by Rick Brewer, Sports Information Director Emeritus
CHAPEL HILL - There could not be a more appropriate opponent for Homecoming this week than Virginia.
Carolina has a substantial number of alumni in Virginia and to many of them, the games with the Cavaliers are bigger than the Tar Heels' series with Duke, N.C. State, Wake Forest or anyone else.
There is a special group of those alumni to whom the game has even greater meaning-a large number of former players who are Virginia natives.
That state has long been a key recruiting area for Tar Heel coaches. Some of the greatest players in school history came to Chapel Hill from there.
Eight members of the current Carolina team are from Virginia. That includes five starters offensive guard Landon Turner, center Russell Bodine, linebacker Travis Hughes, cornerback Tim Scott and now injured quarterback Bryn Renner.
The total of eight Virginians on the roster is not what it once was. That's something Larry Fedora hopes to change as he builds his program. His staff has needed a time to establish recruiting ties in the state. But, that should be paying off soon.
Carolina has had great success throughout Virginia in the past, particularly places like the Norfolk-Virginia Beach-Hampton area, the northern part of the state and Richmond. But while there has been emphasis on those areas, UNC coaching staffs have ventured throughout the state to find players.
While Carolina teams had featured prominent players from Virginia in the past, that total increased dramatically when Bill Dooley became the Tar Heel coach prior to the 1967 season.
"When I got here I looked back at the last great Carolina team, the 1963 Gator Bowl squad," said Dooley. "I noticed most of that team's top players were from North Carolina and Virginia. Although our staff recruited the entire Atlantic Coast Conference area, and other parts of the country as well, I wanted the majority of our players to be from those two states."
That decision paid off well. By recruiting extensively in those two states, Dooley began to rebuild the school's program. By 1970 the Tar Heels were in the first of six bowl games they played while Dooley coached here.
The 1971 ACC championship team featured 24 players from the state of Virginia. Many of them were among the squad's most prominent members.
There were players like defensive tackle Eric Hyman, linebacker John Bunting, linebacker Mike Mansfield, defensive end Gene Brown, linebacker Terry Taylor, offensive guard Ron Rusnak, wingback Ted Leverenz, center Bob Thornton, offensive tackle Robert Pratt, quarterback Nick Vidnovic and offensive guard Billy Newton.
All of them started at one time or another during their careers here. Seven of them won first-team All-ACC honors.
Many of Carolina's top record-holders hail from Virginia. That group includes cornerback Dre' Bly, tailback Mike Voight, tailback Amos Lawrence, wide receiver Earl Winfield, linebacker Buddy Curry, wide receiver Charlie Carr and punter Nick Vidnovic. Also in the record book are wide receiver Bob Lacey, linebacker Dwight Hollier, cornerback Ricky Barden, defensive tackle William Fuller, outside linebacker Lawrence Taylor, wide receiver Corey Holliday and quarterback Ronald Curry.
At one point in the late 1980's, the number of Virginians on the Tar Heel roster had begun to dwindle. Improving programs at Virginia and Virginia Tech had a lot to do with that. But, when Mack Brown got the Tar Heel coaching job in 1988, he followed up on Dooley's recruiting theory.
Six of the 20 players in his first recruiting class were Virginians. Players like Holliday, Bly, cornerback Sean Crocker, linebacker Tommy Thigpen, fullback William Henderson and fullback Deon Dyer soon followed.
Holliday, Thigpen, Bly, Henderson and Dyer attracted the attention of almost every college in the country before deciding on Carolina.
The game with the Cavaliers can have an effect on current recruiting. A single game should not be the reason someone decides which college to attend. But, a televised game like this one does give high school players throughout Virginia a chance to see the two teams play.
Plus, the past success of players like Lawrence, Fuller, Buddy and Ronald Curry, Taylor, Voight, Vidnovic, Barden, and Bly should help attract others from that state.
That would certainly make it easier for Tar Heel alumni across Virginia, especially those fans here on Saturday.