Tar Heels' home schedule lacks verve

Staff WriterJuly 31, 2011 

Many North Carolina fans are angry that the school has fired Butch Davis as head football coach.

Another group of fans is pleased with the decision, but the range of emotions and reactions within the UNC fan base goes beyond the pro- and anti-Davis factions.

Some fans are embarrassed. Some are exasperated. Some are disillusioned.

And some others are just plain weary as the result of a grinding year-long ordeal that's still far from reaching a conclusion.

The NCAA investigation may not end for another two or three more months. A replacement for athletic director Dick Baddour has to be located, hired and installed.

It's inevitable that interim head coach Everett Withers will bond enough with the players that there will be substantial disappointment, and possibly defections unless he gets the job on a permanent basis.

Against that complicated backdrop, the Tar Heels will open their season on Sept. 3 in a Kenan Stadium that many of those same fans won't even recognize - the upshot of an epic $75 million expansion that turned the once-cozy South end zone area into a high-rise luxury complex for the richest fans.

What's more, the opponent for the grand opening of the Blue Zone will not be an ACC foe. It won't be ECU or LSU or Syracuse, either. It will be James Madison, an excellent program in the Football Championship Subdivision, which is still more frequently referred to as Division I-AA by most fans.

It's not a stretch to think this opener will be the most awkward and most subdued in decades for a school that has been playing football since 1888.

Although James Madison pulled a shocking early-season win at Virginia Tech just a year ago, the Tar Heels should win the game.

But is that enough to elevate enthusiasm in the stands? For that matter, will there be a lot of fans there at all? And that's assuming the current heat wave can't last forever.

Will there be any real energy in view of the chance that fans, coaches and players are more uncomfortable than hyped?

Something to consider is that while it largely got overlooked in the ongoing NCAA developments, UNC completely changed its season-ticket seating policies during the offseason.

Many longtime donors and ticket customers had to surrender their seats and were relocated to less attractive areas of the stadium.

The new policy was a way to raise more money. There wasn't a huge public outcry, but some fans were offended when it's widely known that better seats can be scored for a lot less money by simply approaching ticket scalpers outside Kenan's gates.

Will that new seating configuration take an interest toll?

Those are questions that can't be answered until game day but will have some impact on the rest of the season.

Long term, UNC's football program should be no worse than before.

Davis, in four seasons, brought in a lot of top-fight talent, but his record in the ACC was 15-17, including 0-4 against N.C. State.

Had Davis been allowed to return, there's no reason to believe the team suddenly would have turned into a national power. In the preseason media poll, UNC was picked for third place in the Coastal Division. Were another vote taken today, there's a good chance the team would be picked for the same finish.

The way the schedule worked out, Withers will have an excellent opportunity to start 3-0 against probable underdogs JMU, Rutgers and Virginia.

But overall, the home games aren't likely to be can't-miss fare. In addition to the first three, Louisville, Miami, Wake Forest and Duke will visit.

The road games - ECU, N.C. State, Georgia Tech, Clemson and Virginia Tech - are far more apt to dominate the interest of Tar Heels fans. Players, too.

UNC officials once envisioned the opening of the 2011 season as a landmark celebration of football growth, popularity and ascent in national visibility.

Instead, these first few games in redesigned Kenan Stadium could pan out to a multimillion dollar sports psychology study.

caulton.tudor@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8946

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