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Unc Again Taking Aim At Elusive Basketball-football Combination

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

By Dan Wiederer
Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer

September 11, 2007

Strange as it sounds, the revival of the North Carolina football program may have received its biggest injection of energy last December at a Metropolitan Police Department awards banquet in Washington, D.C.

Inside DAR Constitution Hall that night detective Todd Amis, also the top assistant coach at Ballou High School, accepted a medal of achievement. On hand to support him: Ballou superstar Marvin Austin. On hand to introduce himself to Austin: new UNC football coach Butch Davis.

The first interaction proved brief but momentous. Firm handshake. Sincere conversation. One grand sales pitch from an eager and proven coach to a five-star, 300-pound defensive tackle who previously had as much interest in Carolina football as he had in skipping dinner.

Come to Chapel Hill, Davis implored, and we can build a national power. Austin listened to the fantastic proposition and envisioned his future. Inspired Saturday victories. BCS bowl trips. A paved path to the NFL.

They were the same promises delivered by the coaches at Southern California, Florida State and Tennessee, the schools at the top of Austin's wish list and programs with more substance with which to back those claims.

Yet, somehow, Davis' ambition and energy won out.

"I was sold, man," Austin said. "Coach Davis wanted to bring world-class football to North Carolina, and I wanted to be a part of that. The way he expressed himself convinced me it was going to happen. Without any doubts. I knew he was an articulate guy who could rally the troops. But I didn't know he could do it like that."

Added Amis: "Marvin has a personality and leadership qualities where he wants to be the architect of something big rather than joining something that's already built."

Thanks to that initial meeting, and further breakthrough recruiting efforts by defensive line coach John Blake, Austin officially united with the Tar Heels on signing day in February, an improbable development that signified the genesis of something big for Carolina football.

A year ago, neither Davis nor Austin meant anything to UNC. The former was an out-of-work coach serving as an analyst for the NFL Network. The latter was a highly sought after lineman likely headed to a campus where football ruled.

Now Austin and Davis are vowing to do the unthinkable at UNC: daring to make football relevant on a campus where basketball is and always will be king.

Arguably, it's never been done before. Not at Kentucky. Not at Kansas. Not at Indiana or Duke.

"I know this is a basketball school," Austin said. "But why can't Carolina be a football school, too?"

Achieving high-level success in both football and basketball is far from unprecedented. Last year both Florida and Ohio State played for national titles in both sports. But those universities are renowned football schools that made quick ascents on the hardwood.

At Carolina, Davis is attempting to take the reverse path, a road on which the obstacles are greater and far more imposing. For starters, piecing together a championship-level, 22-man starting lineup on the gridiron is inherently more complicated than establishing a five-man unit on the hardcourt.

At Ohio State last winter, the basketball program parlayed one stellar recruiting class – an eye-popping 2006 score that included McDonald's All-Americans Greg Oden, Mike Conley and Daequan Cook – into a Final Four berth during their first (and only) year on campus.

But football programs typically require two, three, even four landmark recruiting hauls to make even half that noise. In other words, no matter how fast and how strong Austin is, no matter how certain it is that he one day will be a first-round NFL draft pick, players of his ilk are unlikely to have the same impact in college football as Oden had in basketball.

"Clearly, there are no shortcuts," Davis said. "There is no switch you can flip on and say, ‘In the next 12 months, we're absolutely going to go from who we were to where we'd like to be.'"

Yet even with the odds stacked against him, Davis wasted no time raising the bar in Chapel Hill. In his very first meeting with his new players on campus last winter, he scrawled one giant goal at the top of the program's checklist:

National championship.

Never mind that the Tar Heels were a team that lost nine times in 2006, finished 112th in the nation in turnover margin and barely beat Division I-AA Furman. Davis wanted his grand objectives known.

"Why? Because it's part of the vision," Davis said. "You want to talk about goals. You need to talk about winning. It gives the players an aiming point. This is what we want to achieve and aspire to."

Such magnificent dreams are only bolstered by Davis' résumé, a track record that includes trips to two Super Bowls as an assistant with the Dallas Cowboys and his incredible work assembling a Miami roster that won its final 10 games under Davis in 2000, then proceeded to go undefeated and win the national title the next year under Larry Coker.

In six seasons with the Hurricanes, Davis coached or recruited 28 players who became first-round NFL picks. That reality has resonated with the Carolina players, who have found their new coach's aspirations inspiring and believable.

"Big-time football programs set a standard," linebacker Chase Rice said. "And they accept nothing below that standard. That's what we here at Carolina have to work up to, and that's what Coach Davis is all about – raising our standards."

That's where it starts – the standards.

UNC wide receivers coach Charlie Williams was an assistant at Miami from 1993-95. He has sampled life at a renowned football school and knows how contagious success can be. Past generations want their winning ways to live on. Current players don't want to break the tradition.

During his days in Coral Gables, Williams watched as former Miami stars such as Michael Irvin, Jessie Armstead, Michael Barrow, Horace Copeland and Lamar Thomas made regular returns to campus to work out and to preach the mantra of UM football: Winning is expected, and nothing less will be tolerated.

"That tradition is what starts everything," Williams said. "That's what gets it brewing."

Furthermore, the Hurricanes' long track record of turning out NFL draft picks immediately upped the intensity at practice. Every single day.

"Those kids know that if they work their ass off while they're there, then that's their next step," Williams said.

But that was Miami. UNC football plays on a different stage, with a different set of standards. Few celebrated basketball schools ever have produced significant national football success, even for a brief period of time.

Why? For starters, few have ever had the gall to try.

At most large universities, the athletic administration typically keeps a close pulse on the desires of its fan base and dedicates its efforts and resources accordingly. At places such as Kentucky or Kansas or Indiana, for example, football mediocrity can be tolerated as long as the basketball team provides five months of winter exhilaration.

That may help explain how John Bunting, with just one winning season and an overall winning percentage of .375, was able to last six years at UNC.

It's not so much a lack of resources that impedes football success. It's a lack of tradition and the subsequent pressure that comes with that.

Most universities have bigger budgets and grander goals for one sport over all the others. Because of those dynamics, it's far easier to revisit places a program already has been than it is to take it to unprecedented heights.

The challenge for Davis lies in guiding the hungry Tar Heels from point A (four losing seasons since 2002) to point BCS (college football's national championship game). He must do so on a campus where basketball rules and Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams always will attract more of the spotlight.

"Just walk down Franklin Street," Rice said, "and look at all the Carolina basketball shirts. This is a basketball school, and everyone knows it."

Davis understands that history, knows the glamour of Carolina basketball, yet seems unburdened by it.

"I don't really monitor the spotlight, to be honest with you," Davis said.

ESPN analyst Bob Davie believes that is the proper approach: to acknowledge the prestige of UNC hoops while not being intimidated by it.

"Carolina basketball is not on Carolina football's schedule," he said.

Davie also believes that UNC's basketball success actually can help alleviate some pressure off Davis while providing an important recruiting advantage. Carolina basketball gives the university an identity and a forum to show football prospects the excitement that athletics can generate on campus.

Now it's up to Davis to find his niche in that world, with his ego tucked away in the back of a locker somewhere.

"A lot of this comes down to personality and the realistic nature of a coach," Davie said. "Simply put, you're not very smart if you're trying to win a battle for attention and popularity with Roy Williams."

Along the same lines, Davie thinks it would be foolish for Davis to try to make football the No. 1 priority on campus.

"You can't change the landscape of an entire university," he said. "If you're making a concerted effort to convert Carolina basketball fans, you're fighting a losing battle. The two programs can co-exist successfully. You just have to be realistic about how they co-exist."

Davis believes his Tar Heels one day can join the party of success most often hosted by the Carolina basketball program. And his conviction is not without support. In Mack Brown's final six seasons at UNC, the Tar Heels averaged nine wins and won four bowl games.

Yet in December 1997, during an 11-win season that finished with a 42-3 Gator Bowl stomping of Virginia Tech and a No. 6 final ranking, Brown bolted for Texas, lured by the promise of more money, more spotlight and a fan base that was far more passionate about football.

Since Brown's departure, the Tar Heels have averaged just 4.8 wins per season and won just two bowl games.

Football has slid down the priority list and likely will never generate the fervent following seen at the Dean E. Smith Center every winter.

"We could live to be 110, and we'll never see the day where UNC football consistently captures the hearts and minds of Tar Heel fans to the same degree as UNC basketball," said ACC Sports Journal editor David Glenn, who's been covering the ACC for more than 20 years. "You know that. I know that. And Butch Davis better be smart enough to know that."

North Carolina's inconsistent history won't be doing Davis any favors. The Heels' last ACC football title came in 1980. The only school in the league with a longer championship drought is N.C. State.

What's more, the ACC, long celebrated as a basketball power, has seen very few of its members work out the formula for succeeding in both sports.

Since 1987, basketball giants UNC and Duke have just six bowl wins between them. Meanwhile, football powerhouses Florida State, Virginia Tech and Miami have combined for only 12 NCAA Tournament wins in the same span. Maryland managed an extremely rare feat in 2000-01, when it enjoyed trips to the Final Four and a BCS game in the same academic year.

Still, Brown believes Davis can achieve high levels of success in Chapel Hill, perhaps even surpassing his own UNC glory days of the late 1990s. The dynamics of college athletics, Brown said, have evolved to where big universities can compete in both football and basketball.

"Places that have had dominating basketball programs are having better football opportunities now," Brown said. "Because the money is there."

In Davis' case, the track record also helps.

"Butch is a tremendous coach," Brown said. "He started at Miami when things were struggling and turned them into what ended up being a team that won a national championship. He's had the NFL experience (with the Browns). He's had a year or so off to get his energy back, and he's excited about heading in the right direction. I think he'll do a good job at Carolina."

If Davis is looking for a blueprint, he might turn to Florida, where the Gators' basketball program already has accomplished what UNC football is aiming to do.

When Billy Donovan was hired in 1996, he assumed the controls of a program that had averaged a modest 19 wins over its previous 10 seasons, on a campus where UF football and coach Steve Spurrier always monopolized center stage. Sound familiar?

Most experts believed that Donovan could turn Florida into a consistent winner, but few if any would have imagined the Gators as a mini-dynasty.

Is Florida now a basketball school? Probably not. But the Gators are owners of consecutive national championships, joining UCLA and Duke as the only basketball programs in the last 40 years to accomplish that feat.

Like Davis, Donovan dared to challenge convention. He used his charisma to woo some of the country's top talent to Gainesville, then used his savvy to shape them into a championship team.

Donovan broke the mold. He convinced the Marvin Austins of the basketball recruiting world to believe they could climb the highest mountains at Florida. Over the last two years, Florida has an overall record of 68-11, with 18 consecutive postseason wins and two national titles.

"The people at Carolina should point to that," Glenn said. "A whole lot of recruits were inspired by Billy Donovan's vision. And we're already seeing that a whole lot of prominent high school football prospects are inspired by Butch Davis' vision for UNC football.

"Both those guys are ‘Let's blow the lid off this thing and see what we can do' kind of guys. And that translates extremely well to the 17- and 18-year-olds of the world."

Davis' philosophy is straightforward: Dare to dream big, but remember to execute small.

Said Williams: "You can talk all you want about going undefeated and reaching big bowl games. But the first thing you have to do is win that first game. And after you win that first one, you win the second one."

But the complex formula to winning consistently requires top-notch recruiting, enhancing facilities to keep up with the competition, and having enough money in the kitty to pay for it all.

Carolina has made significant strides in those areas. Davis' first recruiting haul, headlined by Austin, was ranked 14th in the country by Scout.com. Davis insists that major renovations, which may include adding more luxury boxes and bowling in the east end zone of Kenan Stadium, are in the works. Perhaps most importantly, UNC athletic director Dick Baddour has cracked into his safe and promised to keep it open to pay the football staff top dollar.

The culture of college athletics today seems to be evolving, with some of the country's biggest athletic programs now striving to compete at the highest levels in football and basketball, then investing to make it happen.

It is not mere coincidence that Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel and basketball coach Thad Matta will combine to make approximately $4.6 million in 2007-08. At Texas, Mack Brown ($2.5 million) and Rick Barnes ($2 million) will enjoy similar paydays.

Meanwhile, Florida has taken things to another stratosphere. Eye-popping raises given to Donovan and football coach Urban Meyer after their respective national championships last year put the two head coaches in line to make a combined $6.75 million this year.

Translation: Winning big in both sports may require spending big in both sports, a financial undertaking few schools are willing to accept.

At Carolina, however, Baddour seems ready to take that leap of faith and crack open the safe. In November, he signed Davis to a seven-year contract that will pay the new coach an annual average of more than $1.8 million, adding to the estimated $2.6 million Roy Williams will take in.

At the very least, Carolina seems to be making a concentrated financial effort to resuscitate football.

"Programs that are trying harder don't just think big," Glenn said. "Programs that are trying harder spend more money. Programs that are trying harder ask themselves, ‘Who is the absolute best person on earth for this program who's available and excited about coming?' Programs that are trying harder don't settle for the NFL assistant who's available and the best guy on the family tree, which is essentially what John Bunting was.'"

With Davis trumpeting the vision and his players committed to following, the excitement is now simmering in Chapel Hill. But the reality, even after a dominant season-opening blowout of Division I-AA James Madison, is that Year One of the Butch Davis era will have its bumps.

Carolina was picked by the media to finish fifth in the Coastal Division of the ACC this season. Sports Illustrated and the ACC Sports Journal both projected a 3-9 record. CBS Sportsline slated the Tar Heels as the 74th-best team out of 119 in Division I-A.

Placing those numbers beside Davis' national championship wishes seems laughable to many outsiders. For now.

"People forget," Glenn said. "But not long ago people around the country were holding their bellies laughing at the idea of UNC football being able to attract Butch Davis for its head coaching job. That was the mentality."

The Heels climbed that hill. Now, with skeptics holding their bellies again, this time laughing at the idea of UNC football as a consistent national power, a much larger mountain looms.

At the very least, UNC football now has a determined coach promising to revive the hype on campus while paving the program's path into the Top 25. And Davis is working with players who believe with certainty that a renaissance will happen.

"Coach Davis is changing the attitude around here," wide receiver Brooks Foster said. "It's all about having hope and realizing it's OK to dream big."

Added Davis, the mastermind of this plan: "We need to create an atmosphere where there's no fear of failure. When you're afraid to fail, you're also afraid to find out how good you can actually be."

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