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Over the last 15 years, a legitimate criticism of the UNC athletic department by those who looked closely inside was too much myopia – a circling of the wagons among administrators, staff and some coaches who kept telling each other how good they were, that the Carolina Way was the only way and that, in the case of any problems that occurred, big or small, these too shall pass.
After all, the Tar Heels are perennially ranked among the top 10 athletic programs in the country, accumulating 30 or so NCAA championships (currently up to 39) and dozens of ACC titles and accolades. What’s the big deal? We’re Carolina.
So most of the internal meetings were wrought with finger-pointing and playing the blame game with those who were supposedly out to get them, and all of the departmental events, like holiday luncheons and social get-togethers, were feel-good galas when, truth be told, everyone wasn’t always feeling that good.
The failure to oversee and monitor certain programs led to problems that mushroomed into a major academic and NCAA scandal that is holding on in some corners. And despite a new athletic director and football coach who clearly define the future, the move forward is still hindered by a need to defend.
That’s why the event held Monday night at Memorial Hall was a genuine breath of fresh air, an opportunity to acknowledge, display and celebrate the incredible group of 800 athletes at Carolina and a veteran coaching staff that, by record alone, has no superior in collegiate sports. It was called the first annual Rammy Awards, a light blue combination of the Grammy’s and ESPY’s.
Voice of the Tar Heels Jones Angell was the emcee — funny, articulate and perfectly understated as to not upstage any presenters or honorees. “If anyone has Tom O’Brien’s new address, we need it to send him a Rammy for the best coaching decision to punt the ball to Gio Bernard,” was Jonesy’s gem.
An off-shoot of what they did at the University of Tulsa, where UNC Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham last worked, the Rammy’s was a really cool scene that overcame a few technical glitches and some rough spots that will surely be smoothed out in years to come. It was a star-studded night that not only talked to talk but walked the walk with video proof and boffo personal performances.
There were awards for best team (women’s soccer, a 22nd national championship), athletes of the year (Jonathan Cooper and Crystal Dunn), break-through seasons (P.J Hairston), best newcomers (baseball player Sky Bolte, who also could have won best name, and Chapel Hill soccer star Hanna Gardner), individual plays (Bernard’s game-buster against State), record-breaking performances (soccer goalie Scott Goodwin, who recorded 40 career shutouts in net), upsets (UNC women’s tennis winning indoor national championship), service awards and, of course, scholar-athletes, of which there are hundreds at UNC.
Defensive tackle (and like Cooper an NFL first-round choice) Sylvester Williams, who left a factory job to resume his football career, women’s basketball star Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, who returned from a severe shoulder injury, and tennis star Gina Suarez-Malaguti, a Venezuelan immigrant, won the we-shall-overcome awards. Many more recipients, if you want to see the entire awards list and photos.
And, along with the levity of goofy videos and corny jokes by the presenters, came some examples of amazing talent – from the artwork displayed in the front lobby to on-stage performances that drew standing ovations.
Woman’s soccer player Indi Cowie did the freestyle routine that has taken her to Good Morning America, the Ellen Degeneres Show and halftime at UNC basketball games. It lasts for two minutes with the ball on her instep, her arches, her toes, her knees and thighs, her head, her shoulders, her back and her arms without touching the ground. No verbal explanation can do it justice. You’ll have to YouTube Indi Cowie.
Benton Moss, a pitcher on the top-ranked Carolina baseball team, and an econ-business double major, showed his extraordinary musical talent, first with a concert piano piece and later accompanying women’s track athlete Marisa Dobbins in a folk, blues, rap duet that brought the crowd of 1,000 to its feet.
The athletes were asked to dress like it was an awards show, and old Memorial glowed and glittered commensurately. There won’t be much written or said about it outside the UNC community, but it was a night to celebrate all the great things Carolina athletes, coaches and teams do and try to move beyond the few significant things that have gone wrong.
It’s high time for that.