It’s been a long 22 years since the last hurricane hit Chapel Hill.
Were you in town for Fran in 1996? It was about this time on the second Saturday of the football season. UNC’s team had flown out the day Fran before arrived for Syracuse, where the 24th-ranked Tar Heels were facing Donovan McNabb and the No. 9 Orangemen.
With power out most everywhere after Fran toppled trees and blew some buildings apart, the only place carrying the game was a bar on West Franklin Street that ran its satellite dish off generators but had no air conditioning.
On a sweltering afternoon, more than a hundred people wearing almost nothing crowded into the bar to see how Carolina would do in what would be Mack Brown’s last full season as head coach. Yes, he was there in 1997, but took the Texas job and did not coach in his program’s sixth straight bowl game.
Syracuse had the heralded McNabb at quarterback, but UNC’s signal caller was better that day, the 6-foot-5 juco transfer Chris Keldorf, who completed 22 of 32 passes for 218 yards as Carolina jumped out to an 18-0 lead against its favored host. Brown had been building a defense that looked like an NFL unit, led by linebacker Brian Simmons, and a well-balanced offense with the versatile Leon Johnson running and catching the pigskin for 1300 yards.
Another major difference between then and now is that Carolina had opened its season the week before with a 45-0 whitewashing of Clemson in Kenan Stadium. So the Tigers have improved even more than the Tar Heels have declined over these two-plus decades.
Carolina had played Syracuse at home the year before and blown a halftime lead with mistakes, losing 20-9. The ’96 Heels were loaded and ready to make amends. And even while playing a great game in the Carrier Dome on the way to a 27-10 victory, their hearts were back home with all those who suffered through the hurricane they missed.
The always classy Brown said he hoped UNC’s first road victory over a top 10 team in 30 years would raise the spirits of the people digging out from Fran. And, in recovering Chapel Hill, it certainly did.