CHAPEL HILL — Traced to a single moment, the fortunes and the direction of the North Carolina baseball program changed within the span of a few seconds. It was June 10, 2006, when Chad Flack hit a two-run home run with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning of the second game of a Super Regional at Alabama.
Flacks home run gave the Tar Heels an 8-7 victory and sent them to Omaha, Neb., and the College World Series for the first time since 1989. Seven years later, the memory of that home run has endured. UNC coach Mike Fox pointed to that moment this week when asked to explain his programs transformation.
People still come up to Jones Angell and remind him of how he described Flacks home run on the radio. Now the play-by-play voice of the football and mens basketball teams, Angell then was the voice of the baseball team.
Seven years later, he said UNC fans talk to him most often about two of his calls: Giovani Bernards winning punt return against N.C. State last fall. And the ball Flack hit into the Alabama night.
It was wild, said Angell, who called UNC baseball games in 2004-12. The Florida Atlantic game a couple weeks ago was as dramatic a game as I can remember as far as what was on the line it being an elimination game and both teams making great plays.
But that Alabama game in the Super Regional was on par with it.
Its natural to identify Flacks home run as a dividing line for Foxs UNC program. Before that moment, the Tar Heels hadnt been to the College World Series under Fox.
Since that moment, UNC has played in the CWS five times. And now the Tar Heels are back again, for the sixth time in eight.
Flacks home run was the symbolic start of a run that has made the Tar Heels the most victorious team in the country over the past eight seasons. Since then, they also have won more NCAA tournament games than any other team.
People can spin it however they want, but if Flack doesnt hit that ball out of the park, and we lose that series at Alabama, who knows if we would have been in 07, 08 and 09? said UNC pitching coach Scott Forbes. I think just getting there made it feel like, hey everybody believes you can get there.
Fox believed, built
Flacks home run created a lasting highlight. The transformation of UNCs program, though, began long before that one swing.
Fox became the Tar Heels coach in 1999. After 15 seasons as the coach at N.C. Wesleyan, a Division III school in Rocky Mount, Foxs arrival in Chapel Hill represented a homecoming. He played for the Tar Heels in 1976-78 as a walk-on second baseman.
Fox helped lead the Tar Heels to the 1978 College World Series in Mike Roberts first season as coach. Fox made the all-tournament team, and Roberts gave him his first coaching job as a graduate assistant at UNC. College baseball staffs then werent what they are now. There was no hitting coach. No pitching coach.
In effect, Fox was second in command. If Roberts had to recruit, Fox ran practices.
You were lucky if you had a graduate assistant, said Scott Bradley, Princetons coach who played at UNC during the late 1970s and 80s before spending nine years in the major leagues. So even if he was a graduate assistant, coach Roberts had to lean on coach Fox quite a bit.
When UNC hired Fox to replace Roberts, Boshamer Stadium didnt look all that much different than when Fox played there. It was an older facility, and it showed its age.
In some ways, the baseball program had become worn, too. At the time of Foxs hiring, the Tar Heels most recent ACC regular-season championship had come in 1990. UNC went through four losing seasons in conference play during the 1990s, and its 29-31 finish in 1997 was its first losing season since 1975.
Before Fox arrived, he always believed UNC could develop into a national baseball power one just as strong as Louisiana State or Texas or any other. During his job interview, he expressed that, perhaps a bit naively at the time.
They would ask me questions, and I would ask them, Well, what is preventing this program from taking another step? Fox said. And then all you have to do is go through the (ACC) one time and you get a pretty good idea. Go to Florida State your first three (conference) games of your career now I know.
A lot of it was just belief, because none of the kids believed they were going to win when we got off the bus. And so Im like, OK, thats one thing weve got to try to change.
Miller, Bard brought change
On paper, the transition seems easy. The Tar Heels won at least 41 games in six of Foxs first seven seasons. There was a trip to a Super Regional in 2003.
Some of the victory totals from those seasons are deceptive, though. Just before his greatest breakthrough, Fox experienced perhaps the most difficult season of his career.
The Tar Heels finished 41-19-1 in 2005. When he thought about that season this week, though, Fox said he felt like he suffered through 41 defeats.
That was a difficult year, 05, he said. Ive gone on record to say that. That was probably the most difficult year of coaching because I had young guys on the field and older guys not playing. And that didnt go over very well with some of them. Theres a lot of stuff, I think, that just was not good in the locker room.
And those core freshmen basically said were not going to ever let that happen again. Were not going to let that happen again in our locker room, and it hasnt happened since. So I have to give credit to those group of kids.
Flack, a first baseman, was a part of that freshman class. So was Reid Fronk, a third baseman. Andrew Miller, who became the No. 6 overall pick in the 2006 Major League Baseball draft, was a sophomore along with Daniel Bard, another pitcher who became a first-round draft pick in 06.
Together, they formed the foundation of the first of Foxs teams to reach Omaha.
In Millers case, his college success also helped Fox recruit other players who were drafted highly out of high school. Before the Detroit Tigers selected him in 06, Tampa Bay took Miller in the third round out of Buchholz High in Gainesville, Fla.
He was able to convince Bard and Miller and a bunch of those guys to come to college, instead of signing after they were drafted, said Bradley, the Princeton coach and former UNC player. And then youre able to bring in the next group and convince guys that if you come with us, youll better your situation in three years.
Finally reaching Omaha
Before Flacks home run in 2006, Fox sometimes wondered if the Tar Heels would ever make it to Omaha. In addition to the loss in the 2003 Super Regional at South Carolina, UNCs season had ended six times in an NCAA regional.
Yet there was a sense the program was close.
You always felt like they were right there, but they were hitting that glass ceiling there a little bit and couldnt break through, Angell said. I really think the 2006 season was the turning point for the whole program. It was that moment that kind of changed the direction of the program from one that was trying to get there and seemed like had all the tools to all of a sudden the team that was able to do it on a consistent basis.
The 2006 run to Omaha helped lead to another one in 2007. The success led to improved recruiting, and better players led to more success. The Tar Heels in 06 and 07 lost against Oregon State in the championship series of the College World Series, but UNC returned to Omaha again in 2008, 2009 and 2011.
The sport has changed in the meantime. Rosters have shrunk. Money has increased, at the pro level, to lure draft picks away from college. Fox now has 11.7 seven scholarships to disperse across 27 players, and each must receive at least 25 percent of a scholarship.
Fox and his staff have excelled at roster management and player development. Colin Moran was the last player UNC offered a scholarship to in its 2010 recruiting class. Last week the Miami Marlins selected him sixth overall in the draft. Trent Thornton, a freshman pitcher, arrived on campus with an unorthodox delivery. Forbes left it alone for the most part, and Thornton became an All-ACC pitcher who is one of the most valuable on the team.
Moran, a junior, arrived two seasons after UNC rebuilt Boshamer Stadium. Everything was new.
The way we did it is the blueprint from the standpoint you win (and) you to Omaha with your older facility, said Forbes, the pitching coach. Then you get the upgrade.
When Fox came back to UNC in 1999, he never expected this.
I didnt lie in bed at night thinking of multiple trips to the World Series and $26 million stadiums, he said. I really didnt.
But those are things that now describe his program. Forbes was 23 when he arrived at UNC as a graduate assistant from N.C. Wesleyan. He followed Fox. Sometimes they talk about the past about what Boshamer Stadium looked like thenis now. It has been a long journey, and its not yet over. In their sixth trip to Omaha over the past eight years and in their 10th trip overall the Tar Heels still are seeking the most important victory of all.
Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter