Do you remember 8-20? Most Carolina fans I know are dying to forget. Most Heel haters are dying to keep it alive. Tar Heel fans always get slapped around for being “history” majors, quick to reel off the legendary accolades that made Carolina the team ACC fans loved to hate. We touted the 20 + win seasons, the 14 ACC Championships, the 27 consecutive trips to the NCAA’s, and the legendary pros.
But do you remember 8-20?
I do. I’ll never forget it because it was the one season I watched every second of every game. That was the season when Carolina fans regretted those sweet TV deals that showed every Carolina game, no matter the opponent. Those tough moments sent some scurrying, wishing that JP Sports would cut away to a “show already in progress.” A blistering at UCONN. A crushing at the hands of Kentucky. Giddy Wolfpackers taking over the Smith Center. The beating by the Terps. The shock of Hampton. For many, it was a dream come true, the King with no clothes! Carolina was getting their just deserts.
I watched every second of every game, looking for a glimpse, hoping against all hope that the spirit was there, that the pride would show through. The pride did show through, and it was a hurt pride. So, I kept watching…..like I was the loyal side kick to the bully who had finally picked a fight that we couldn’t win. For me, that 8-20 season was an exercise in humility and painful reality: we didn’t have the horses to run for the coach we had. The players played their best and the coaches coached as best they could. The game was up, the hand had been called. We were all in on a bluff powered by history, the AP poll, and blind expectation. We were at the table with the Matador, and he had the kings.
I watched every second ………and knew we wouldn’t be down forever. As funny as it may sound, 19-16 and the NIT birth was harder for me as a fan then 8-20 was. I actually remember thinking “If we win it, would I want that banner in the rafters of the Smith Center….how embarrassing.” Yes, how embarrassing….after 8-20, I didn’t want an NIT banner!
Funny how I thought we were good enough to win the NIT. Pathetic actually, for as much as 8-20 did teach me, if had failed to impart one simple lesson: Carolina would never be “Carolina” again. Once Mike Tyson got knocked out, the world didn’t quake around him. Once Roy Jones got dropped, boxers said “hey, he’s not that fast. 8-20 had taught me much, but it hadn’t convinced me that Wyoming would play us tough, and that Georgetown would not wilt under the blue dome of the Smith Center.
That era is dead and a new one is upon us. In thinking about 8-20 today and what this new beginning means, one game popped into my mind: he Duke game in the ACC Tournament. Man, we brought back the Four Corners, my frat brother Jason Capel was running the point, and we were playing Duke tough. Another miracle story in the Carolina history books. The thought crossed my mind: “we can win the tournament and still get to the NCAA’s….we can still be Carolina.” I didn’t want it to end that way. I didn’t want Duke to be the final nail in the coffin of my childhood and adolescent heroes. In the end, they were. The four corners couldn’t save us. Dean Smith, Sam Perkins, Billy Cunningham, Phil Ford, Brad Daugherty, and James Worthy weren’t going to run out of that locker room. All we had was pride and a knowledge that we would get through it and beyond it. All we could do was look forward, and never forget.
I made myself a promise and I challenge you to do the same: As we look at the new Carolina, accept them for what they are. They are not backed with the immediate tradition of championship success. They are not bolstered with the swagger of recent NBA stars who were just on their team last season. Even though the last ACC Championship team was just 4 years ago, none of these players own that ring. They own 8-20. They own 19-16. They own the NIT. Hopefully, they learned what I hadn’t at that time. We own what they own.