Nearly One Year After Coaching Change, Carolina Seniors Have Weathered the Storm

Brant Wilkerson-New

CHAPEL HILL — The cold, steady rain arrived early and never slowed down until the fog rolled into Kenan Stadium early in the third quarter of the blowout victory.

It didn’t matter.

Whatever elements hit North Carolina on Saturday night weren’t going to dampen the celebration of a group of seniors who had weathered far more than any November storm during their time as Tar Heels.

So, there they stood before those few remaining fan as the rain tapered off, singing the alma mater one last time fueled by two years of struggles and the optimism they’ve helped inject in the program for now and the future after Carolina’s 56-7 victory over Mercer in its home finale.

“This is a great moment for them and I was a little emotional before the game because I always get emotional with the seniors,” Carolina coach Mack Brown said. “You get emotional because you’re excited for them on their last game and you’re losing them, so you’re kind of all over the place. This was a special night for me and our staff to see them not only win, but dominate the game and have so much fun on the sideline and in the dressing room doing it.”

Mercer (4-8), an FCS program, isn’t a good football team. That’s of little relevance to what happened on Saturday as the Tar Heels showed up and did exactly what they were supposed to do — a rarity in recent years — and scoring touchdowns on its first six drives before most starters didn’t play after halftime.

Sam Howell completed 10 of 13 pass attempts for 152 yards and three touchdowns, passing Mitch Trubisky to set a new Carolina (5-6) single-season record with 32 touchdowns while Michael Carter ran for 159 yards and three touchdowns on nine carries.

Didn’t matter who they were playing; Carolina’s biggest opponent was its own expectation.

“We’re still trying to build up who we are as a team,” linebacker Tomon Fox said. “ I think we made a lot of strides and out here was one of those steps we have to take; just play to standard and make sure we do all the little things right.”

The last image of seniors Antonio Williams and Jason Strowbridge celebrating was a stark contrast to 364 days ago, when the previous group of seniors wrapped up its time at Carolina with the 18 loss in its past 23 outings.

Effort wasn’t an issue that day — it rarely was, despite the losses. Instead, it was the fight that broke out after the Wolfpack’s game-winning score that embodied an undisciplined program that had lost its way under Larry Fedora.

The next day, Fedora was fired and on Nov. 27, 2018, Brown returned home to stir those old ghosts of the past and carry Carolina into the future for a second time.

He arrived to find the right group to help shepherd the Tar Heels into a new era and help a talented group of freshmen understand where the program has come from in order to get it where it needs to go.

“I think there’s been a complete change in the culture with this team,” senior Charlie Heck said. “Our record isn’t the best right now, but I think everybody can agree that this is a completely different team.”

A team that celebrated Jake Bargas’ first career touchdown pass like it had won a game. A team where Howell got mobbed by his teammates after setting a new school record. A team where Howell, after setting a record, said his best memory from the game will be watching freshman Vincent Amendola get into the game.

“They’re really good kids. I’m not sure I’ve seen them in a happier moment,” Brown said. “It was like beating Duke when Bargas got that touchdown pass.”

That culture has translated to the field, where Carolina finds itself playing meaningful football in November for the first time since 2016.

“That’s a big deal; that’s a really big deal,” senior Antonio Williams said. “You go from two wins to possibly seven wins? I think guys are taking advantage, we’re realizing that, and we really want to do that. Seniors want to go out that way and start a tradition of making that bowl game.”

Unlike past victory celebrations this season, there wasn’t a mad dash to the student section.

Instead, players got in an orderly line and locked arms to sing.

By now, the pouring rain that had kept so many away from Kenan on Saturday had turned to a light drizzle. A little fog remained, but as the seniors left the field for the last time on a gameday, it was clear that they had weathered the storm.

“This is really, really important to me because our first meeting with them was, ‘I want our seniors to walk out of here proud,’” Brown said. “This team hasn’t had a lot of fun over the last three years and that was sure a lot of fun tonight, to watch them enjoy themselves on the sideline.

“It’s what college football should be all about and there will be a lot of memories made tonight with these kids. They’ll be talking about it the rest of their lives.”