In September, my mom, dad, little brother, and I drove from Pennsylvania down to North Carolina for parents’ weekend at UNC, where my sister is a freshman. Everywhere I turned, I saw a sea of people dressed in Carolina blue.
That weekend, I watched as the football team lost to Appalachian State, but since then, UNC has come within one point of defeating top-ranked Clemson and has beaten Georgia Tech.
Now 3–3, Carolina has already topped its win total from a year ago in coach Mack Brown’s first year back with the Tar Heels. He was 69-46-1 from 1988 through ’97 while he was coaching at UNC.
Slogans like “Mack is Back!” and “Be the One” are all over campus. The weekend I was there, Brown spoke of his return, saying, “It’s great. My wife, Sally, and I are back doing what we’re supposed to be doing, and that’s mentoring kids. Plus, we love this place, so we’re excited to be back in Chapel Hill.”
I had seen Northwestern beat Pitt in the Pinstripe Bowl in 2016; this was my second college football game. The atmosphere in Chapel Hill was electric for a regular season game, and the Tar Heels were hoping to bring their record to 3–1.
As my family was walking on campus kickoff, I realized that all of the students were dressed from head to toe in UNC gear. The student section was sold out, and students who missed the small window to get tickets (about 30 minutes) waited in line for hours for a chance to grab a ticket on game day.
You could tell that the students were excited for the game because they were tailgating, throwing footballs, and some even had a bounce house! Even though you may think basketball is the most popular sport at Carolina, over 50,000 fans come out on game day (students, alumni, and fans) to watch their Tar Heels play football!
“I feel like it’s a lot more positive this year than last year,” sophomore running back Javonte Williams said. “I think the first three home games were sold out, so everybody is back together and ready for college football. I feel like the team is feeding off of that, and we just have to stay positive because we have a lot of games left.”
The game against Appalachian State was back and forth with stops, punts, and TDs. The Tar Heels scored first but trailed for the final three quarters. It was the first time the two teams had played since 1940, when UNC won 56–6.
In the fourth quarter, UNC tried to stay in the fight, as its defense was stifling the Mountaineers. Carolina scored a touchdown, making it 34–31. With only a few seconds left on the clock, the Tar Heels attempted a 56-yard field goal. It was blocked, and Appalachian State held on for the victory.
Though the players and coaches were disappointed with the outcome, they had played a close one. In the post-game press conferences, UNC players were pounded with questions, and they reacted in a very professional manner.
Brown said that his guys need to get “focused on the details,” as he put it. “Sometimes people call them the little things, but we believe the little things are really big things and are key in whether you win or lose. So we’ve spent a lot of time talking to our team about doing everything right, every day, and if we do that, we’ll give ourselves a chance to win each of our games.”
The players admire Brown (below) as a role model and coach. Junior linebacker Tomon Fox said, “He’s just an emotional guy—you can tell he’s bought in. He’s all for us; he wants us to be good—this is not about him. He didn’t come back for him, he came back for us. He wants to see us be great, so that makes us want to play harder.”
Said senior linebacker Dominique Ross (top) of how his classmates and the UNC family cheer for the football team both on and off the field, “We love the fans. They come and they bring it every game. Every home game, even away games. We hear about it in class, it’s just a great environment.”
Fox described their goals for the rest of the season: “Just being consistent; every game we have highs and lows and highs and lows. We can’t let that happen. If we want to be high, we have to be high the entire time. If we happen to be low, we gotta get it out quick and pick ourselves back up.”