolina has unlocked the key to the baseball promised land.
Of course, it’s not ALL coaching, and Fox has used the pristine Carolina campus and a $26 million renovation of Boshamer to attract some of the best talent in the country, most up and down the east coast, particularly Rye, New York, in Westchester County, which sent the Moran brothers here 25 years after their uncle B.J. Surhoff starred for the Mike Roberts Tar Heels on the way to becoming a Major League All-Star.
Brian Moran, a lefty reliever for Fox with a 90-8 strikeout-walk ratio, came to UNC as a walk-on and grew into one of the best relief pitchers in the nation before nailing down the last out that sent Carolina to the CWS in 2009. Brian is rising steadily in the Seattle Mariners organization and should be in The Show before too long.
Freshman Colin Moran, Brian’s younger brother, is an even better story. He came to Carolina on a partial scholarship just hoping to make the active roster. He moved to third base from his natural position at shortstop and not only won a starting spot but was the only Tar Heel to make first team All-ACC while also winning conference Freshman of the Year honors. His .342 batting average is still 50 points lower than Uncle B.J.’s career mark but, hey, the kid will play at least two more seasons in Carolina blue.
The Tar Heels, who rose from unranked by Baseball America in the preseason, to currently No. 7 by USA Today, have other great players and stories, such as sophomore shortstop Levi Michael, who graduated early from high school so he could join spring practice and wound up starting as a freshman; and junior Jacob Stallings, an anomaly as a catcher because he is 6-foot-5 (and fourth in the country at gunning down base-stealers) and because his father, Vanderbilt basketball coach Kevin Stallings, lost the “recruiting” battle to Roy Williams over where Jacob would go to school.
So UNC grad Mike Fox, one of six men to both play and coach in the College World Series, has found the magic formula for Carolina baseball. His teams have missed the NCAA Tournament once since he took over in 1999 and he’s going for his fifth trip to the CWS in the last six years over the next week. Whereas UNC was an irregular qualifier for post-season play before he arrived, Fox figured out that recruiting better players and posting strong regular-season records would give Carolina the cache to earn a high seed and home-field advantage in both the NCAA sub- and super regionals.
Playing at home this time of the year makes it a lot easier to survive and advance. And doing so has turned Carolina into a baseball school during these once sleepy days of late spring.
Mike Fox Has The Magic Formula