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Is it time to retire UNC football’s ‘sleeping giant’ status? Tar Heels are what they are

The origin story of North Carolina’s eternal “sleeping giant” status in football allegedly began with Bobby Bowden. It was Bowden, the story goes, who at some point during his best years at Florida State labeled the Tar Heels “a sleeping giant” — a college football power waiting to happen.

There are varying accounts of when Bowden made the remark. Maybe when Florida State and UNC played to a 10-10 tie in 1986. Or after the Seminoles joined the ACC in 1991. Or maybe it was closer to the FSU-UNC game of 1997 in Chapel Hill. “Judgment Day,” as it was known, and UNC fans of a certain age still recall that night with fondness, even though the Tar Heels lost.

Thing is, though, it has proven impossible to find any record of Bowden ever actually describing UNC in such a way. There are references to the alleged remark in various media accounts over the years. But the actual source material is missing. The quote doesn’t show up in any Florida newspaper, ever, according to newspapers.com. Same with any paper in North Carolina.

There’s no video of it. No audio. And so it feels like an urban legend or, in the best case, that perhaps Bowden said something similar, only for time and retellings to turn it into something else. It’d be fitting if that long-held perception surrounding UNC football was based on a lie or, at best, a half-truth. Because more and more, the “sleeping giant” status, itself, feels like a fraud.

After another promise-filled season ended with a resounding thud — and with an embarrassing third consecutive defeat against N.C. State last Saturday night — now’s as good of a time as any to retire one of college football’s greatest cliches. UNC is not some sleeping giant in football. To the contrary, the Tar Heels are fully awake. And this is just who they are.

North Carolina coach Mack Brown watches as his team falls behind N.C. State 23-0 in the second quarter on Saturday, November 25, 2023 at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, N.C. Robert Willett/rwillett@newsobserver.com
North Carolina coach Mack Brown watches as his team falls behind N.C. State 23-0 in the second quarter on Saturday, November 25, 2023 at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, N.C. Robert Willett/rwillett@newsobserver.com

They’re slightly above average, usually, with potential for more, or much less, depending on the season and the circumstances. Decades of data underscore that reality. The fact that UNC hasn’t won an ACC championship since 1980 underscores that reality. The fact that UNC had Sam Howell and Drake Maye at quarterback for five seasons, yet could neither break through with a conference championship nor even beat N.C. State consistently, underscores that reality.

The broad, existential question facing the Tar Heels entering this season was this: if not now, when? If they couldn’t break through nationally now — with Maye at quarterback and a roster of enviable talent at the skill positions; with plenty of experience on defense; with the cornerstones of those highly-rated recent recruiting classes a year older — when would it ever happen?

And now we have our answer: Not any time soon. And while it’s fair to say, “never say never,” it’s also fair to ask what evidence exists to suggest sustained excellence in football is possible at UNC. A lot of the “sleeping giant” reputation, after all, has always been built upon branding and the Tar Heels’ success in other sports. It has been built upon the notion that a football breakthrough would happen if for no other reason than because this is “Carolina.”

Except, that’s not how it works. There’s nothing inherent in UNC that makes it any more capable or deserving of greater success in football than any other school with the means and ambition to achieve it. Including N.C. State, which over the past 25 years has often been the better program. The Wolfpack has now won six of its past eight games against UNC. And 12 of the past 17.

Since 2000, State is 15-9 against Carolina. Since 1988, the first season of Mack Brown’s first tenure at UNC, State is 20-18. Over the past 40 years, since 1983, State is now 21-20. Carolina still holds a commanding 68-39-6 lead in the series, which dates to 1894. It built that margin, though, in an era that began before the invention of the automobile and ended with the advent of color TV. Since the formation of the ACC, UNC leads the series 37-34. Seventy years, and it’s practically even.

After State’s 39-20 victory on Nov. 25, several comments went viral among both groups of fans.

N.C. State head coach Dave Doeren hugs linebacker Payton Wilson (11) as seniors are recognized before N.C. State’s game against UNC at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. Ethan Hyman/ehyman@newsobserver.com
N.C. State head coach Dave Doeren hugs linebacker Payton Wilson (11) as seniors are recognized before N.C. State’s game against UNC at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. Ethan Hyman/ehyman@newsobserver.com

There was Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren, delighting in the moment during a postgame interview on the ACC Network, saying, “there’s nothing better than beating those baby blue boys over there like that.”

There was Payton Wilson, the NC State linebacker, talking moments later about culture.

“If you want to have culture,” Wilson said, “come to Raleigh. Them boys in blue don’t know about it.”

And who could argue with that? Who could refute the notion that NC State’s football culture, the kind Doeren has built and instilled into his program, is not superior to UNC’s? It goes back to a question of identity. Doeren’s teams, especially over the past few seasons, have established a clear identity. It’s one of resilience and toughness. Sometimes State plays ugly — it struggled to achieve first downs earlier this season, after all — but its defense is usually going to give it a chance.

What, meanwhile, is UNC’s football identity? Is it having very good offenses and porous defenses? Is it waiting (and waiting) for the recruiting and signing day hype to translate on the field? Is it starting fast (9-1 in 2022, 6-0 earlier this season) only to fold late? It’s arguable its greatest identity is this idea of being a sleeping giant; that it’s just an awakening away from national relevance. After all this time, though, it’s fair to wonder whether that’s true.

North Carolina coach Mack Brown and N.C. State coach Dave Doeren go their separate ways after a pre-game discussion prior to their game on Saturday, November 25, 2023 at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, N.C. Robert Willett/rwillett@newsobserver.com
North Carolina coach Mack Brown and N.C. State coach Dave Doeren go their separate ways after a pre-game discussion prior to their game on Saturday, November 25, 2023 at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, N.C. Robert Willett/rwillett@newsobserver.com

The Tar Heels were ranked 10th nationally in mid-October, with one of the best quarterbacks in school history. They had a favorable schedule. They had their best chance in years (decades?) of breaking through nationally. And then came a 2-4 finish, and a demoralizing loss against N.C. State that was not as competitive as the 19-point final margin indicated.

After the loss, Brown had no answers. Of another 8-win season, though, with the chance to get to nine wins, he said, “That’s pretty good around here.” And it’s true. In 71 seasons since the formation of the ACC, UNC has won at least eight games 26 times. The Tar Heels have won eight games 15 times since the start of Brown’s first tenure, in 1988. That’s almost as many eight-win seasons as N.C. State has had in the same span (16).

Which underscores the reality that the Tar Heels aren’t a sleeping giant. To use another sporting cliche, UNC simply is what it is. Is it capable of greater things? Sure. But no more so than a lot of schools.

Including the one that’s now beaten UNC three years in a row, and in 12 of the past 17 years.

One big thing

Send your condolences and words of encouragement to Duke athletics director Nina King who, for the second time in two years, is in the market for a head coach. We knew it was probably only a matter of time before Mike Elko departed for a bigger (and, not necessarily better) job. But after only two seasons? He moved on much more quickly than anyone at Duke could’ve hoped or perhaps even expected.

A person wears an “Elko Era” jacket on the sidelines during the second half of the Blue Devils’ 30-19 win over Pittsburgh on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023, at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham, N.C. Kaitlin McKeown/kmckeown@newsobserver.com
A person wears an “Elko Era” jacket on the sidelines during the second half of the Blue Devils’ 30-19 win over Pittsburgh on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023, at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham, N.C. Kaitlin McKeown/kmckeown@newsobserver.com

The good news for Duke: If King hit a home run once — and she did, with the Elko hire in December 2021 — she can do it again. There’s an argument to be made that Duke is in a better position now than it was two years ago to attract a top candidate, given Elko’s success. He proved, like David Cutcliffe before him, that winning is possible there; that the Duke head coaching job is not the dead end it was for so many years throughout the 1990s and 2000s.

It’s impossible to know these things, for certain, but Duke would be wise to target someone who’d be OK with building a program and sticking around for a while. Cutcliffe fit that mold when he arrived at Duke before the 2008 season. Is there a younger version of him out there, who could see the value in building something at Duke and would be content to avoid the insanity of a higher-profile job in the SEC or Big Ten?

Realignment rumblings

OK, hear me out: A look-ahead is in order to evaluate which of the ACC’s three incoming additions will be best-suited to compete, and compete immediately. And so without further delay, the official Which New ACC Teams Will Be Best-Suited To Compete Rankings:

1. SMU. No argument here. The Mustangs went 8-0 in the AAC, are playing against Tulsa this weekend for the conference championship and, based on the fact that they’re foregoing ACC revenue for the first seven years of membership in the league, they’re clearly willing to do anything to be a part of it. And, presumably, win. Don’t bet against Texas oil money. SMU might just be a top-third of the league kind of team next year.

2. Cal. A strong finish for the Golden Bears, who lost four consecutive games, all by double-digits (and by 44, to Oregon), only to win their final three. The end-of-season streak included victories against Washington State and on the road against Stanford and (soon to be Big Ten rival) UCLA. How does Cal’s 6-6 finish translate to the ACC? It means the conference is getting one more middle-of-the-pack kind of team.

3. Stanford. The Cardinal remain probably the best ACC fit of any of the new additions, given that Stanford is great the Olympic sports and, well, a work in progress in football. (Sound familiar?) The bad news here is Stanford just finished 3-9, and that it will do little to enhance ACC football in any way. The good? Um, well, uh ... [looks around awkwardly] ... the Olympic sports! Yes. That’s it.

Three big takeaways from the regular season

1. Among North Carolina’s Big Four ACC schools, N.C. State has built the best program. And with Elko having left Duke, it’s not all that close. Yes, State’s detractors and rivals might point out that Dave Doeren still has a losing record in ACC play. Fair enough. Doeren’s first four seasons in Raleigh, his teams went 0-8, 3-5, 3-5 and 3-5 in the ACC. Since, he’s 35-23 in league play — 34-16 outside of an injury-riddled and disastrous 2019 season. Doeren’s teams have adopted a culture of perseverance. For two seasons now, they’ve overcome the loss of quarterbacks and less-than-stellar offensive play (except when playing against UNC) to make the most of what they have. The Wolfpack doesn’t make excuses. It gets results. State’s first conference championship in football since 1979 remains elusive, yes, but Doeren is giving his program a chance to get there.

2. UNC is becoming a black hole for alleged talent, especially on defense. Toward the end of his tenure at Texas, Mack Brown earned the unfortunate nickname of Mr. February. That was the month of so much national signing day success and hype for Brown and the Longhorns but, over time, the recruiting highs translated less and less to fall Saturdays. The trend has continued at UNC. Recruiting has not been a problem for Brown during his second stint in Chapel Hill (though, admittedly, it’s becoming more of a challenge lately). Translating that recruiting success into anything more than hype has proven more difficult than it should be. Quick: name a four- or five-star defensive player UNC has signed in recent years who has met expectations on the field.

Sep 23, 2023; Laramie, Wyoming, USA; Appalachian State Mountaineers cornerback Tyrek Funderburk (2) mishandles a punt against the Wyoming Cowboys during the third quarter at Jonah Field at War Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Babbitt-USA TODAY Sports Troy Babbitt/Troy Babbitt-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 23, 2023; Laramie, Wyoming, USA; Appalachian State Mountaineers cornerback Tyrek Funderburk (2) mishandles a punt against the Wyoming Cowboys during the third quarter at Jonah Field at War Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Babbitt-USA TODAY Sports Troy Babbitt/Troy Babbitt-USA TODAY Sports

3. Among the non-ACC schools, it’s Appalachian State and everybody else — again. Nothing new here. For a while, it looked like this might be the roughest season in quite some time for North Carolina’s three FBS programs outside of the ACC. Instead, it wound up being just ECU’s worst season in a long time. The Pirates’ two wins were their fewest since 2004; the 1-7 conference record their worst since ‘03. App State, 3-4 in October after a loss against Old Dominion, ended the season with five straight victories and earned a spot against Troy in the Sun Belt championship game.

Three big questions moving forward

1. Where does Mack Brown go from here? Defense has been a problem for the Tar Heels for years, and was again this season. There’s no shortage of stats and numbers that underline the point. The question is what does Brown do about it? He had some success with Gene Chizik, UNC’s defensive coordinator, during their years together at Texas. But that was a long, long time ago. At UNC, Chizik’s defenses have been abysmal the past two seasons. If Brown decides to make changes, how difficult does it become to attract top candidates, given his age and the reality that his inevitable retirement becomes more imminent every year?

2. Who becomes Duke’s next head coach? For a brief moment it felt like maybe Duke had found its perfect match with Elko, and that Elko might be content to remain in Durham. And he did genuinely seem to embrace his time there. But Texas oil money (referenced earlier, you might remember) is Texas oil money. It’s difficult to turn down. Nina King faces a tricky balancing act here. You want to hire the best coach you can. No secret there. But how much do you weigh the likelihood of that coach sticking around if he’s successful? Because stability is important, too.

N.C. State defensive coordinator Tony Gibson congratulates Payton Wilson (11) after he intercepted the ball during the Wolfpack’s 24-14 victory over UConn at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Conn. Thursday, August 31, 2023. Ethan Hyman/ehyman@newsobserver.com
N.C. State defensive coordinator Tony Gibson congratulates Payton Wilson (11) after he intercepted the ball during the Wolfpack’s 24-14 victory over UConn at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Conn. Thursday, August 31, 2023. Ethan Hyman/ehyman@newsobserver.com

3. Can N.C. State keep its staff intact? Doeren won the lottery, of sorts, when Tony Gibson was not retained amid a head coaching transition at West Virginia at the end of the 2018 season. Doeren hired Gibson as State’s defensive coordinator, and the Wolfpack has become a defensive powerhouse in the years since. It’s somewhat surprising Gibson hasn’t been poached, already, but he and Doeren clearly have developed a strong relationship. If State can keep Gibson, and the rest of its defensive staff, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t maintain its upward trajectory.

A brief history of sleeping giants

A bonus category this week, in this season-wrap-up edition.

Though there was no evidence that Bobby Bowden ever actually referred to UNC as a “sleeping giant” in football, the search for the elusive Bowden quote did unearth an endless array of references to various college football programs being labeled as sleeping giants over the years.

Tulsa. Mississippi State. Duke. They’ve all carried the “sleeping giant” banner at some point.

Among all the “sleeping giant” college football references, perhaps the best one came from a newspaper account in 1992. At the time, then-Clemson defensive coordinator Ron Dickerson called Temple “a sleeping giant,” while lobbying for its head coaching job. The interest was mutual, with Temple alum Bill Cosby among those who courted Dickerson and tried to convince him to take the position.

And so the school wound up hiring him. Did Dickerson awaken the mighty football power dormant within Temple, you ask?

Well, not exactly. He went 8-47 in five seasons, and then retired.

The giant, apparently, was very, very tired. One might say that Temple football still exists in a state of perpetual slumber. And as for the “sleeping giant” label, well — goes to show that anyone can be called a sleeping giant. It’s another phrase for somebody or something that just hasn’t done much.

Final 2023 Carolinas ranking

1. N.C. State (and by a wide margin, it turned out); 2. Clemson (and here comes a big gap); 3. North Carolina (another season in which UNC finished unranked after entering the top 15 – that’s three in a row now); 4. Duke (what could’ve been, had Riley Leonard not been hurt); 5. Appalachian State (pound-for-pound, still an argument here for the state’s best program) ; 6. South Carolina; 7. Coastal Carolina; 8. Wake Forest; 9. Charlotte; 10. ECU.

Final thoughts, in no particular order

I think it’s much more difficult for Mack Brown to build a program now than it was during his first go-round. Back then, Duke played on a field surrounded by a track. N.C. State played in a stadium with a big hill behind one of the end zones. The times were far more quaint. There’s not an ACC school anywhere these days that hasn’t poured money into their programs, or that hasn’t opened multi-millionaire facilities.

I think, too, that UNC’s “plight,” if it can be called that, underscores the peril of reading too much into recruiting. It remains very important, yes. But unless you’re recruiting at the level of Alabama or Georgia or Ohio State, chances are your talent level isn’t so extraordinarily above your competition that a talent gap can’t be overcome by coaching and culture.

I think if you were ranking in-state programs right now, based on which ones come closest to realizing their potential, it’d look like this: N.C. State, App State, Wake Forest (though, yes, a bad year this season), UNC, Charlotte, ECU. Duke is impossible to rank amid a coaching transition, but would have the Blue Devils either just before or just behind App, otherwise.

I think it’s odd, the intense reaction in some UNC fan circles, to “only” going 8-4. There’s nothing wrong with wanting more. Nothing at all. At the same time, there’s an air of expectation and entitlement here that’s difficult to square. If you’re among those Very Mad UNC fans, a question: Just what, exactly, do you think this football program has been for, well, forever?

I think of similar fan angst at a different school, in a different sport. That surrounding Herb Sendek at N.C. State, in the mid-2000s. That, though, was far more understandable, given that State has two national championships in men’s basketball, and that it helped make ACC basketball what it became. UNC football? Zero national championships and not nearly that level of success.

I think, on that point, it’s important to establish some historical facts. UNC has fewer ACC football championships (five) than Duke and State (seven each) and Maryland (nine, but of course the Terrapins haven’t been in the ACC in almost 10 years). Forget about competing with Florida State and Clemson, UNC is behind its local ACC rivals in conference football titles.

I think it’s been another fun season. Same time, same place, in about nine months.