A Journey & A Reward
CHAPEL HILL - North Carolina Coach Mack Brown has been working all season to build a standard in the program that simply wasn’t there when he first took over on Nov. 27, 2018.
Among the Hall of Fame head coach’s goals was to get this team back to a bowl game for the first time since 2016. And, when the Tar Heels started off the season 2-0 with wins over South Carolina and Miami, it appeared getting to that six-win mark would be easier than expected.
Just two weeks after its win over the Hurricanes, however, UNC had suffered back-to-back losses by a combined nine-point margin. One of those defeats came at home to Appalachian State which, in Brown’s words, was a “very disappointing loss” for the program.
The standard Brown was trying to build wasn’t met against the Mountaineers but, one week later, his team narrowly lost to defending national champion Clemson, 21-20, which currently owns a 27-game win streak.
Still, the loss meant the Tar Heels had dropped three in a row and needed to win four out of their last seven games to become bowl eligible. What initially looked like an easy task now appeared a lot more difficult. But the Heels learned something that helped them.
“We wanted to win, but on the other side of it, we played hard,” junior linebacker Chazz Surratt said after the game, perhaps forecasting things to come. “We went against the No. 1 team in the country. I think we battled every play. I think as a team, we’re a young team, so we’re just going to grow from it I think the best we can.”
What followed was a 16-point win over Georgia Tech in Atlanta, a six-overtime loss to Virginia Tech on the road, a three-point victory over Duke at home when Surratt intercepted a last-second pass at the goal line, a seven-point defeat in Chapel Hill to Virginia, a seven-point overtime loss away to Pittsburgh and a 56-7 win over Mercer on Senior Day.
That 3-3 record over a month-and-a-half stretch got UNC to 5-6, with a win over N.C. State in Raleigh needed for the team to go bowling. The Tar Heels hadn’t beaten their rival since 2015 and had lost nine out of the last 12, meaning this was no easy task despite the Wolfpack’s 4-7 record and five-game losing streak going into the game.
Brown challenged his players in the week leading up to the Mercer game to play to a standard, which they ultimately did, and they would have to do the same against N.C. State if they wanted to play in the postseason.
Judging by the 41-10 blowout win, which was the Tar Heels’ largest margin of victory over their rival in 8,428 days – 23 years - the standard was more than met. Brown’s team is bowl eligible in his first season at the helm.
“I think it’s big, just because we haven’t gone in two years,” senior safety Myles Dorn said. “It’s a new standard for the young kids coming up just to show what it’s supposed to be like.”
Only the seniors and redshirt juniors have ever experienced a bowl game, so the younger guys will have a first in their UNC careers.
“We were here for the 11-win season and we’ve been here for the two-win season,” fifth-year senior offensive guard Nick Polino said. “Just being able to see how hard everyone's worked the past couple years and the young guys buying in so much this year, they’ve been great.”
Brown has noticed the hard work his team has put in since spring practice began in early March, too. He challenged his players to meet his standards and reach a bowl game from day one and, some eight months later, they did.
“It’s really important for a lot of reasons,” Brown said. “Number one, I think we’d lost to Duke four out of the last five, and the guys got over that hump, and we’d lost to State four out of the last five, and the guys got over that hump. And, they get another game together and it gives us a chance to have a winning season.”
For defensive tackle Aaron Crawford, another fifth-year senior, it’s been a long journey from the success of the 2015 Coastal Division championship season to now, but he’s enjoyed the ride nonetheless.
“The first couple of years, we were blessed, we strung together a few good winning seasons,” Crawford said. “We had some attrition over the last two years so, for us to be able to do it the right way on my last go around, it’s very special to see.”
While 6-6 might not look great on paper, the Tar Heels have been in every game this season, losing six games by a combined 26 points. Not only that, but they’ve met Brown’s standard and reached one of their goals of making a bowl, something that shouldn’t go unnoticed.