Handling Expectations Next On UNC's To-Do List
CHAPEL HILL – Oh boy, here come the expectations.
North Carolina hasn’t been in this situation all that much since Mack Brown left for Texas following the 1997 regular season.
The Tar Heels finished ranked No. 4 that season, the second consecutive top-10 finish and fourth final ranking in a six-year span, fifth including the coaches’ polls, under Brown.
Those teams handled expectations pretty well, but in the 23 years since, only a few Carolina clubs entered seasons with the kind of promise associated with this year's edition.
The 2009 team opened play ranked No. 21 but finished 8-5. A year later, the Heels were No. 18, but hampered by an assortment of suspensions courtesy of an NCAA probe that left the program on probation, they ended with another 8-5 mark. The 2016 squad rode the wave of the 11-win team from the previous season starting out at No. 22 before falling to Georgia in the opener and concluding with an 8-5 mark.
Even the first post-Brown 1998 Carolina team opened at No. 12, but struggled to a 7-5 finish, perhaps setting a trend for the Tar Heels.
Brown is back and so are the expectations follwing last year's better-an-projected performance, as the Heels are up to No. 12 this week.
“He just makes sure that we understand that we have a standard regardless of what’s going on,” senior safety Myles Wolfolk said Tuesday, referring to the head coach. “Regardless if it’s critics, good media, bad media, whatever is going on we’re worried about ourselves within this team, worried about playing up to our standard and making sure that if we do that we’re going to be a good team.”
Carolina’s No. 12 spot (11 in the coaches’ poll) is the highest for the program since entering the 2015 ACC championship game, when the Heels were No. 8 and riding an 11-game win streak, the longest in-season stretch in program history. They lost that game and finished the season ranked No. 15. That’s the only time UNC has been ranked at the end of a campaign since Brown left.
So, handling prosperity or the possibility of being something special isn’t exactly old hat around the Kenan Football Center.
“What we do is we take Sunday to talk about the goods and the concerns,” Brown explained during his weekly press conference Monday. “So, anytime we see the ranking, I told them after practice yesterday, ‘You were ranked 12th and 11th. Good for you, congratulations.
“You did that because you finished well last year, and you were ranked that way because you played well Saturday and beat an ACC team by a large margin. The only way that stays is you keep doing that and you have to keep doing it week to week because people still aren't sure about you. You're the new kid on the block.”
Sports are notorious for flashes in the pan, be it individual players or programs & teams that flare up. But they often fall as soon as or quicker than they rose. UNC obviously wants to avoid that.
“So, they're going to wait and see and, ‘if you keep playing well, you'll be rated. If not, then it's gone,’” Brown said he told the team. “And then we do not mention it again.”
It likely won’t be gone for a while, though.
The Tar Heels host Charlotte this weekend in a game they should handle before getting an open date. Up after that is a trip to Boston College, so it’s probable the Heels will be unbeaten and possibly ranked in the top 10 when hitting the road for an ACC game. They will then be a marked team. It also means criticism from hungry fans and those who cover the program.
“Playing with expectations is different,” Brown said. “Like we said, we're 12th and 11th in the polls (this week). We've told the guys that's all good and that's cool, but with that comes expectations that you'll continue to play well and win. And that you are going to have criticism over a quarter and you're going to be scrutinized very carefully with every little thing you do. And I’ve lived this world, they haven’t in a while.”
That doesn’t mean they aren’t enjoying it. Prosperity is fun, especially after enduring a 6-21 stretch that included just two wins over Power 5 teams before Brown arrived.
“Yeah, it’s very cool,” said Wolfolk, who redshirted during the 2016 campaign that ended with UNC dropping three of its last four contests.
“Being here through the good and the bad – I got here in 2016 (and) we were 8-5 and then going 3-9 and 2-9 back to 7-6, it was like a rollercoaster. We’ve been through all types of bumps, all types of twists, all types of turns. It’s just really cool to see the program evolve the way it did.”
Continuing that ascent may be as much about how the Tar Heels process what happens in the coming months as much as anything else.
“So, it's just something that they're going to have to understand,” Brown said. “I said, ‘You don't play well Saturday, you won't be rated.’ That’s just the world you live in. So, if you call it pressure, you can. I call it pride and it's something that you've got to improve.”