First Person: Best of the Best
Coaches will often tell you that they have to carefully guard against letting the lows of losing games not outweigh the highs of winning games.
It can be the same for fans. The pain felt after a tough loss—we chronicled five heartbreakers earlier this month—can linger forever. The euphoria of a win, though, dissipates as soon as the next week’s opponent begins to loom.
What follows are the five best Carolina football wins I’ve ever seen in person. That means that, yes, some memorable ones (sorry, 24-19 over Clemson in 1980) aren’t included.
#5: Dec. 30, 2010: Carolina 30, Tennessee 27 (2OT). This one was as good as the 2011 Independence Bowl was bad. Being there in person is what made it so terrific. The tiny group of Carolina fans in attendance was adrift in a sea of orange, and watching the final seconds (somehow) tick away while T.J. Yates outsmarted the college football rulebook was extremely gratifying. Side note: it was a very angry stadium after the game. In one of my wisest moves ever, I walked the concourse with David Thornton. For some reason, even the angry Tennessee fans didn’t want to mess with me him.
#4: Nov. 28, 1998: Carolina 37, NC State 34 (OT) in Charlotte. One of my criteria for choosing these games was how many specific moments I could remember from the game in question. There were lots from this game, including the man-to-man battle between Torry Holt and Dre’ Bly (Bly won the first half, while Holt won the second), to the walk-off finish when Oscar Davenport arched a game-winning touchdown pass into the arms of Na Brown.
#3: Oct. 20, 1990: Carolina 13, Georgia Tech 13. OK, this isn’t a win. But if you lived through the back-to-back 1-10 seasons of 1988 and 1989, you know how thirsty Carolina football fans were for any sign of progress. This was unquestionable evidence that Mack Brown had the Tar Heels headed in the right direction, as Carolina got a pair of key fourth quarter goal line stands to preserve the tie.
#2: Jan. 2, 1993: Carolina 21, Mississippi State 17 (Peach Bowl). Carolina hadn’t been to a bowl game since 1986. The Georgia Dome was the perfect site for the Tar Heels to return to the consciousness of college football, even with the constant ringing of all those Bulldog cowbells. The Tar Heels struggled in the first half, but Bracey Walker’s two key punt blocks (plus a big hit that caused an interception) and the running of Natrone Means ignited a second-half comeback that was the springboard for Carolina’s mid-1990s success. Carolina fans gathered at the Marriott Marquis to welcome back the Tar Heels and toasted the return of quality football to Chapel Hill well into the night.
#1: Oct. 9, 2004 (30-24 over NC State) and Oct. 30, 2004 (31-28 over Miami). Sure, it’s outright cheating to list two games in the top spot. But these two go so perfectly together. They were back-to-back home games, and as befits the Bunting era, were separated only by the Tar Heels being thrashed in Utah. The State game is, simply, “The T.A. McLendon game.” Did he get in or not? The officials said he didn’t, and it infuriates State fans to this day, but don’t forget that Khalif Mitchell made a great play on the subsequent play to force a McLendon fumble. Say what you want about Bunting, but he knew how to beat the Wolfpack and Chuck "Red Shoes" Amato.
The Miami game featured Connor Barth’s game-winning 42-yard field goal on the final play of the game. The ‘Canes were ranked third in the country, and I’ll never forget following Roy Williams as he giddily bounced down the Kenan steps after the game, looking every bit like a thrilled undergraduate. In an electric nighttime environment, the students were on the field as soon as (or maybe a little before) the ball sailed through the goalposts.