Just as it did 35 years ago, North Carolina’s path to an ACC title runs through Clemson. In 1980, it took a last-gasp, goal-line stand to get the Tar Heels past the Tigers to what is still their last ACC football championship. Saturday, Clemson once again stands in North Carolina’s way.
For North Carolina’s last ACC champions, 35 years is too long. Their place in UNC and ACC football history is secure, thanks to a roster full of future NFL talent, not least of which was Lawrence Taylor, but they’re ready for a little company.
“I’m surprised, yes, but at the same time I’m really proud of this year’s team,” said Rick Donnalley, an all-ACC center in 1980. “You can’t do anything about what’s happened in the last 35 years so let’s give them some credit and be proud of them. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that we could win the football national championship and the basketball national championship. It’s just fun to think about. You could actually go to a dinner party and start making that argument.”
It was a different team in 1980, a different era of football, a different style of play. The Tar Heels had a powerful offensive line and talented running backs Amos Lawrence and Kelvin Bryant, both of whom ran for 1,000 yards that season. But the defense was equally powerful, led by Taylor and Donnell Thompson and Darrell Nicholson and the late Steve Streater (who was first-team all-ACC as a safety and a punter).
Taylor. Bryant. Lawrence. Some of the names on that 1980 roster remain among the most famous in North Carolina history.
“I have met guys along the way this year that were part of the team,” North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said. “Not by any means a lot of them, but there have been guys who said, ‘I was on that team.’ You know, it’s pretty cool to talk to somebody that was in that situation.”
The coach of that team was Dick Crum, who had come from Miami (Ohio), where he won three MAC championships, in 1977. Now retired to 10 acres in Ohio, where he watched current North Carolina backup quarterback Mitch Trubisky play at the high school Crum once coached, Crum has seen several North Carolina games on television and admires the explosiveness of this year’s Tar Heels, a very different offensive approach from his team’s ability to grind opponents down behind that big offensive line.
“This Carolina team is, because of the offense, more capable of a big play anywhere on the field than we were in 1980,” said Crum, 81. “Now, that ’80 team had Bryant and Lawrence, who could go the distance, but for this team almost every single play is a potential score.”
It’s hard to draw comparisons across eras, but one thing the two teams unquestionably share is senior leadership. While Fedora has repeatedly cited the leadership of seniors Shakeel Rashad, Jeff Schoettmer, Landon Turner and Marquise Williams this fall, especially in the wake of the season-opening loss to South Carolina, the 1980 team could rely on Donnalley and Thompson and guard Ron Wooten, all of whom would go on to long NFL careers and extremely successful post-football business careers.
The 1980 team also shared with this North Carolina team an uphill quest for national respect that only came grudgingly. Even though the Tar Heels had finished the previous season ranked No. 15 with a Gator Bowl win over Michigan and demolished their opponents through the first half of the season to run their record to 7-0, they were ranked No. 6 behind two SEC teams, UCLA, Notre Dame and Florida State (sound familiar?) when they traveled to Oklahoma to face the 16th-ranked Sooners.
“We talked about it quite a bit at the time, how we just got no respect nationally,” said Rod Elkins, the sophomore quarterback of the 1980 team. “Then again, we hadn’t really developed that respect, even though we had a pretty good year the year before and had a Heisman Trophy candidate in LT and some great, great players. Nonetheless, we didn’t get that national respect we thought we deserved and that was OK. The fact was, we expected to win every game.”
Any national-championship dreams went out the window in Norman, where Oklahoma handed the Tar Heels their first and only loss of the season, 41-7. For a team that had been winning by an average of more than 20 points, it was a shocking defeat.
“You’re going to have games like that,” Crum said. “They were very good and had good team speed. We also made some mistakes we didn’t customarily make.”
The ACC title still hung on the Clemson game a week later in Death Valley. Up 24-19 late, Clemson had two shots to win the game but Thompson pulled down quarterback Homer Bryant on third-and-goal from the 1-yard line and the defense forced an incomplete pass on fourth down to seal the win – and, two weeks later, the ACC championship.
That was North Carolina’s second ACC title in four years, and the path seemed clear for more.
“We were there. We were on the map,” Elkins said. “’Sport Magazine’ ran an article that was like a who’s in, who’s out in terms of college athletic programs. UCLA was out and UNC was in. We got the attention, finally, nationally, of everybody. Our team certainly at the time felt we had arrived. We were here to stay.”
But Clemson exacted revenge in Chapel Hill in 1981 in another battle of top-10 teams, the 5-1 Tar Heels finished second behind the 6-0 Tigers and the long wait began. By 1987, after failing to post a winning record in three out of four seasons, Crum was fired. The closest North Carolina has come to an ACC title since was 1997, when the 7-1 Tar Heels lost out to 8-0 Florida State.
“I’m just really, really surprised it’s taken the university so long to get things in order,” Thompson said. “We were used to winning. Out of my four years there we had one year we weren’t successful. Three out of four years, it was ‘How much are we going to win by today?’ We went to the clubhouse on Saturdays and took the field knowing we were going to win.”
Thirty-five years and counting. Even if going 8-0 in the ACC and winning a division title feels like a championship, it still isn’t. There’s still one more game to be won, against the Tar Heels’ toughest opponent yet. A generation later, that’s still Clemson.
Crum will be attending a Christmas performance by two of his grandsons in Tennessee on Saturday night, but a dozen or so of his former players from the 1980 team will gather before the game at a bar near Bank of America Stadium on Saturday, eager to cede their place in history.
“We can’t wait to no longer be the last team that’s won an ACC championship,” Wooten said. “I will be very happy. I will be in Charlotte. It’s been a little embarrassing, not to mention any names, but Duke and Wake Forest have won championships since we have.
“I’m the first guy to say, ‘Please, take us off that list!’ ”
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock