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December 5, 2006

Carolina enjoyed week to remember

Last week began with the introduction of Butch Davis as the new football coach at Carolina and ended with the UNC women's basketball team defeating perennial power Tennessee at Carmichael Auditorium.

Sandwiched between were events that made this one of the richest, most fulfilling weeks in the history of Carolina athletics.

The men's basketball team defeated top-ranked Ohio State before a delirious crowd at the Smith Center. The floor literally shook from the foot-stomping and cheering. Then the women's soccer team returned to the national semifinals of the NCAA Tournament and dominated UCLA to advance to final against undefeated Notre Dame, while the men's basketball team followed the victory against the Buckeyes with a victory against rival Kentucky.

To finish it off in style, the UNC women's soccer team won its 18th NCAA national championship, 19th national title overall, and that evening the Carolina women's basketball team beat the Volunteers on national television, with Davis and women's soccer coach Anson Dorrance being interviewed on television, furthering Carolina's image as a one of the country's top athletic institutions.

The Carolina brand, which Davis is obviously using to make his run at top recruits, is on the rise again.

It's as if all of the controversies, bad times and underachieving mediocrity that seeped into the normal stream of success at UNC during the past nine years has evaporated and been replaced with a convergence of excellence.

This time, Carolina fans did not take any of it for granted. They went wild for Davis every time he showed his face, and even started buying season tickets for football next fall.

In basketball, the Buckeyes' coach said that he had never heard any arena as loud as the Dean Dome got at times that night - so much for wine and cheese.

On Friday, the fans drove to Cary in the early afternoon and filled the SAS Soccer Park and heartedly supported the women's soccer team.

On Saturday, the faithful turned out in full force for the Kentucky game, but by then, the players and the fans had been drained somewhat by all the emotion of the week. Nonetheless, when the team needed them, they responded. Two friends who are not from around here, attended the game and said they thought the crowd was awesome. I laughed and said they should have seen it before everyone had been wrung out by the emotion of Ohio State.

Sunday, the fans who have taken so much abuse in the media through the years showed their love and loyalty again by filling the soccer stadium to watch UNC win the national title and that night they packed Carmichael Auditorium for the women's basketball game.

It was a week that the coaches, players, fans and administrators can view with pride and a sense of achievement. The athletes responded with victories against Ohio State, UCLA, Kentucky, Notre Dame and Tennessee. Think about that string of names for a moment.

As Roy Williams likes to say, there were no Sisters of the Blind in the lineup. Those were all big names and big-time teams, and Carolina ran the table. Even better, the Tar Heels did their work on national television each time, furthering the image of the school as one of excellence in every endeavor. And several times during those broadcasts, Davis pressed his message of why he came to Carolina and how the Tar Heels will win in football.

The kind of publicity and success the school enjoyed this past week could not be bought directly with a check, although it was paid for with the hard work, sweat and diligence of coaches and players, and the fund-raising and ticket sales by fans and boosters.

Davis has talked about the entire university community working as a team to make Carolina football successful, and this past week was the perfect display of how it operates when done properly.

Gender did not matter. The particular sport did not matter. Carolina fans were going nuts for whatever sport their school was playing at the time, and they all took great pride in the accomplishments.

For all the critics of college athletics, take note of this. These moments are what separate college sports from the professional version. As Williams says, the kids and coaches were playing for the names on the front of the jerseys. There was no talk of free agency or trades or contract holdouts.

The fans purchased tickets and cheered madly because of that name across the jersey as well. North Carolina has a well-earned reputation for excellence across the board, whether it is in athletics, general academics or research.

This past week helped to accentuate that and further the idea that elite academics and championship athletics can coexist and prosper. There should never again be talk of success being defined as winning more than losing, of well-behaved athletes achieving in school somehow compensating for mediocrity on the field.

No team, no school, no individual wins all the time, but Carolina has proven that a great university can pool its resources and its will to succeed to create an institution that competes on every level.

All Carolina needs to do is continue to devote the resources, the effort and the willingness to be excellent. If Bill Friday or newspaper editorialists complain about that, simply wave them off. No one ever pleased everyone and accomplished anything of value.

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