CHAPEL HILL — Kenan Stadium was dark in the wee hours of Sunday morning, the only light coming from the video boards flashing Mack Brown’s “Be the One” slogan over the field that had just witnessed something that will be referenced at tailgates for seasons to come.
Maybe it’ll be remembered as the moment it became clear the Tar Heels had something special on their way to a Coastal Division title or maybe it was just a big step in a rebuilding process. Perhaps it was the moment everyone knew Sam Howell was more than just pretty good for a freshman.
Whatever it was, it ended with the Bell Tower bathed in Carolina Blue light, peeking into the stadium from its northwest corner. It’s not bright enough to dominate the skyline, but brilliant enough to catch your eye.
“That’s just the coolest thing,” he said. “We tried to get it done when I was here before … our players have just loved it so much, and on a night like tonight, it’s a way to honor them.”
It’s something new, something Brown wanted for a long time around here. Maybe not everyone is onboard yet, but that’s fine; these things take time to catch on.
Sounds an awful lot like his team.
Twice in a row, the Tar Heels have been underdogs and twice in a row, they’ve found themselves down in the fourth quarter.
Twice in a row, a true freshman quarterback has saved his best for last in leading the offense on a game-winning drive and twice in a row, the defense has held up on its end of the field to close out a victory.
Even for the most optimistic of fans this season, a list of six wins Carolina could reasonably scrape together to make a bowl game this season wouldn’t have included both of these.
“I didn’t foresee it, but I know football is a crazy game and you look at some of those scores today and how does it happen? You look at last week’s scores, and about the time we think it can’t happen, it does,” Brown said. “I came back, Sally came back to try to be positive and try to help kids. They’re responding really, really well to that and it makes it fun for me. “
For weeks, players told anyone who’d listen that something special was happening in Chapel Hill.
Brown and his staff had brought a new feeling to the program, a new strength and conditioning program had them feeling better than ever and things were going to be different this time around.
The same things fans hear every August from every team that had things go poorly the season before.
Not only have the Tar Heels proven it with their actions, but they’ve gone out and turned their weaknesses into strengths, getting clutch plays in the fourth quarter to go with great quarterbacking and solid run defense.
“Just kind of the culture,” Jason Strowbridge said. “The way Mack treats us, it’s kind of different.”
Now, the culture that’s been building for eight months is finally on display for the college football world to see and the Tar Heels are quickly becoming a media darling, whether it be the old coach’s dance moves, the unshakable freshman or the veteran defense that’s tired of the reputation it built over the past two seasons.
“I think you start believing in each other,” Brown said. “You have to start acting right. You have to start going to class. You have to start doing every little thing right together. Then you start believing in each other.”
That was obvious well before kickoff on Saturday when the majority of a capacity crowd was in the stadium well before kickoff, waving towels to Petey Pablo and providing a home-field advantage that’s been lacking in recent seasons.
“It’s different,” senior Myles Dorn said. “We knew it was going to be different as soon as Mack came, he just changed the atmosphere around the building and we knew it would spread to the fans and around the stadium.”
“This atmosphere was the best I’ve ever seen here,” Brown said. “It was unbelievable tonight. I thought it disrupted some things Miami was trying to do.”
Two games into Brown’s second tenure at Carolina, the Tar Heels have equaled last season’s win total. Fourth-quarter comebacks, highlight catches and a Hall of Fame coach have given the program new life.
“I think we’re starting to turn some heads, but we really don’t’ care what other people think about us,” Howell said. “We know what kind of team we are; we’ve just got to work every day, put our heads down and grind.”
At long last, there’s a light on the horizon for Carolina football — and its closer to Kenan Stadium than anyone could have imagined this season.
Of course, as coaches do, Brown cautioned against getting too wrapped up in the moment.
"This is two nobody expected us to win, and now we’ll start having a little more conversation about, ‘We’ve got a chance to be decent,'" Brown said. "When you do that, I heard some, ‘Oh, Top 25’ in the dressing room. I said, ‘Don’t go there brother; you just barely won this game.’"