It’s huge that the Tar Heels are playing in their first ACC Championship in the decade since it was launched in 2005. Saturday night’s game in Charlotte looms even larger from a Lettermen’s perspective since it’s against Clemson, one of Carolina’s fiercest and most bitter rivals prior to ACC realignment in 2005.
Tar Heel Lettermen of the 1970s through the 1990s have plenty of memories of playing the orange-clad Tigers—some good, some not so good.
Carolina collected its last ACC football title 35 years ago when the Tar Heels posted an 11-1 mark and beat Clemson 24-19 in Death Valley en route to a 7-0 ACC record. The rivalry was never any fiercer than it was in the 1980s, when Clemson was challenging perennially for top national honors and the Tar Heels were nipping at their heels.
Clemson drove to the Carolina 10 yard-line and faced fourth down with 20 seconds to play, trailing by five points. Safety and captain Steve Streater read his teammates the riot act.
“These are our rings,” Streater screamed, looking every Tar Heel in the eye. “No one else is going to get them. Step up, strap it on. They are not going to get in the end zone. Do exactly what you are supposed to do and don’t try to do anyone else’s job.”
The Tar Heels were 7-1 overall and were coming off a 41-7 loss the week before at Oklahoma. They were ranked No. 14 in the nation and were 3-0 in the ACC. They had Virginia and Duke left on the schedule and had already beaten Maryland, the second-place team in the league standings. A win in Clemson essentially clinched the league title for the Tar Heels. There was no Florida State in the ACC, and Virginia was lily-white, slow and yet to get serious about the game of football.
“There were only 11 people in that stadium who thought you guys would keep them out of the end zone,” Greg Poole Sr. later told son his son, Greg Jr., a sophomore cornerback. “And those were the only ones who mattered.”
Homer Jordan took the snap, rolled out to the left, away from Lawrence Taylor, was hurried by a six-man Tar Heel rush and threw wide to receiver Jerry Gaillard in the left corner of the end zone. The Tar Heels ran the clock out and collected their fifth ACC title since the league’s inception in 1953.
“Lord, what a team,” Streater said in 2005. “I loved the fellas. That’s what I called them, ‘The fellas.’ When we stopped on the field, everyone was on the same page. We’d knock your mouthpiece out. I called it ‘cow-pasture football,’ just a bunch of guys out having fun.”
The Tar Heels also had fun against Clemson in 2001, the first year of head coach John Bunting, himself a Tar Heel Letterman from the late-1960s and early 1970s.
The Tar Heels brought a 3-4 record into Death Valley for a mid-October encounter. Carolina was loaded with talent—Julius Peppers, Ryan Sims, David Thornton, Quincy Monk, Merceda Perry, Ronald Curry and Bosley Allen, among others—but it took a while to jell under a new coaching administration. The Tar Heels hit their stride that day in Clemson, using a remarkable defensive play by Peppers early in the second quarter when he shed two blockers, batted a pass and intercepted it while falling to his knees to set up a touchdown and help the Tar Heels seize control of the game and roll to a 38-3 win.
Thornton, retired from the NFL by 2011 and on the Tar Heel administrative staff when the Tar Heels traveled to Clemson, told the team of that game all week.
“I told them about the feeling—what it’s like to come in, dominate and take the crowd out of a game,” he said.
“We were mad everyone was scheduling us for homecoming,” said Sims. “It all came together that day. I’ve never been around a collection of great players like we had that year.”
The Tar Heels certainly have an outstanding collection of players this year and will attempt to play the spoiler’s role and knock top-ranked Clemson out the CFP and perhaps open a slot for themselves.
“It we beat Clemson, the No. 1 ranked team nearly all season, then yes, I think we deserve a spot in the playoff,” Tar Heel coach Larry Fedora says. “But that doesn’t mean anything if we don’t win. That’s our goal now—win the ACC championship.”