As Bubba Cunningham takes over and goes about the process of producing a winning football program we can all be proud of, it brings to mind past UNC coaching regimes and blips along the way that occurred in all of them.
The post-Choo Choo Justice era has been rife with distractions and interruptions, the largest of course being the sudden death of “Sunny Jim” Tatum in the summer of 1959. Tatum, a Carolina alum, had returned from Maryland after winning the 1953 national championship in College Park and embarked on building a similar power in Chapel Hill.
For those who have questioned football’s place at Carolina, athletic department graybeards remember how Tatum’s arrival created a reorganization of offices in Woollen Gym that resulted in basketball coach Frank McGuire being downsized into a space that was once the ticket booth.

Who knows what would have happened had Tatum not been fatally infected with Rocky Mountain spotted fever. The prospect has caused some remorseful fans to label Carolina’s football woes as “The Curse of the Tick.” But Tatum’s best team did drub Duke 50-0 on Thanksgiving Day 1959 under elevated new head coach Jim Hickey.
Hickey’s high-water mark was the Ken Willard-Chris Hanburger co-ACC champs of 1963 that blanked Air Force in the Gator Bowl 35-0. The post-season bid was secured when Max Chapman booted a clutch late field goal at Duke to pull out the 16-14 victory. But that was Hickey’s last winning team and he was fired following the 1966 season.
Bill Dooley, a 32-year-old coach with SEC roots (played at Mississippi State, worked for brother Vince at Georgia), took over and made spring and summer practices more like boot camps, weeding out those who thought football was supposed to be fun. Dooley gradually recruited his kind of players and began a string of six bowl games in eight years that included three ACC Championships in the pre-Florida State days. Only one subsequent Carolina coach won an ACC title and it was not Mack Brown.
When Dooley could not ascend to the dual role of football coach and athletic director (like bro Vincent in Athens), he left Chapel Hill for Virginia Tech, which was willing to give him both jobs. Neither Georgia nor Virginia Tech had a powerhouse basketball coach and program like Dean Smith’s Tar Heels, and if Smith didn’t want to be the AD (which he turned down), then the football coach wasn’t getting it. For sure.
Dooley’s “three yards and a cloud of dust” offense received regular ridicule, but history has made him Carolina’s most successful football coach in terms of conference titles and 1,000-yard rushers (Don McCauley’s UNC-record 1,720 yards in 1970 tops 20 such seasons from 12 different Carolina running backs). Dooley personifies the old cliché about not knowing what you have lost until you lose it.
Dick Crum came next and his decade on the job produced the other ACC title (1980), six bowl teams and eight of those 1,000-yard seasons. In a curious irony, Crum ran a wider-open offense than Dooley while remaining emotionless on the sideline — his squat body covered up by a baggy jacket or sweatshirt, wide-rimmed glasses and head phones that swallowed his ears . . . Coach R2-D2, the media jokingly called him.
When “the Crummer” stopped going to bowls every year, his professorial personality became more of an issue with fat-cat donors and alumni, and the school bought out his contract after the 1987 season. We needed a coach with more sizzle, a salesman who could recruit great players and help us raise money. Enter Mack Brown from Tulane by way of Appalachian State and Oklahoma (as an assistant).
Although Brown averaged nine wins his last six seasons, all ending with bowl bids, he never fully overcame the 1-10 records his first two UNC teams posted. He even poked fun at himself, repeating jokes he had heard about him and his program. But while he laughed (and sometimes cried) after games, his real mettle was in the sign posted for everyone to see in the football office: “It’s Not a Matter of IF — It’s a Matter of WHEN.”
Brown embraced Carolina’s football history, won over the lettermen and led the charge to build the Kenan Football Center. He nearly left for Oklahoma two years earlier (his wife went as far as house-hunting in Norman), but decided to stay. Since he had yet to move into his fancy new office, with the infamous fish tank, Brown was thought to be staying at least a few more seasons in Chapel Hill.
He was bitterly disappointed when his 1997 Tar Heels washed out 20-3 against Florida State in the game of unbeaten, top-10 teams on an electric Saturday night in Kenan Stadium. And, after posting Carolina’s first win at Clemson in 17 years, Brown was openly agitated when a sparse turnout saw the noon kickoff on Senior Day against Duke. Even after the fired up Tar Heels drilled the Blue Devils 50-14 to finish 10-1, Brown was still carping about the less-than-capacity crowd.
So, after accidentally bumping into Texas coaching legend Daryl Royal at the ACC all-sports banquet in Atlanta that December, Brown was still miffed enough to listen to a preliminary pitch and then stay over to meet with the Texas search committee. Of course, the engaging Brown said all the right things and was offered the job that he did not accept until UNC refused to up his salary to match that of basketball coach Bill Guthridge. Carolina finally did, but by that time Brown was burned up and ready to wear burnt orange. Today, he is among the highest-paid coaches in the history of college sports, his Longhorns upsetting Reggie Bush and USC for one national championship and losing a second BCS title game to Alabama two years ago.
While Dooley, Crum and Brown had their ups-and-downs during their respective 11-, 10- and 10-year stints at UNC, they won 210 games, those four ACC titles and earned 18 bowl bids over 31 years. No Carolina coach since has lasted six full seasons, won more than eight games and earned one (Carl Torbush), two (John Bunting) and three (Butch Davis) bowl bids.
So, regardless of how the NCAA rules, there is a lot of work to do to get back to where Carolina was in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, because clearly the 21st Century has not been nearly as good for the football Tar Heels. And the last two years have set their own unfortunate precedent.
That will be the challenge for the new permanent coach, whoever he turns out to be. Ironically, in terms of personnel and facilities, he will have it far better than any of his predecessors inherited. So the formula is simple if not easy.
Get the right guy in here, survive the NCAA sanctions, and in the long run the sky’s the limit.