All eyes followed the ball as it soared across the field. For a split second, Kenan Stadium was quiet, peace restored to the warm October afternoon. The crowd slowly rose out of their seats. This was the play that could change the game for the Tar Heels.
The crowd erupted as junior receiver Mack Hollins caught the ball at the 5-yard line and bounded into the end zone. Marquise Williams had just thrown a 57-yard touchdown pass, tying the game 7-7 against Wake Forest University in the second quarter.
From there, it was domination, as UNC went on to score 43 more points to Wake Forest’s seven, recording its fifth straight win, 50-14.
While Wake Forest isn’t Duke or a nationally-ranked team such as Florida State or Clemson, the game marked the 127th anniversary of UNC football — not a particularly significant anniversary, but an anniversary nonetheless. And it also marked the 106th meeting between the Demon Deacons and the Tar Heels, the state’s oldest intercollegiate football rivalry.
The pair played the first game of college football below the Mason-Dixon Line on Oct. 10, 1888, in Raleigh. The photos of that first game in the Hall of Honor in Kenan Stadium show a small squad posing with straight faces on a dirt field. That game ended with a 6-4 Wake Forest victory.
Fast forward 127 years, and despite this year’s whopping victory against Wake Forest, despite this season’s success so far for the Tar Heels, football is — and has been — secondary in the minds of many fans. In North Carolina, basketball is king.
Where football has seen its ups and downs throughout its history in the area, basketball remains the dominant sport at UNC. But this season, with the Tar Heels off to their best start in the ACC since 1997, many have begun to wonder if UNC’s sleeping giant will finally wake.
Long before UNC’s basketball craze and even before UNC football legends such as Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice in the late 1940s, the sport of football had to be cultivated in the South.
College football in the North took off in the early 1880s, but the South was at first reluctant to adopt the sport. Sports historian Matthew Andrews said some reasons were that Southern ministers discouraged people from playing the sport because of its brutal nature, and football was considered a “Yankee sport.” The hurt from losing the Civil War lingered.
“A lot of Southerners are like, ‘I’ll be damned if we’re going to play this Northern game,’” Andrews said.
American football was started at colleges like Princeton, Harvard and Yale. The first intercollegiate game was played on Nov. 6, 1869, when Rutgers University faced Princeton University. Back then, the game was played with a round ball, and the rules resembled rugby more than the football we all know today.
While football was becoming an organized game, it was also spreading to colleges in the South. After getting over the “Yankee-ness” of it, football soon became a source of pride for Southerners.
“It’s interesting now, by the middle of the 20th century, the South is totally college football crazy,” Andrews said. “Historians have been trying to figure out why, and one of the arguments they make is that it’s a way for Southern, white men to sort of reclaim and re-announce their masculinity after the Civil War.”
Pushback gradually silenced as football became the South’s ruling sport — but in North Carolina, a new king — basketball — took the throne in the 1950s.
UNC’s men’s basketball program actually dates back to the 1910s, but Andrews believes North Carolina State University planted the seeds for the basketball revolution in the 1940s and 1950s.
N.C. State wanted to compete with its in-state rivals UNC and Duke, but at the time did not have the money to feed a large football program or stadium. It saw basketball, which required a much smaller team and stadium, as a more appealing alternative.
“They really make basketball their thing,” Andrews said.
N.C. State brought in a new coach, Everett Case, who was in the eyes of many responsible for turning North Carolina “basketball crazy.” He reinforced the in-state rivalries and traveled throughout the state in the off-season to encourage children and adults alike to play basketball.
Not wanting to be beaten by the red school down the road, UNC recruited Frank McGuire, former coach of St. John’s in New York City, to coach the Tar Heels’ men’s basketball team in 1953. Andrews said that during McGuire’s coaching career, UNC became a basketball school, and football stepped down from its golden throne.
“They win this huge game in 1957 — they win the national championship,” he said. “They defeat Kansas which had Wilt Chamberlain, who’s thought of as this unbeatable figure. It’s a triple-overtime game. It’s still thought by many as the greatest college basketball game in history.
“And it totally ignites basketball fever in North Carolina.”
Basketball became the new pride for North Carolinians.
Andrews wonders how UNC’s sports history would be different if the football team had won a championship in 1957 rather than basketball.
“An all-white football squad winning a national championship in 1957 might have been such a point of state pride that UNC might have been a football school from then on,” he said.
“We’ll never know.”
In 1980, UNC football won the ACC Championship — its most recent football championship win. But even that year, finishing with an 11-1-0 record, Dean Smith and his basketball team overshadowed the football program.
“I remember it was very similar to how it is now,” said Tim Crothers, a lecturer in UNC’s School of Media and Journalism and a sports writer at The Daily Tar Heel at the time. “There was always that feeling that the football team had potential and basketball was totally the dominating sport back then.”
“I remember going to football games and the dominating cheers were when they announced when the basketball team was going to play.”
Though UNC was considered a basketball school, Matt Daniels, football manager from 1980 to 1984, said it didn’t affect the atmosphere of the team while he was there.
“Dean Smith made millions of dollars for this University,” he said. “Kids wanted to be here not just to play basketball, but to be a part of it. Back then it was a basketball school, but there’s nothing wrong with having a football team in the top 10.”
For Daniels, football wasn’t just a sport — it was his community. One of his most memorable moments during his time at UNC is unusual — and certainly not what many might expect.
It wasn’t winning the ACC Championship. It wasn’t even a particularly great win or specific play.
It was accidentally dropping a garage door on coach Dick Crum’s head at the Gator Bowl in 1981.
One of the most successful football coaches in UNC’s history, Crum led the Tar Heels to their last ACC championship in 1980 and finished his career with the most wins out of any other UNC football coach.
Unluckily for Daniels, Crum was not in the best mood at the time.
The coach was knocked out and later had to get stitches.
“The fastest thing I could think of was, ‘Where can I go far away from here so he doesn’t remember who was opening that door?’” he said. “That was when I thought I was going to lose my scholarship, right there.”
Daniels and his friends chuckled at the story as they sat in a half circle in lawn chairs in the shade. Two hours before kickoff of this season’s game against the University of Virginia, with the smoky smell of grilling hot dogs drifting among the tailgaters, he relived his days at Carolina.
Daniels remembers a time when the UNC football team was in the top 10 in the country, when there were no Jumbotrons or artificial lights on the field and when every seat in Kenan Stadium, with much fewer than the nearly 63,000 seats it has today, was filled.
“You had the mic man that led the cheers for the student section and the crowd, which we don’t have today,” he said. “They had a card section, which at halftime you could make different signs or different art that we would do. They were packed crowds. The stadium was always full.”
But that’s not the case today.
UNC football has experienced attendance problems throughout its history, recently brought to attention again by junior wide receiver Bug Howard when he tweeted earlier this season, “Maybe if we did a Men’s basketball pick-up game at halftime of our games maybe people will show up? Will you?”
Though UNC is not considered a “football school,” Andrews and Crothers believe if the team continues to win games, UNC could become one.
Even after a long practice this October, senior offensive guard Landon Turner was smiling at reporters — after seeing his team do well during his final season at UNC, he had a reason to be. But tasked with finding a definition of a “football school,” left him scratching his bearded chin.
“I think the most basic definition of a football school would be a school that has a large fan base that focuses mainly on — not necessarily solely on — that sport, football,” he said. “I know football hasn’t been the most popular sport in North Carolina. Basketball has been so successful. That’s great and all, but nothing will change for us. We still love football, we still love the fans that come to the games, we obviously chose to come here.”
Steve Steinbacher, a former guard on the football team, acknowledged the basketball team’s success while he played in the 1980s. But he said he could feel tension between the two programs then, and he can still see it now more than 30 years later.
“I think football was somewhat envious or jealous of basketball, but they deserved it because they won games,” he said. “I think there’s definitely always a tension between football and basketball players and programs.”
Steinbacher remembers playing in the rain, his cleats squishing in the soft turf and the light pitter-patter on his helmet. The weather never seemed to dampen the team’s or fans’ mood.
He recalled how the UNC beat the Cavaliers 27-7 on a dreary November day in 1986, and running back Derrick Fenner set a record of 328 rushing yards. The crowd, Steinbacher said, was going nuts.
“We really kicked their ass.”
When he returned to Chapel Hill this September to watch the Tar Heels play against Delaware, he was reminded of the game in the rain as a cool mist drifted off and on throughout the game, but he felt something was missing.
“We were there when we played Delaware, he said. “And there was nobody there.”
Steinbacher believes technology changed the way people viewed sports — often opting to catch the game on TV rather than sitting in an open-air stadium on a rainy day.
Gone are the days when the crowd cheered as the mic man ran up and down the sideline with his loudspeaker. Gone are the days when there were only a handful of schools in the ACC. As football fans more and more often choose to view and engage with football through technology, fans such as Steinbacher find themselves pining for the past.
“I liked it a lot better back then because you really felt like you were in the game,” he said.
For John Miller, who is the self-proclaimed “greatest bench-warmer in Carolina history,” being on the UNC football team was a dream come true, but over the years, he watched not only the sport change, but the nature of the athletes playing it.
He remembers his team from 1976 to 1980 barreling toward the end zone as a collective body, a much slower game than it is today. Miller believes football and many other sports have moved into a more individualistic approach to their teams.
“There’s more of that star quality — star atmosphere — now than there was in the old days,” he said. “It seemed more team-oriented than it is today.”
But current players would disagree. As football practice comes to a close, players flock together exchanging high fives and cracking jokes.
“I see basketball’s success that’s why they’ve gathered a great following,” Turner, the offensive guard, said. “I think they’ve rode that momentum a lot. It’s tough to go to a place and play either basketball or football when the fan base is so insane and rowdy.”
And if it’s insane and rowdy fans they want, the football team simply had to look into the crowd at this year’s Homecoming game against Duke.
Though the sky was overcast that Saturday morning, the Tar Pit glowed Carolina blue. After every power play, interception and touchdown the stadium erupted into ear-piercing cheers that left fans’ ears ringing even after the clock struck zero.
The Tar Heels dominated their biggest rival in a 66-31 win. The victory bell rung.
With a 9-1 record, all eyes are on UNC’s football program, watching to see who will come out on top in the ACC.
Weeks before UNC’s victory over Duke, junior center Lucas Crowley treaded lightly, shifting his weight from one cleat to another, as reporters asked him after practice about the team’s shot at the championship.
“Everyone’s goal is to win the big dance,” he said.
Though basketball is the pride of the school, Crowley said it would still mean a lot to both football fans and the school if Carolina won it all.
Steinbacher has been to every home game this season. He said he saw one thing that the football team has lacked in past years — confidence.
“Beating Virginia Tech and State is going to have a positive impact and keep the program going,” he said. “That and bragging rights.”
But would it be enough to take the throne once more? With UNC football’s history of ups and downs, it is hard for many to imagine what Carolina would be like — what North Carolina would be like — if basketball took a step down.
Andrews, who has lived in North Carolina for 15 years, has been to one Carolina football game in his life, but he goes to every basketball game he can.
“I have never experienced anything like the basketball craze here,” he said. “Moving here as a basketball fan was the best thing I ever did. This is where it’s at.”
“I was so struck when I moved here of how during the ACC tournament, offices close and kids in elementary school watch games,” Andrews said. “I’ve heard stories where math teachers teach their students by calculating basketball score totals. It is something I’ve never experienced as a college sports fan at UCLA.
“But I’ve never felt that same enthusiasm for football my entire time here.”
As the semester winds to an end, the Tar Heel’s success during this season has left people to question what is stopping UNC from becoming a football school?
“One or two years of being really good at football, and we may start thinking about UNC as suddenly as a football school,” Andrews said.
So what does the basketball program have that football doesn’t?
For Andrews, the answer is fairly simple — wins.