Football

Is UNC one of the most underachieving football programs of all time?

UNC coach Larry Fedora, entering his fourth season, is attempting to lead the Tar Heels to success they haven’t experienced since the mid-1990s.
UNC coach Larry Fedora, entering his fourth season, is attempting to lead the Tar Heels to success they haven’t experienced since the mid-1990s. Robert Willett - rwillett@newsobserver.com

Now we're in the dog days, folks, so take that into account here. We're only just now approaching mid-July, ACC media days are still about a week and a half away and, well, there's just not a whole lot of college football to talk about. Not yet, anyway.

So the timing of these kinds of lists – the kind on which North Carolina found itself Wednesday – makes sense. Stewart Mandel, one of the most recognizable and respected college football writers in the country, posted a mailbag column in which a reader asked him to name the most underachieving college football programs of all time.

You know where this is going. Mandel put UCLA No. 1. And then, at No. 2, was UNC. (The rest of his list: Mississippi, Arizona State and Maryland.)

Mandel concludes UNC is among the most underachieving football programs of all time in part because of the Tar Heels' success elsewhere. Everyone knows about men's basketball and women's soccer, but UNC's baseball team – this season notwithstanding – has been among the best in the country for the past 10 years, and more often than not the Olympic sports are nationally competitive.

So, the logic goes, if UNC can be nationally relevant in a lot of sports, then why can't it be in football? Plus, Mandel writes of UNC, “Its state is loaded with high school talent. And yet the Tar Heels' football history is almost entirely underwhelming.”

More on that first sentence there – the one about the high school talent in this state – in a bit. The second one, though, isn't debatable. UNC's football history is almost entirely underwhelming. Still, is UNC deserving of being labeled as one of the most underachieving football programs of all time?

Yes, the Tar Heels have more often than not been mediocre – or worse – in football. Going back the past 63 seasons, dating to the ACC's first football season in 1953, UNC's average record has been 6-5 (or, 5.984-5.274-0.129, if you want to be precise.)

During those 63 seasons, UNC has been ranked 16 times in the preseason AP top 25 (and finished just five of those 16 seasons ranked). The Tar Heels have been ranked, period, in 29 of their 63 seasons since the formation of the ACC, and they've finished 10 of those seasons ranked – none since 1997.

UNC hasn't won a conference championship since 1980 and hasn't won more than eight games since 1997. So, no, the numbers aren't pretty. Which raises the question: Is it really underachieving if the achievements, for better or worse, remain constant throughout history?

Clearly, Mandel is basing his list relative to the potential he has assigned each of the schools on it. And for the longest time, UNC has been seen as this sleeping giant in college football – this place with no shortage of potential and opportunity.

That's true enough in some ways. The facilities are in place to be successful at UNC. The Tar Heels play in one of the most picturesque stadiums in the country. Chapel Hill is a great place to live, as is (most of) the state of North Carolina. It's an attractive place. There's a lot to like.

But here's an honest question that needs asking: If UNC were the sleeping giant that many believe it is, wouldn't it have shown it more often than it has during the past six decades? Wouldn't there be more evidence of the potential?

Take, for instance, UCLA, which is Mandel's No. 1 underachiever. The Bruins have indeed underachieved and we know that in part because sometimes they're good – very good, even – which provides an idea of what could be. UCLA finished last season ranked No. 10 and the Bruins have been ranked at the end of the season four times since UNC last finished a season in the top 25.

Same thing at Mississippi. UNC ended the 1997 ranked and hasn't done that since but over the same time Mississippi has ended the season in the top 25 five times. The Rebels climbed as high as No. 3 in the AP poll last season and they were as high as No. 4 in 2009. Same thing, again, at Arizona State, which four times has ended a season ranked since UNC last could say the same.

Of the four other schools that made Mandel's list, UNC is probably most comparable to Maryland, which has ascended into the top 25 just once – at No. 25 – during the past four seasons. The Terrapins haven't finished a season in the top 25 since 2010, though under former coach Ralph Friedgen they won at least 10 games in three consecutive seasons from 2001 to 2003.

Maybe that's further proof of just how much UNC has underachieved, given that in the past 17 seasons it has achieved less than any of the other schools on Mandel's list. Maybe, though, that's a sign that in football UNC sort of just is what it is (to use my least favorite sporting cliché ever).

That's not to say that UNC isn't capable of much more. It is. But you could make the argument that UNC overachieved during the Mack Brown years – and in some of the Bill Dooley and Dick Crum years – and that the program hasn't so much underachieved otherwise but instead performed to a level that should be expected by now.

For the past six decades UNC has remained consistent: a six- or seven-win team, on average, that's capable of more and capable of less. Yet, still, the Tar Heels have retained their sleeping giant label, and all the expectations that come with it.

That label, and those expectations, are both good and bad. Good because UNC football inspires visions of what could be, if it just all came together. Bad because the Tar Heels rarely come close to making those visions a reality. And it's not like UNC is alone there in this state.

N.C. State, East Carolina and even Duke, in recent years and for a brief stretch under Steve Spurrier, have all provided glimpses of their potential. And all of them have failed to sustain success. Yet more often than not, UNC is singled out as being the greatest football failure among in-state schools. Why?

N.C. State has been every bit, and more, the underachiever that UNC has been in football. Duke, which, yes, has won an ACC championship more recently than UNC and N.C. State, was for the better part of two decades one of the worst major-conference programs in the country.

Yet N.C. State and Duke aren’t judged the way UNC is for underachieving in football. Neither is Indiana, which hasn’t finished a season in the top 25 since 1988. And neither is Virginia, which has a lot of the same things going for it that UNC does yet, like UNC, has struggled to build a nationally-relevant program.

History has told us that it's just difficult for North Carolina schools to sustain success at the highest level of college football. There have been some good, memorable seasons for UNC, N.C. State, Duke, ECU and Wake Forest. But those good years are far outnumbered by the ugly ones or the ones lost to history because they were so mediocre.

Why is it so difficult for North Carolina schools to sustain football success? It's difficult to answer. Part of the reason, and probably a big part, can be traced to recruiting. I'd argue that, contrary to what Mandel wrote, the state lacks enough high school talent to go around – especially when you consider that a good number of the state's top prospects often wind up at out of state schools.

UNC most fiercely competes with N.C. State for in-state recruits. But there's also ECU. And Duke. And Wake Forest. And all the schools that surround the state: South Carolina and Tennessee and Georgia and Virginia Tech and Virginia.

In states that border North Carolina, there's only two major-conference schools vying for their state's best high school players: Virginia and Virginia Tech, Tennessee and Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Clemson. Then there's North Carolina, with its four ACC schools and another, ECU, which doesn't lack for support in the eastern part of the state.

It's difficult to win anywhere in North Carolina: UNC, N.C. State – the list goes on. History has proven that. And when schools do turn into winners in football, two things tend to happen: the head coach leaves for a bigger job (Mack Brown to Texas, Steve Spurrier to Florida) or the momentum just runs out (N.C. State under Chuck Amato) and the cycle of mediocrity, and of trying to find a coach who will win and stick around, continues.

UNC, though, has retained its underachiever label, all the while maintaining its status as a college football sleeping giant. After six decades of similar results, could it be that neither characterization is all that accurate?

Carter: 919-829-8944;

Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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