8/20/2012

Are Tar Heels Laboring Under "The Curse of Crum"?

The history of sports is filled with the colorful legends of curses that have doomed certain teams to perpetual frustration. These curses are set into motion when someone affiliated with the team does something stupid, or immoral, or unfair. For example, some believe that the Chicago Cubs have not appeared in a World Series since 1945 because an outraged fan put a curse on them after team officials wouldn't let him watch a game with his loyal but smelly goat.

So I'm wondering if University of North Carolina officials brought a curse upon the football program 25 years ago when they fired Dick Crum, who coached the Tar Heels from 1978 until 1987. Perhaps the football gods were so outraged by Crum's firing in 1987 that they decreed that UNC will never reach its coveted goal of building one of the nation's premiere college football programs without sullying its excellent academic reputation.

Tar Heel fans' hopes for joining college football's elite have been dashed repeatedly since Crum's departure. The latest blow came when former coach Butch Davis -- who had been paid a whopping salary to lead the Heels to greatness -- was fired before the start of the 2011 season after revelations of academic misconduct involving some of his players. A recent story in The News and Observer of Raleigh reported that the academic shenanigans that got Davis fired may have been going on even before he came to Chapel Hill in 2007. So there may be more unflattering revelations in the coming months, and the football program could be crippled for a long time.
But the irony of Carolina's struggle for football greatness without academic compromise is that 31 years ago, the Tar Heels were almost there under Crum, who respected academic excellence but still had his teams regularly ranked in the Top Ten.

The high-water mark of Crum's tenure at Carolina may have been November 7, 1981, when Clemson and UNC met in Chapel Hill to play one of the most important college football games in the state's history. Two schools in the Atlantic Coast Conference -- never known for fielding football powerhouses -- squared off in a contest that could decide the eventual national champion.
Clemson came into the game ranked third nationally by Sports Illustrated. A few weeks earlier, UNC had been ranked second by SI, but had slipped to sixth after a loss to South Carolina.

UNC lost the game, 10-8, before the largest crowd at that time to ever watch a football game in North Carolina. Clemson went on to become the NCAA's national champion. Carolina finished the season with a 10-2 record and was ranked eighth in SI's final poll.
Despite that deeply disappointing loss, it looked like Crum was going to lead the Tar Heels to everlasting glory. Crum, an Ohio native, was a no-nonsense guy who studied math and physics as an undergraduate. In 1981, he was in his fourth year as Carolina's football coach. Three of his teams had ended seasons ranked in the Sports Illustrated Top 20, and two of those teams had been ranked in the Top 10. His triumphs included the 1980 ACC championship and ACC Coach of the Year honors.

He also won four consecutive postseason bowl games against Michigan, Texas (twice) and Arkansas, teams that had attained the elite status that Tar Heel fans coveted.
Crum assembled those excellent teams without fudging on academics. Reporter Dan Coughlin, who covered sports for The Plain Dealer and WJW-TV in Cleveland, noted that Crum "abided by the letter of the law. He wouldn't tolerate any kind of cheating."

But Crum's teams had subpar seasons in 1984, 1985 and 1987. Critics said he was failing to recruit good players. His refusal to bend rules to admit talented athletes who weren't good students undoubtedly cost him wins. Still, even legendary college coaches such as Knute Rockne, Bear Bryant and Woody Hayes had an occasional off-season in the primes of their careers, and they kept their jobs, rebuilt their teams, and went on to more stellar seasons.
Despite the three mediocre seasons, by 1987 Crum had coached the Tar Heels to 72 wins, more than any other coach in UNC history. And his teams had won 22 of 29 games against in-state archrivals Duke, N.C. State and Wake Forest.

But on November 16, 1987, two days after UNC lost by three points to Virginia in Charlottesville, Crum was told he'd be out of a job after the Tar Heels' season-ending game against Duke on November 21. Coughlin later wrote that he'd talked to Crum by phone that day and was stunned to learn that the coach who'd won more games than any other UNC football coach had been fired.
So if you're looking for a reason to believe that a curse descended on the UNC football program, there it is. Carolina officials fired the man who'd followed the rules and won more games than anybody else. Crum left town quietly. But as has been said many times, what goes around comes around, and his firing was the kind of thing that could set up quite a karmic payback somewhere down the road.

Coughlin, the reporter in Cleveland, asked Crum why he'd been canned. There are three or four variations of Crum's pithy response, but all of the versions essentially say the same thing -- administrators and alumni want UNC to play football like Oklahoma on Saturday and maintain the academic excellence of Harvard the rest of the week. It's a difficult balance to maintain, and if you're going to insist on academic excellence, you have to tolerate a few disappointing seasons occasionally.
Crum's firing also added credibility to rumors that he'd gotten on the wrong side of the Rams Club, the powerful, well-heeled private organization that provides much of the funding for UNC athletics.

Crum was succeeded by Mack Brown, who'd never had a winning season in his three years at Tulane. But UNC officials saw talent beneath Brown's losing record. His Carolina teams won only two games during his first two seasons in Chapel Hill, but by 1990 it looked like the Tar Heel football program had again found its savior. Brown's teams averaged eight wins for the next eight seasons.
Brown's success greatly pleased the Ram's Club, and to keep him happy, Kenan Stadium's capacity was expanded by about 10,000 seats and sparkling new buildings were built to house the football program.

But in 1997, soon after publicly vowing that he'd never leave Chapel Hill, Brown was hired as football coach at the University of Texas. His departure stunned many Tar Heel fans, but others said they'd suspected all along that Brown was a used-car salesman disguised as a football coach.
So here's the first example of what could be called "The Curse of Crum" coming into play: UNC hires a first-rate coach who shows potential for greatness, then that coach betrays their trust and the program is plunged into mediocrity.

Despite Brown's success at UNC, he didn't achieve the same numbers as Crum. He won three fewer games than his predecessor and never won an ACC championship. And even though three of Brown's teams won 10 games, he never got a team into one of the major New Year's Day bowl games, an achievement Carolina hasn't known since the days of Charley "Choo-Choo" Justice in the late 1940s.
Brown has become one of the premiere college coaches at Texas. His undefeated team won a national championship in 2005, and his string of postseason wins includes triumphs in the Rose, Cotton and Fiesta bowls.

Crum faded into obscurity after his dismissal from UNC. He struggled through three terrible seasons as coach at Kent State before leaving coaching after the 1990 season. Still, he was inducted into the Greater Cleveland Sports Hall of Fame in 2011.
Butch Davis was hired with much fanfare in 2006, but he fell well short of Crum's record. He won 63 games during his four seasons, but by then UNC was playing more regular-season games than in the 1980s and so Davis had more chances to win more games in fewer seasons. Still, his teams never won more than eight games, never lost fewer than five games, never finished higher than fourth in the expanded ACC, and went to only one minor bowl game during his tenure.

So maybe that curse is at work again. A big name coach brought in at great expense produces teams only a notch or two above mediocre, and then is fired and disgraced because he didn't take the school's academics seriously.
So new UNC coach Larry Fedora is stepping into a deeply troubled football program. He has to deal with the NCAA punishment of the UNC football program, as well as some fans who are still angry that Davis was fired. And time will tell whether he's also saddled with The Curse of Crum.

NOTE: The sketch of Dick Crum at the top of this post is from the website of the Greater Cleveland Sports Hall of Fame.

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