After 2 nightmarish seasons, North Carolina sees blue skies


In yesterday's editions of The Sun,the University of North Carolina football team's record was reported incorrectly. The Tar Heel are 4-2-1.

The Sun regrets the errors.

Mack Brown can look at a mostly cloudy sky, find a tiny speck of Carolina blue in it and think that the sun is on its way. He can

win a total of two games in two years and see his team making progress. To say the University of North Carolina football coach is a supreme optimist is to understate things a bit.

"It's sort of funny now, but we'd come in the day after a bad loss, and he'd always have a positive outlook," recalled fifth-year senior think that we could be competitive with every team we'd play. I think it kept us going. I also think that it kept a lot of guys from leaving."

So you can just imagine what the level of Brown's enthusiasm is going into tomorrow's game against Maryland (5-3) in Chapel Hill. Though North Carolina (3-3-1) is not the perennial contender the Atlantic Coast Conference that it was in the early 1980s, it's not the league's doormat anymore.

There was no better indication of that than North Carolina's 13-13 tie last week with then-No. 11 Georgia Tech. If it wasn't the high point of Brown's tenure in Chapel Hill -- "I think it was coming back on the road to beat Wake Forest," said the 39-year-old coach -- it was certainly a way to measure how far the Tar Heels have come.

"We're still not a dominant football team, but we feel we can realistically compete every week," said Brown, who came from Tulane in December 1987 after longtime North Carolina coach Dick Crum was forced to resign. "We've seen constant progress each year. That's probably the only thing that kept me from going emotionally crazy."

That, and three of the best recruiting classes in the ACC. After starting 10 freshmen in each of the past two years, North Carolina finally has struck a balance between young players with all-conference potential, such as freshman tailback Natrone Means, and solid, experienced players such as Simakas. The Tar Heels start two freshmen.

The patience and support of the North Carolina fans have helped Brown. The same people who tend to sit on their hands during basketball season have been exceedingly forgiving to a team that won a total of one ACC game in Brown's first two seasons. Said Brown: "In some places, two straight 1-10 years will get you fired."

Brown has tried to keep in-state talent home -- something that Crum couldn't do, or wasn't interested in attempting. The first TTC spring after his arrival, Brown and members of his staff visited every high school in the state, trying to mend the fences damaged during Crum's 10-year reign. This year, 15 of the team's 20 freshmen are from North Carolina.

Though Brown doesn't like to acknowledge it, the transition period between coaching staffs was difficult on the players. Simakas estimates that of the two dozen players who came in with him five years ago, only four remain. After Brown's first season, the Tar Heels lost their top tailback, Kinnard Martin, for academic reasons, and kept losing games.

The low point, Brown said, was a 12-7 defeat to the Naval Academy last year in a rainstorm at Kenan Stadium. "We were the butt of a lot of jokes," said Brown. He and brother Watson, head coach at Vanderbilt, became known in some circles as "The Lose Brothers."

In his career as a head coach, Brown has had only one winning season (6-5 at Appalachian State in 1983) and one .500 record (6-6 at Tulane in 1987) and entered this season with a disastrous win-loss record of 19-48.

"Nobody likes to lose," said Brown. "You never get used to it."

Said Simakas: "It [the losing] was really the worst. It was kind o hard to explain. Coach Brown had a different philosophy than Coach Crum. He wanted different kinds of players. He wanted things that we didn't have. It's good that things turned around this year, because I don't know how much longer everyone was going to be able to take it."

There were signs that things were changing last month, when North Carolina whipped up on Division I-AA Connecticut, 48-13, then came from behind to beat Kentucky, 16-13, the next week. After losing on a last-second field goal to North Carolina State, the Tar Heels erased a 21-3 deficit and beat Wake Forest, 31-24. It was the first ACC road win for North Carolina under Brown.

"It gave the team the confidence and the understanding that we could win on the road," said Brown. "The Georgia Tech game showed that we can play with anybody."

At least anybody in the ACC. The next three weeks will show whether this year's respectable start is an aberration or an indication that North Carolina is ready to move back into the upper echelon in the conference. The Tar Heels, who haven't won the ACC championship since 1980, have the toughest part of their league schedule ahead of them, with games against Maryland, Clemson and Virginia.

"A lot of people are talking this year about our conference being the top conference in the country," said Brown. "The league has gotten such that the bottom has come up more than the top has come down."

And North Carolina is climbing, on the road from laughability to respectability.

Mack Brown's coaching record

1983 Appalachian State 6-5-0

1985 Tulane 1-10-0

1986 Tulane 4-7-0

1987 Tulane *6-6-0

1988 North Carolina 1-10-0

1989 North Carolina 1-10-0

1990 North Carolina 3-3-1

Total 22-51-1

* Lost in Independence Bowl

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