The heartbreaking thing about living in reality is that we only get one of them. Countless possibilities, endless ways the river of time can twist and turn, and we only get to see this one.
For instance, we could be living in a reality where Steve Spurrier takes the North Carolina job, not the South Carolina job.
According to an interview he did with The Athletic, we were just a mere field goal away from seeing the HBC in Carolina Blue.
It was Oct. 30, 2004, and the head Heel, John Bunting, was on his last legs. After going 8-5 in his first season, he went 3-9 in 2002 and 2-10 in 2003, and by the time Oct. 30 rolled around UNC was 3-4 heading into a home game with Miami, ranked No. 4 in the country at the time. In a back and forth game, North Carolina led 7-0, trailed 14-7, led 21-14, led again 28-21 and then held the ball in a 28-28 game with four seconds left and Connor Barth eyeing a 42-yard field goal.
The kick was good, but the long-term health of UNC football probably would have been better off it it sailed wide left. That win was enough for Bunting to keep his job for the remainder of the 2004 season — UNC would go 6-6 that year — plus two more, seasons in which the Tar Heels went a combined 8-17. Bunting was fired after the 2006 season with a 27-45 record.
According to Spurrier — out of football at the time after a 2-year run with the Washington Redskins — he was thisclose to taking that job had Bunting not survived the ’04 season.
“(It was) one of their big-money guys, and I don’t want to mention his name,” Spurrier told the site. “I said, ‘Sure I’d be interested.’ At the time, that job was probably more attractive than South Carolina, as far as facilities go. I knew a few people there and so forth from my time coaching at Duke, but I’m glad it didn’t work out.”
Spurrier was announced as South Carolina’s head coach on Nov. 23, 2004 and would go on to become the most successful head coach in Gamecocks history, winning a school record 86 games with nine bowl trips in 11 seasons. His 2009-11 seasons were the absolute high water mark in South Carolina history, posting back-to-back-to-back 11-win seasons, back-to-back-to-back top-10 finishes. They were No. 4 in both polls in 2013! Spurrier also led South Carolina to its first and only SEC East championship in 2010.
So, what if that kick is no good and Spurrier goes North instead of South?
It’s important to remember North Carolina lives in the ACC’s wide-open Coastal Division, opposite of Florida State and Clemson in the Atlantic.
Assuming North Caroling gets the exact same HBC that South Carolina got, we would have been treated to a decade of Spurrier v. Beamer clashes as Virginia Tech was at its peak at that time, winning five of the first seven Coastal titles from 2005-11.
That’s not to say Spurrier couldn’t have won his fair share of division championships during that time, though. Over an 8-year stretch from 2006-13, the Coastal champion was ranked No. 20 or lower entering the ACC Championship four times, and the division champ entered the title game ranked in the top-10 only three times during that stretch. And keep in mind the Coastal was the stronger of the ACC’s two divisions at that time; Jimbo Fisher’s Florida State dynasty did not truly get up and running until 2012, and Dabo Swinney didn’t really start eating the rest of the ACC whole until 2015.
What I’m saying is, Spurrier could have regularly returned to the state of Florida not as an opponent of the Gators, but as a participant in the Orange Bowl as the ACC champion.
You’d be talking about the glory days of a program that claims nine conference championship — the most recent: 1980 — and all of zero Orange Bowl appearances.
Oh, and one more thing: Among Spurrier’s record-setting 86 wins at South Carolina are three against North Carolina. The HBC lived to torment his rivals, and he led the Gamecocks to a perfect 3-0 mark in the Carolina Bowl.
Instead, here’s the reality North Carolina lived: Bunting held on through 2006 and North Carolina hired a different big name who built a dynasty in the Sunshine State and then left for a failed NFL run — Butch Davis. Davis built up North Carolina quickly, but just as soon his accomplishments were torn down due to NCAA sanctions, which resulted in his dismissal before the 2011 campaign. Everett Withers led the program as an interim for the ’11 season — the first of Spurrier’s three straight 11-win, top-10 seasons — and UNC hired Larry Fedora in 2012, who finally took North Carolina to its first ACC title game in 2015 but was fired after 2018.
(Meanwhile, who does South Carolina hire to replace Lou Holtz after the ’04 season? Louisville’s Bobby Petrino? Cincinnati’s Mark Dantonio?)
Now, with Spurrier a full three seasons removed coaching college football, North Carolina has finally hired its national championship head coach looking to write the final chapter to a Hall of Fame career in Mack Brown.
He’ll open the first season of his second stint in Chapel Hill next Saturday. North Carolina’s opponent for that game? South Carolina.