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August 31, 2012

Sammy: Opening up at Carolina

Opening games haven't been especially eventful in North Carolina football history. And if he were asked, Coach Larry Fedora would probably prefer more of the same for his Tar Heel debut Saturday against Elon.

But while Fedora may favor uneventful, he certainly doesn't want the same outcome that spoiled the first game for half of the last 10 UNC head coaches.

Last year's interim coach Everett Withers and his former boss, Butch Davis, both scored victories over Football Bowl Subdivision foe James Madison in their first games with the Tar Heels. UNC defeated JMU, 42-10, last year at Kenan Stadium, while the Davis' inaugural season in 2007 began with a 37-14 win against the Dukes.

Although it wasn't in a season opener, Carl Torbush may have enjoyed the biggest first-game win by a UNC head coach at the end of the 1997 season. When Mack Brown left the Tar Heels for Texas between the end of the regular season and the Gator Bowl, Torbush took command and directed a 42-3 romp over Virginia Tech.

In addition to Withers, Davis and Torbush, Dick Crum, George Barclay and Carl Snavely were also victorious in their first games with UNC. Crum's 1978 squad defeated East Carolina, 14-10; Barclay's 1953 club downed N.C. State, 29-7; and Snavely's 1945 team edged Camp Lee, 6-0.

Brown had an impressive run in Chapel Hill from 1988 to 1997, but he inherited a team sorely lacking in overall talent and suffered a 31-10 defeat at the hands of South Carolina in his first game at Carolina in the '88 opener.

John Bunting's first game as head coach at UNC in 2001 was marked by a 41-27 setback to Oklahoma, while his former coach Bill Dooley's Tar Heel career began on a sour note with a 13-7 defeat by arch rival N.C. State in 1967 the year before Bunting arrived as a freshman linebacker.

Jim Hickey (20-18 loss to Clemson in 1959) and the great Jim Tatum (26-6 loss to N.C. State in 1956) also were beaten in their Tar Heel debuts.

North Carolina's overall record in season openers is 81-38-4, but only a handful of those victories have been memorable.

But here's my list, in no special order, of the five best season-opening victories for the Tar Heels.

North Carolina 31, Southern Cal 9 (August 29, 1993)

The Pigskin Classic played in Anaheim, Calif., pitted schools that, at the time, had produced the most 1,000-yard rushers.

The No. 20-ranked Tar Heels pounded out 291 yards rushing behind the running of Leon Johnson and Curtis Johnson to spoil John Robinson's coaching return at USC.

The victory was as stepping stone to a 10-3 season for Mack Brown's club that ended with a Gator Bowl appearance against Alabama.

North Carolina 45, Clemson 0 (August 31, 1996)

The Tar Heels dealt the Tigers their first season-opening loss in 22 years with the largest margin of victory in series history in Chapel Hill. Making the triumph even sweeter was the fact it was just the third win for UNC against Clemson in 16 tries.

Linebacker Brian Simmons recovered a fumble and made an interception early to help the Tar Heels jump ahead, 17-0. Quarterback Chris Keldforf completed 15 of 22 passes for 182 yards and two touchdowns in his UNC debut.

North Carolina 56, East Carolina 0 (Sept. 12, 1981)

It was the intrigue before the game and Kelvin Bryant's individual performance in it that made this opener memorable.

Two strangers, later identified as ECU graduate assistant coaches, were spotted in the law school library that overlooked the UNC practice field and it was believed they were spying on the Tar Heels.

Bryant made it all a mute point, however, by rushing for 211 yards and six touchdowns in just two-and-a-half quarters. Nobody that was there that day will ever forget Bryant going over after scoring one of his touchdowns and handing the ball to former teammate Steve Streater, who had been injured in a car accident and was confined to a wheelchair.

North Carolina 27, N.C. State 22 (Sept. 30, 1961)

The Tar Heels hadn't won a season opener since 1954 (and then-head coach Jim Hickey was 0-2 in season debuts at UNC) when the arch rival Wolfpack came to Kenan Stadium in 1961. It appeared that streak might continue when N.C. State jumped ahead, 10-0, in the first period.

But over the next three periods the Tar Heels proved dominant, especially on defense where they held the Wolfpack and quarterback Roman Gabriel without a first down from midway through the quarter to the 12-minute mark of the final period.

By that time UNC had piled up a 27-10 advantage. Gib Carson scored three touchdowns to pace the Tar Heel offense.

North Carolina 14, Georgia 7 (Sept. 27, 1947)

Carl Snavely's Tar Heels had just finished an 8-2-1 season in 1946 by knocking off the Bulldogs in the Sugar Bowl, 20-10.

UNC entered the rematch to open the 1947 season with nearly its entire Sugar Bowl squad returning, including Charlie "Choo Choo'' Justice.

Justice and company found a way to beat the Bulldogs yet again en route to an 8-2 finish.

North Carolina 34, Texas 7 (Sept. 25, 1948)

The Longhorns had taken the Tar Heels to the woodshed and administered a 34-0 beating in the second game of the 1947 season. Texas, which had beaten Alabama in the Sugar Bowl to end that season, was regarded as a national championship contender in '48.

But with Charlie "Choo Choo'' Justice running for two touchdowns and passing for two more, the Tar Heels prevailed.


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