Go Tar Heels -- I think

My alma mater, the University of North Carolina, plays its first football game of the 2007 season today, and there’s talk around Chapel Hill of a “new culture” being established thanks to the Tar Heels’ new coach, Butch Davis.

Davis comes to Carolina after coaching stellar teams at the University of Miami and mediocre Cleveland Browns teams in the NFL. UNC football fans are hoping he can repeat the success he had at Miami.

I’m hoping the same thing. At least, I think I am. More on that in a moment.

It’s been a long, loooong time since football in Chapel Hill was something other than a way to pass the time until basketball season. And while the basketball team’s success has been constant for 50 years, the football program has had its ups and downs.

The first great era of Carolina football was the late 1940s, when legendary running back Charley “Choo-Choo” Justice led the Tar Heels to a place among the college football elite.

Choo-Choo was such a spectacular player that he made the covers of that day’s large-circulation magazines, such as Life and Sport. He even inspired a swing-era popular song, “All the way, Choo-Choo,” that was recorded by Benny Goodman and his band.

Carolina’s football success was sporadic after Choo-Choo chugged out of Chapel Hill. In 1978, Dick Crum took over the program and led it back to prominence. Crum won more games during his tenure than any other Carolina coach, but he was not well-liked by some of the school’s powerful athletic boosters and was fired after the 1987 season.

It appeared that Crum’s successor, Mack Brown, was about to return UNC football to the glories of the Justice era. But in 1997 Brown accepted an offer from the University of Texas almost immediately after saying he’d never leave Chapel Hill.

After Brown’s departure, Tar Heel football teams had little success on the field under Carl Torbush and John Bunting. Off the field, however, Torbush and Bunting would not tolerate players who ignored team rules or their studies. Transgressors were shown the door, regardless of their importance to the football team’s success.

And that brings me back to Butch Davis and the so-called “new culture” of the North Carolina football program.

UNC’s academic reputation is among the best in the nation. That’s important to me and a lot of other alumni. The basketball team’s success – five national championships – has been achieved entirely within the rules. The team’s success is only enhanced by the fact that Carolina basketball coaches insist that their players go to class, stay out of trouble, and work toward graduation.

Davis’s last stint as a college football coach at Miami was at a school whose reputation has been tarnished by players’ behavior problems on and off the field. None of that happened, however, when Davis coached there from 1995 to 2000; in fact, the UM football program was recognized for players’ graduation rates.

So maybe Davis is the guy to lead Carolina back to gridiron prominence without turning it into a football factory that happens to have a university attached to it. Here’s hoping, anyway. The moment of truth will come if one of his star players is arrested or stops going to class. If he kicks that player off the team – as he should – then we’ll know Davis respects the tradition of academic excellence and playing within the rules that has always been a part of North Carolina athletics.

1 comment:

Kathy said...

Willie, Creswell High School is still excited about your upcoming visit! How about Nov. 7, 8, or 9, all day if possible?

We hope to finalize plans soon.