The fiercest college football rivalry this state has to offer will again kick off Saturday at 12:30 p.m. – the time reserved for the castaway games and the rejects, the ones too mundane and too irrelevant for primetime or even a 3:30 regional broadcast.
The fate is not new for North Carolina and N.C. State, who will meet at Carter-Finley Stadium. This is the eighth time in the past nine years that the Wolfpack and Tar Heels will play on what has come to be known as the ACC Network – which is really just Raycom Sports rebranded.
There is a hierarchy of television schedules, and it often reflects importance and relevance. On one end of the spectrum Saturday, for instance, is the Florida State-Miami game, which ABC will broadcast nationally at 8 p.m. On the other end is UNC at N.C. State.
The Carolina-State game, as it’s known from Wilmington to Watauga County, has remained an in-state attraction. Unlike North Carolina’s best high school football players, though, interest in the rivalry stops at the state line and remains within the borders. The repeated appearances on the ACC Network – instead of ESPN or ABC – is proof of that.
The Wolfpack (3-4) and Tar Heels (2-5) meet with a pair of losing records – 5-9 combined. Both are at the bottom, or near it, in their division. The last time they met as ranked opponents was 20 years ago, in 1993, when Florida State was a new ACC member, and long before Miami, Virginia Tech and others joined the conference.
Based on attendance, N.C. State and UNC are the state’s most popular and most followed college football programs. They also represent the mediocrity – or worse – that has defined North Carolina college football for more than half a century.
It’s not to say that the state’s five in-state FBS (formerly Division I-A) programs – Duke, N.C. State, UNC, Wake Forest and East Carolina – haven’t experienced stretches of success. There have been plenty of teasers.
Wake Forest in 2006 won the ACC championship. N.C. State won a school-record 11 games under Chuck Amato in 2002. UNC ascended into the top five under Mack Brown in 1997, and perhaps was on the cusp of a similar ascension under Butch Davis before scandal erupted. And Duke is bowl eligible for the second consecutive season – a first for the school.
Yet consistent success has remained elusive, and so a familiar question has remained consistent: Why has college football in this state been so bad, so often? The answer, the one offered from coaches at all levels, begins and ends with recruiting.
Early recruiting raids on limited pool created cycle
David Cutcliffe is in his sixth year as head coach at Duke, but in the early 1980s he was a young assistant coach at Tennessee, where he often recruited players from North Carolina. The state’s population was about 5.8 million then, according to U.S. Census data, and nearly half of what it is today.
“The population was not near what it is today,” Cutcliffe said earlier this week. “... (And) you’re getting mobbed a little bit by some ‘football’ schools, and then the population really didn’t exist to support (five) institutions. And two of them were small private institutions – Wake Forest and Duke – that still needed football players. So it kind of went a lot of years of you really were fighting with a smaller stick, if you will.”
Cutcliffe successfully recruited some of North Carolina’s best players – “a lot,” Cutfliffe said – across the state line. Heath Shuler, a quarterback, and Leonard Little, a linebacker, are two All-Americans Cutcliffe recruited out of the North Carolina mountains.
The mediocrity of today has its roots in those times, when there weren’t enough good high school players to go around, and when the few who were good enough went somewhere else – South Carolina or Tennessee or Virginia. Since then, North Carolina schools have attempted to fortify the borders – to build the proverbial fence around the state, keeping the top in-state prospects inside of it.
More often than not it has been an exercise in futility. John Bunting, who coached at UNC from 2001 to 2006, said part of the problem has been frequent coaching turnover. Cutcliffe is the most tenured coach in the Triangle, and this is Jim Grobe’s 13th season at Wake Forest.
UNC and N.C. State have changed head coaches in the past two years. Since 2000, the schools have had a combined seven head coaches, not including Everett Withers, who served as the Tar Heels’ interim head coach in 2011.
“The raids on (North Carolina high school talent) from Tennessee to Florida State to Georgia have always been in place,” Bunting said. “I think when you have coaches that aren’t in place, and remain in place for a long period of time, they don’t have a chance of building relationships with the state high school programs.”
Improving relationships with North Carolina high schools has been a point of emphasis for Larry Fedora, the second-year UNC coach, and Dave Doeren, who arrived at N.C. State last December.
Since those coaching transitions, local recruiting has improved, said Adrian Jones, head coach at Southern Durham High. Still, Jones said, “It can be much better.” Asked to identify colleges that most aggressively recruit the region, Jones first named three from the SEC: South Carolina, Tennessee and Alabama.
“All those schools that are nationally known, that you see on TV every week, are coming in our state and getting those kids,” said Jones, who played football at N.C. Central from 1993 through 1997. “But North Carolina, N.C. State, Wake Forest should have first hands on that.
“I think if we keep some of those kids here, that we’ll have much better teams in the state of North Carolina.”
Out-of-state schools more aggressive
Recruiting data suggests Jones’ assertion has merit. The best prospects in North Carolina leave at a greater rate than in neighboring states. According to Rivals.com, North Carolina has produced nearly as many four- and five-star prospects – those considered the best of the best – as Virginia during the past 10 years.
Half of Virginia’s prospects – 50 out of 102 – remained in state. In North Carolina, 35 of its 96 four- and five-star prospects did so, according to Rivals. That’s the lowest retention rate among North Carolina’s four neighbors.
It’d be one thing if in-state programs were losing those players after recruiting them as hard as some out-of-state programs. But that isn’t always the case, said Jim Bob Bryant, who has led Havelock High to consecutive 3A state championships.
Earlier this week, Bryant described a trip he took last year to Wake Forest for a football clinic. During one session, Bryant said he was showing film of some of his best players, some of whom had decided to play at schools outside North Carolina.
“I was showing them on tape, ‘Well, this guy’s committed to South Carolina, this guy’s committed to Tennessee, this guy’s being recruited by so-and-so and so-and-so,’” Bryant said. “And one of the assistants, I guess a grad assistant or something, raised his hand and said, ‘Coach, can you help keep these players in state, what’s going on with that?’
“And I said, ‘Are you really asking me that?’ I said, ‘First of all, Wake Forest has not offered any of my kids. You know, y’all have not even been on my campus.’”
Last season, Bryant coached Pharoh Cooper, a receiver who was one of the state’s nine four-star prospects, according to Rivals. Cooper signed with South Carolina, and only one of those prospects – UNC running back T.J. Logan, from Greensboro – signed with an in-state school.
South Carolina was the first to offer Cooper a scholarship, Bryant said, and the Gamecocks also were first to offer Michael Bowman, a junior receiver who has since received offers from UNC and N.C. State, among others.
This season, Bryant’s best player is Derrell Scott, one of the top running back prospects in the nation. Scott, Bryant said, is most seriously considering South Carolina, Tennessee and N.C. State. That he’s considering the Wolfpack is a credit to Doeren and N.C. State’s new coaching staff, Bryant said.
“Coach Doeren, he’s been to our school three times since he’s been hired there, and been to one of our games,” Bryant said. “Where the last head coach (Tom O’Brien) never came to my school.”
Triangle coaches target in-state talent
When in-state teams successfully recruit North Carolina, it often translates into success. Brown built UNC into a power in the mid-90s on the strength of homegrown talent, including All-American Brian Simmons, Greg Ellis and Natrone Means. At Duke, Cutcliffe credits the Blue Devils’ awakening to recruiting success in the state, and particularly around Charlotte, where quarterback Anthony Boone, receiver Jamison Crowder and cornerback Ross Cockrell, among others, played.
“Look at our offense,” Cutcliffe said. “… I mean, we are North Carolina starters in a lot of places, on both sides of the ball. The Charlotte area, if you look at our team, the representation from that area alone is significant.
“So I don’t know that Duke has been that way since the ’60s or so, or maybe even the ’50s. We’re very much believers in recruiting in the state of North Carolina.”
Bryant, the coach at Havelock, said North Carolina’s college football problem is the result of a cycle that’s proven nearly impossible to break: “The kids want wins, and they want to see big bowl games, they want to see all that kind of stuff,” Bryant said. “You can’t do that without good players, and good players in the state of North Carolina are leaving.”
Before he accepted the UNC job, Fedora shared conversations with Brown, who left UNC for Texas after the 1997 season. Asked last week to explain why there hasn’t been more overall success at North Carolina schools, Fedora said, “I don’t have an answer for that.”
Still, he cited Brown’s tenure at UNC as proof that winning big and becoming nationally relevant is possible.
“Because he did it while he was here,” Fedora said. “It boils down to you’ve got to do a great job in recruiting, and get the players in here, and then you’ve got to coach them up and they’ve got to make plays. So it’s nothing more than it is anywhere else.”
In this state, though, the simple plan has proven nearly impossible to execute consistently. UNC, Duke and N.C. State have combined to win nine national championships in basketball since UNC won the ACC in football in 1980, which is the most recent year that any of the three schools won an outright league football title.
Since Duke shared the ACC football championship in 1989, the Blue Devils and Tar Heels have won seven national championships in basketball. The Triangle’s ACC title drought in football reached its legal drinking age two years ago.
Yet Cutcliffe, who has recruited North Carolina longer than anyone around, sees reason for hope. He has watched North Carolina grow to a state of nearly 10 million and counting. He believes North Carolina high school football “is catching up” to other parts of the country.
“You’ve got some pretty good centers of population with the Triangle, the Triad, the Charlotte area, Asheville and certain parts of western North Carolina, and then you go to the coast, and the Wilmington region that’s producing some football players,” Cutcliffe said. “So I see better times ahead.”
If North Carolina schools can keep more of those prospects home, Cutcliffe might be right. But for now, the state’s marquee football rivalry is mired in obscurity, far off the national radar again.
Kareem Martin, the Tar Heels’ senior defensive end, has a finer appreciation for the rivalry than some. He grew up in North Carolina, in Roanoke Rapids, and decided to stay in state. Throughout his time at UNC, every game against the Wolfpack has started at 12:30 p.m. – a kickoff time that comes with a stigma.
It could be different, Martin said.
“We (can) have the talent on both teams to be a top-25 squad and eventually have these games in the future be (between) two ranked opponents – even on ESPN or something, a Saturday-night-type game,” Martin said. “I think given the two programs, and the caliber of the two schools, it’s possible.”
Possible is one thing, though. Whether the scenario Martin described is likely is another question.
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter
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