FROM FORD FIELD TO FRANKLIN STREET, TO wherever else the members of Tar Heel Nation congregated on the night of Monday, April 6, in their own versions of Blue Heaven to revel in North Carolina's fifth NCAA championship, nothing could be finer than to see that Carolina was back on top of the college basketball world. The Tar Heels' title-game victory over Michigan State did more than just ensure that a new oversized banner would hang from the crowded rafters of the Dean E. Smith Center, however. It also brought with it confirmation that the program had reestablished the standard of excellence by which its true success has long been measured.
North Carolina's second national championship in five seasons, and the manner in which it was achieved, gave rise to a realization as pleasing to a Tar Heels fan as a stroll by the Old Well on a sun-splashed Chapel Hill afternoon: This is the golden age of Carolina basketball. Considering the gilded history of Tar Heels hoops, which next season will celebrate a centennial, such a statement might well be considered inaccurate at best and, given the reverence in which Dean Smith and his 36-year run are still rightly held among Tar Heels fans, blasphemous at worst.
Yet even the most aged wine-and-cheese fan with floor seats at the Dean Dome who can recall with fondness having watched McGuire's Miracle in the 1950s, the L&M Boys in the '60s, Ford Corners at its most thrilling (for Carolina) and maddening (for everyone else) in the '70s and the almost automatic collection of Sweet 16s and Final Fours in the '80s and '90s would have to concede that UNC has never had it this good. Over the past five seasons the Tar Heels have compiled a list of accomplishments that even its baby-blue predecessors never amassed: an absurd .858 winning percentage; four 30-win seasons, including 70 wins in the past two seasons alone; four No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament; four ACC regular-season crowns (including one shared with Virginia); two ACC tournament titles; three Final Fours; and, of course, two national championships. Factor in four AP All-Americas, two ACC players of the year, a national player of the year ( Tyler Hansbrough, 2008) and a national coach of the year ( Roy Williams, 2006), and it can be said with relative certainty that North Carolina basketball is once again the nation's premier program. It's enough to make a Tar Heels fan giddy, a Duke fan envious and an N.C. State fan downright furious.
Those achievements are more impressive simply because they seemed so unlikely just a few years ago. When I arrived at UNC in the fall of 1998, the Tar Heels had just completed a 34-4 Final Four season under Bill Guthridge, Smith's successor. It had been Carolina's 24th consecutive NCAA tournament appearance, 28th straight 20-win season and 34th top three ACC finish in a row. The only things more comforting than those numbers were our certainty that this success would continue forever and our conviction that North Carolina basketball had come to stand for everything that seemed to have been lost in sports: winning with class, respecting your opponents and playing by the rules.
But over the next six years, through the tenures of Guthridge and Matt Doherty and the first season under Roy Williams, the Tar Heels' mystique and much of the goodwill they'd built up began to erode. UNC went just 118-78 and failed to win either an outright ACC regular-season title or an ACC tournament and made just one Sweet 16 appearance (albeit a stunning Final Four trip in 2000). At some schools a record like that causes people to ask for autographs. In Chapel Hill, they asked questions. How had the program fallen so far, so fast? Would it—could it—ever rise to its previous heights again?
Far more troubling than the on-court performance was the manner in which those teams comported themselves. The mystical Carolina Way that had been as much a source of pride for the program's true believers as any of their various championships now seemed to mock them from the recent past, just another reminder that this was not your—or, literally, my (see page 80)—father's Tar Heels. Players fought with players. Players clashed with coaches. Coaches alienated alums. And all the while they were losing to the College of Charleston and Hampton University.
Roy Williams returned to Chapel Hill in the spring of 2003 charged not only with putting a winning team on the floor but also with refurbishing a program that had become almost unrecognizable. The 2005 title restored the program's championship pedigree but not its standing. In his first two years Williams admittedly spent much time impressing on his players that what mattered was the name on the front of the jersey, not the one on the back, while publicly defending those same players as good kids who were a true team and not just a collection of stars, as critics often labeled them.
Such admonitions and protestations were not necessary with the 2008-09 Tar Heels, even as Williams fielded a lineup likely to include at least five future NBA players (Hansbrough, Danny Green, point guard Ty Lawson, shooting guard Wayne Ellington and freshman forward Ed Davis). In fact, Lawson, the ACC player of the year, allowed that his biggest adjustment was to do as his coach asked by shooting more often.
That brand of unselfishness is an almost invisible manifestation of the restoration of the Carolina Way. There are more obvious signs, of course: Thanking the passer, a time-honored ritual for decades under Smith, had become all but extinct. Now, whenever a Tar Heel gives of himself for the betterment of the team, his teammates and coaches will dutifully rise and point—not because they are told to, or because it was done before, but just because that's the way it should be.
It is a gesture that Carolina fans everywhere no doubt feel like making themselves. This team, especially this senior class, headlined by the decidedly old-school Hansbrough, has been as humble and likable off the court as it has been dominating on it.