First person: Worst of the worst
In this space, we spend most of our time talking about the great games, the fantastic moments, and the singular players.
But here’s a secret: sometimes, the games just stink.
I’m not just talking about tough losses. I’m talking about games so bad they become instantly memorable forever. The kind you bring up instantly when the Tar Heels lose a tough one. "Yeah," you say, "but you should have seen the _____ game in ______." My friend Matt and I used to call these “Badge of Honor” games. We determined that any Tar Heel fan who sat through—all the way through, not leaving midway through the third quarter—one of these games deserved some kind of special patch on their replica jersey. Like a bowl patch, except a little sadder different.
#5: Nov. 5, 2011: NC State 13, Carolina 0. OK, look, all of us understood that last year was a very challenging year. There was a coaching change, there was continual off-the-field drama, and the players spent the season under a constant cloud of speculation about who their next coach might be.
That being said, this game was painful to watch. All the pregame woofing amounted to exactly zero points, and the Tar Heels piled up a whopping three rushing yards against a State defense that had been porous at best in its previous conference outings. Let's don't even talk about the silly wolf hand gestures.
#4: Sept. 30, 1989: Navy 12, Carolina 7. This was not the Navy of Roger Staubach. This was the Navy that had lost 14-10 the previous week to the Citadel.
Of course, this was also the 1-10 version of Carolina—the second straight 1-10 version of Carolina. That’s what made this game a little more painful. Coming off a 40-6 loss to NC State the previous week, this felt like a chance to do better against an inferior opponent.
Making matters worse, it poured rain in Kenan Stadium. The two teams went a combined 2-13 over the remainder of the season.
#3: Nov. 18, 1989: Duke 41, Carolina 0. Coming in the same season as the Navy game, it looks like 1989 season ticket-holders deserve a special Tar Heel football merit badge. This game was, quite simply, “the scoreboard game,” when Steve Spurrier assembled his team under the Kenan Stadium scoreboard to take a photo when the game was over.
There are Tar Heels out there who say they kind of like the way Spurrier coaches. They can’t have been in the stands that Saturday afternoon. My main memory is asking my mom to get a drink at some point during the game. “Let’s wait until Duke scores again,” she said.
I didn’t stay thirsty for long.
#2: Oct. 8, 2005: Louisville 69, Carolina 14. There have been bigger beatings in Carolina history (just one, actually, a 1912 loss to Virginia in which Cavaliers head coach George Welsh was only 48 years old). There have been more significant losses. But I have never felt as completely hopeless at a Tar Heel game as I did on this Saturday. This one lives forever as “the train whistle game.” The Cardinals had a train whistle that they played after each score. Any Tar Heel who was there that day will tell you that they went to bed with that whistle still ringing in their ears.
Believe it or not, the game was actually 7-7 late in the first quarter. Things went slightly downhill from there. Late in the fourth quarter, the Tar Heels were trying to simply grind out the remaining minutes on the ground to preserve their narrow 62-14 loss. That’s when the Cardinals picked up a fumble and ran it back 42 yards for a touchdown. It was that kind of day.
Carolina travels to Louisville on Sept. 15 in their first return to the Commonwealth since that fateful day in 2005.
#1: Nov. 16, 1996: Virginia 20, Carolina 17. It’s cheating to include this game on the list. This game doesn’t belong on a mere list of tough football games. It belongs on the all-time Carolina heartbreaker list. You know the story—the Tar Heels had a 17-3 lead and were one field goal away from icing a major bowl bid. Raleigh native Antwan Harris stepped in front of a Chris Keldorf pass, ran it back for a touchdown, and the momentum changed as dramatically as any sporting event I have ever seen.
What sticks with me most from this game is how suddenly things flipped. As Carolina drove for what looked like the back-breaking score, those of us in the Tar Heel section were gleefully shouting, “Whose house? Heels’ house!” (We were clever.) But as soon as Harris made his interception—even though Carolina still had a one-touchdown lead and the ball midway through the fourth quarter—a Cavalier win felt like a certainty.
The game ended with a handful of Virginia fans firing liquor bottles into the Carolina section, which probably would’ve been welcome medicine for the Tar Heel fans if the bottles hadn’t been empty. I believe the first words I spoke after this game were when the car reached somewhere around Oxford. Those words were, "Just kick the field goal."
How many of these patches can you claim? And which ones did I forget (or neglect to be born in time to see)?