UNC fan experiences moment of Zen

by Keith Barber

I reached into my jeans pocket and removed the ticket I’d bought at the corner of Franklin and Columbia streets just 10 minutes earlier for half the face value. The young man dressed in his official University of North Carolina uniform held up his laser bar code scanner.

For a brief moment, I worried that the ticket might be a counterfeit, but then I heard the reassuring “ding” of the scanner. The young man smiled and said, “Enjoy the game.”

I entered Kenan Stadium near the start of the second quarter of UNC’s home opener against Georgia Tech last Saturday, and met up with my family. The intense midday heat had driven my mom and stepfather from their seats to seek shelter and shade on the second level concourse, where they could peer through the opening between the upper and lower decks to watch the game.

This was no way to experience a college football game, so I made my way to my seat as the first half was drawing to a close. I was met with the crush of people who were flocking to the restrooms — and the concession stands, mostly to buy bottled water. Swimming upstream, I finally found my section and seat. I was pleased to see one of the powder-blue cushions in my assigned seat. A few years ago, the university scattered the cushions throughout the stadium. I was one of the lucky ones. Sitting on those aluminum benches on a hot September day can be unbearable.

The Tar Heels took the field for the second-half kickoff and I raised my voice in support of my alma mater. The mood of the folks sitting near me appeared subdued. I was the only person in my row to stand and cheer as Casey Barth, Carolina’s kicker, booted the football toward the Georgia Tech end zone. I can understand Carolina fans being a little less than enthusiastic considering the well-publicized turmoil of the football program.

UNC head coach Butch Davis held 12 Tar Heel players out of Saturday’s contest due to two ongoing investigations. Since late July, the NCAA has been investigating contacts between sports agents and UNC players. Then it was revealed last month that the university was leading its own investigation into allegations of academic fraud involving a female tutor who mentored Davis’s son and several UNC football players.

UNC assistant coach John Blake resigned after the Tar Heels lost their season opener to LSU on Sept. 4. Blake has close ties to the sports agent at the center of the NCAA investigation. Since then, Davis has hired Charlie Coiner, a former assistant coach for the Buffalo Bills, and UNC senior tailback, Shaun Draughn has been cleared to play.

Like most UNC alumni and fans, I’ve been discouraged by all the bad news that’s been coming out of Chapel Hill lately. But it hasn’t affected my loyalty for my alma mater.

On UNC’s only scoring drive of the second half, I found myself standing and shouting at the top of my lungs. It came on a series that featured three amazing runs by senior tailback Johnny White. At the start of each run play, I could hear the “fans” around me start to grumble, “What are they doing?” Then, after White would break off a 20-yard dash, they would quickly change their tune. After White plunged into the end zone to give the Tar Heels a 24-17 lead, I shouted my support for the coaches and the players. It felt instinctual, but it was actually learned behavior.

I was raised an NC State fan, but underwent a rapid conversion once I arrived in Blue Heaven in the fall of 1985. Since then, I have seen the football team struggle mightily and soar to great heights. I witnessed Mack Brown’s first two seasons of 1-10 finishes. I was also present at the Miami game a few years back when the Tar Heels defeated a Top 5 team for the first time in school history.

Many critics are saying that UNC got into the great arms race of college football — raising millions of dollars to upgrade its football facilities in an effort to recruit the nation’s top athletes and by hiring Davis, who turned around the Miami program in the 1990s. That’s why UNC finds itself in its current predicament. I would have to agree. But let’s not forget that head coaches come and go, players come and go, but one thing remains constant: the mission of the nation’s first public university is not to win national titles in football but to prepare tomorrow’s leaders for success. Sometimes fans lose sight of what’s important.

The Tar Heels lost to Tech 30-24 despite a valiant effort by a group of talented, hardworking young men dressed in Carolina blue.

As I left Kenan Stadium with my family, we walked the same path I often took as an undergraduate back to my dorm after games. That’s when I felt that deep connection to my old school — an appreciation that endures for a lifetime — and suddenly, the outcome of Saturday’s game seemed incredibly insignificant.