First person: Worst of the worst

By Adam Lucas | 13 Comment(s) | Posted

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)?


  1. Dan's avatar
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    What bout the Furman game in 1999? 28-3 to a 1-AA at home in Kenan. Ugly!
  2. Karan's avatar
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    The Loss to NCSU at Kenan in 2008.. we committed 6 turnovers.. lost 41-10... everyone left early AS USUAL.. for a freshman in college from Nebraska, this was particularly painful (people in Neb never leave early, and we rarely witness getting beat down that bad)
  3. Jess's avatar
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    Nov 20, 2010: NCSU 29, UNC 25 and Oct 22, 2009, FSU: 30, UNC: 27 were two of the worst losses I witnessed first hand in Kenan. The game vs. NCSU took a turn for the worst when Da'Norris Searcy tried to bat down a pass in the endzone, but proceeded to bat it right into the arms of a State player for the touchdown. Everything unraveled after that. The second was also crushing, UNC was beating FSU 24-6 mid 3rd quarter on national tv and then proceeded to crumble. Crushing loss.
  4. Bcapel's avatar
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    I find it odd that I watched two of these games (completely) in the back of a church getting ready for my brother's (2005) and my sister's (2011) wedding. Lucky I do not have any more siblings.

    I think you should limit the list to home games and the badge comes if you sit through the entire game. I have never left early or cut off a T.V. Actual came close during the last bowl game, which should be on your list.
  5. John's avatar
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    52-7 loss to Clemson in 2006. That was one of my first Carolina games and man was it ever painful.
  6. Jerry Hollingsworth's avatar
    Jerry Hollingsworth
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    Carl Torbush was taking questions on the coach's radio show before the first game of the 1998 season (I think that is the timing and that Torbush was then head coach). There was no tape delay so I got my question on air:

    "Who went brain dead in the Virginia game in 1996? The offensive coordinator? Keldorf? Mack Brown?"

    Torbush mumbled something like we need to look to the future, not live in the past.

    I still want to know: Who went brain dead? Anybody know?
  7. Matt's avatar
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    #4 was my very first Tar Heel game as a child. Still had a blast even though I didn't really comprehend what was going on down on the turf. I've seen some of these, and I still love my alma mater. Go Heels!
  8. Warren Smith's avatar
    Warren Smith
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    I was at the game in Charlottesville in 1996. My father who was normally a respectful man almost got into it with a redneck Virginia fan that was way too wasted to even speak his own name. The man's friend made him sit down and shut up when I stood up and asked if there was a problem...all 6'3 and 225 pounds of me! I can still hear that same guy heckling Jeff Saturday on the sidelines. I will agree that this was the worst game in my memory.
  9. Brad Cummings's avatar
    Brad Cummings
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    How about 41-10 State at Kenan. Thankfully I was not there, decided to stay home and watch it on TV. The Roethisberger/Miami of Ohio loss, which I was in attendance, was painful at the was Miami of Ohio. The loss to Duke at Kenan a few years back stung pretty bad as they ran across the field and too the victory bell from our cheerleaders. I was at this one as well. One of my best friends was at the UVA game in 96, with a bag of oranges in tow, to celebrate our likely trip to the Orange Bowl...oops. Go Heels!
  10. Joseph Caddell's avatar
    Joseph Caddell
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    Our 23-0 loss at UVA on a Thursday night in 2006 might not crack the Top (or Bottom) Five, but it was a pretty awful game within a pretty awful season. My girlfriend and I sat in the rain, suffering the guffaws of a bunch of drunk UVA Philosophy grad students who cheerfully admitted that they knew nothing about football, but were enjoying themselves immensely. With three turnovers, only 11 first downs, zero points on the board and Coach Bunting being fired that Sunday, it was a nasty little 96-hour period for UNC football.
  11. Adam Lucas's avatar
    Adam Lucas
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    The Furman game is a great call. That was an utter Furman. Along those same lines, Miami of Ohio in the rain was ugly.

    I was in Maui with basketball for the 41-10 game. I will never forget that we got on the plane in California and the game was either tied or wry close. When we landed, everyone turned on their phones...and saw 41-10 and a bunch of angry texts from back home.

    Wasn't the 23-0 UVA loss the one where Garrett White was booted before the game even started? He was the luckiest of any of us.
  12. Tim Williams's avatar
    Tim Williams
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    I went to four of those five games and saw the State game on TV. Travelled to Charlottesville, and Louisville and that awful Navy game was my Junior Homecoming game. I guess that tells me to stay away from the stadium on game day. I'll catch the heels on tv. still love 'em though!
  13. Steve's avatar
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    I was at that Navy game (my junior year) and most of the others from the two 1-10 seasons. One of the other worst games I attended (until about mid 3rd quarter!) was the 59-7 loss to Maryland in 2002.

    On the UVa game, I am one of the few that doesn't blame the coaching staff for not just settling for a FG. That team had had more problems in the kicking game all year than Keldorf had interceptions to that point. So a FG was not a sure thing. Octavus Barnes messed up the route and that was a huge play. But where I do blame the coaching staff is after that play. We were still up a TD with the ball in the 4th quarter and had absolutely dominated the game. They should have been hammering that into all of the players' heads. But instead you could just see on TV how nervous the whole sideline got and they coached and played scared the rest of the way.

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