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April 19, 2009

Carolina soars above the crowd

These are truly remarkable times for Carolina athletics, which is quite a statement to make for an athletic program that has succeeded so well through the years on a regional and national level.

But not since the days of Mack Brown and Dean Smith have the football and basketball programs held so much promise simultaneously. The last year Brown and Smith were the head coaches, the Tar Heels went 11-1 in football and finished in the top 10 for the second straight season. They also played in the Final Four and won the ACC Tournament in basketball.

In football, they did it with the best defense in the history of the school, a fact that ensuing National Football League drafts and free agency helped to confirm. In a two-year period, Carolina put 14 people in the league off the UNC defense alone.

At the start of '97, only Notre Dame and Florida State (which were tied for first) had more alumni playing in the NFL than Carolina.

In basketball, Ed Cota, Vince Carter, Antawn Jamison, Shammond Williams and the rest of that group appeared in back-to-back Final Fours, with Bill Guthridge coaching the team in the second appearance.

UNC had to take a backseat to no program in America at that time for all-around excellence, particularly in the revenue sports.

One could argue today is even greater. Coach Roy Williams has won the national championship twice in five years with the men's basketball team, turned the roster over completely between the two titles. The Tar Heels also won two ACC Tournaments, three first-place finishes in the regular season, a second-place finish with mostly freshmen on the team, defeated Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium four consecutive years, went to the round of eight in the NCAA Tournament three straight times and now has the top recruiting class in the country scheduled to enroll.

Football has the deepest, most talented roster since the days of Brown, and now one can add baseball to the list. Coach Mike Fox has led a team filled with many different players to three straight College World Series, and there is a great chance the Tar Heels could return this season.

First let's look at basketball:

Williams returns a possible All-American in Ed Davis, who shared the most improved player award with Wayne Ellington at this week's annual banquet. Davis grew by light years from October to April.

Deon Thompson will be a senior, and he is coming off an impressive performance in the national championship game. Tyler Zeller is a gifted young man who is going to be a big-time player if he does not suffer the misfortune of another serious injury. He broke his wrist against Kentucky on Nov. 18 and could not return until late in the season.

But the experience he gained by coming back and playing in the NCAA Tournament with the most dominant team in America and performing on the biggest stage in the game should only help him fast-forward his development for next season. The young man is quite gifted and stands around 7 feet tall, yet he won a three-point shooting contest at an all-star game his senior year of high school.

Point guard Larry Drew unfortunately seems to have more doubters than supporters, but I would bet money I don't have (Lee Trevino always said that is real gambling) that Drew will be vastly improved and is going to do an excellent job. Williams knows what he is doing when he signs players.

Then there is Marcus Ginyard. Most people felt heartsick for Ginyard when he had to redshirt and was unable to help his team win the national championship, but the program will benefit enormously from Ginyard's sitting out as a redshirt after his foot surgery from October did not heal well enough for him to play.

Ginyard is a quality young man, an outstanding basketball player and should be the prefect role model for all the young players on the roster.

Now for football:

First of all, there is Davis. As Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said earlier this week, Carolina could not have hired a better coach than Davis.

Davis reminds me of the great basketball coaches I'm accustomed to covering in the Triangle, men such as Smith, Williams and Mike Krzyzewski.

There is no detail too small for Davis, and he understands what it takes to build a national champion.

Davis took a program with severe restrictions because his predecessor cheated and had the program put on probation at Miami in the 1990s. Davis resurrected the program, eventually had more than 20 of his recruits go in the first round of the NFL draft and many others in later rounds. His final team lost one game, crushed a Steve Spurrier-coached Florida team in the Sugar Bowl and then won the national championship in 2001 for Larry Coker after Davis left for the NFL. Those same Hurricanes played for the title in 2002, and only a horrendous call by a poor official robbed Miami of consecutive titles with players mostly recruited by Davis.

Since taking the job at Carolina in November of 2006, Davis has added considerable talent to the roster. Plus, he has earned respect on and off the field and empowered this group of young men to work harder than they knew they could, and one can only believe eventually they will achieve the greatness that so many Carolina fans have longed to see in football.

There is no reason the defense for this fall's team should not be the best since the 1997 group. It should match that group favorably with its team speed. From the reports we have received at CarolinaBlue.com, outside linebacker Zach Brown is the fastest player on the team and the other two starters at linebacker, Quan Sturdivant and Bruce Carter both can run a 4.5-second 40-yard dash, or faster.

Deunta Williams is a playmaker at safety, while Da'Norris Searcy has all the tools (excellent speed included) to be the perfect running mate for Williams at the other safety position.

The defensive line is two deep at every position with possible future professionals. This is no longer an inexperienced group, either. These kids know the scheme and what is expected of them.

One factor that does not always get addressed but it vitally important is that Davis and his staff lift these players' morale and motivate them every day. The kids do not perform in fear of making mistakes and being cursed or yelled at for an error. The kids say Davis instruct them to go as fast as one can and correct the mistakes during the film sessions.

As with Smith and Williams in basketball, this means these kids respect and will follow their head coach and position coaches eagerly.

In baseball, right-handed junior pitcher Alex White pitched brilliantly to start the weekend off by throwing a complete-game, one-hitter in a 3-0 UNC victory against Miami. Carolina then proceeded to win the next two games to sweep the Hurricanes. Perhaps the most important development of the weekend is sophomore right-hander Matt Harvey regained his touch after struggling to throw strikes for a couple of weeks. He pitched seven innings, struck out five and allowed just one run in a 4-1 UNC victory on Sunday to conclude the series.

Nothing in life ever stays the same forever. UCLA fans probably thought they would rule college basketball forever when John Wooden won 10 NCAA championships in 12 years. The school has won one since then.

The school with the most titles since Wooden retired in 1975 is North Carolina with four, and for now at least, all of Carolina fans should enjoy the moment every day while it lasts. Williams, Davis and Fox are the key to what is happening, not any facility, not bricks or mortar, even though there is nothing wrong with having nice facilities.

Bryson Field at Boshamer Stadium, the refurbished baseball park, is spectacular. The school has every right to be proud of it. Kenan Stadium is getting a facelift, and the Smith Center will continue to get adjustments.

But what every fan should appreciate are the three men who run these programs, recruit these players and coach them in such a way that earns their loyalty, dedication and willingness to make UNC a leader in graduation rates and academic progress as well winning on the courts and the fields.


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