THE “WRECK OF the Old 97” was America’s most popular song in 1926. The plaintive ballad describes a deadly derailment caused when a Southern Railway train known as the “Fast Mail” tried to make up time on a run from Virginia to Spencer, N.C. For Clemson, a derailment of a different sort also occurred in 1926, tucked into a North Carolina tour on which the Tiger basketball team lost on consecutive January days at Wake Forest, Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State.
A.A. Gilliam, a football assistant coach, doubled in 1926 as head basketball coach, directing the Tigers to a 4-17 record and a tie for 19th place among 22 Southern Conference teams. And it was on his watch that Clemson endured the first of 56 defeats in 56 visits to Chapel Hill, a unique brand of dominance Brad Brownell’s Tigers hope to end against a struggling UNC squad on Sunday.
No other programs in NCAA history have shared such a sustained and one-sided relationship. The odd streak attracts gawkers; retired TV analyst Billy Packer made sure to be assigned to the broadcast when the Tigers came calling, lest he miss history being made.
Only seven of the 56 games have been decided by single-digit margins. Even in those rare instances the Tar Heels seem vulnerable, raising the hopes of Clemson fans, the Tar Heels managed to emerge triumphant. “If we would ever win, it would be a miracle,” said Al Adams, a former Clemson sports information director who now sells insurance in Forest City, N.C. “Let’s be honest: How many of the games have we even been close in?”
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There was the 74-72 loss in 1975 when a Clemson team led by All-ACC players Skip Wise and Wayne “Tree” Rollins was overtaken after enjoying a large double-figure lead.
There was the 1982 game in which the Tigers dared complementary UNC players Matt Doherty and Jimmy Black to beat them. The strategy worked well into the second half against the eventual national champs, until James Worthy made a steal at midcourt at Carmichael Auditorium and delivered an emphatic dunk. “The place just exploded in unbelievably deafening sound, and that just turned the game around,” said Tim Bourret, Clemson’s current sports information director.
Rick Barnes brought the nation’s second-ranked team to Chapel Hill in January 1997 and lost to a UNC squad that was 11-5, 2-4 in the ACC. Afterward, the Smith Center crowd directed “Oh-ver-rated! Oh-ver-rated!” chants at the visitors. “Calling us overrated,” noted Barnes. “Talk about role reversal!”
There was the contest in February 2002 when a shaky Matt Doherty squad enduring an 8-20 season, worst in school history, managed to beat Clemson by 18 points. Fred Kiger, a veteran statistician on ACC telecasts and a lecturer on the American Civil War at UNC, cites a 13-point, 8-assist effort by a little-noted Tar Heel guard as crucial to the outcome. “Adam Boone had the game of his life!” he said. “Adam Boone! Most Carolina fans are like, ‘Who? Daniel Boone?’ ”
Shortly after the ACC expanded in the mid-2000s, Clemson coach Oliver Purnell stunned an interviewer by guaranteeing a win at Chapel Hill. Turned out, given the unbalanced schedule, the Tigers were spared a visit to the Smith Center that season. Purnell, who spent 2004 to 2010 at Clemson, still laughs at that exchange.
“It’s been a tough place for years and years for Clemson to play, and the major reason is the really, really good North Carolina teams,” says Purnell, now at DePaul. “But it does kind of play with you a little bit mentally when you get as close as we did and don’t close the deal.”
Purnell referred to perhaps the Heels’ greatest escape in the series at Chapel Hill — a double-overtime victory in 2008 after trailing by 11 points with 3:12 to go in regulation. Key to the Tigers’ late unraveling were three turnovers and a missed one-and-one, even as the Heels’ Danny Green hit a pair of 3s and UNC reserve guard Quentin Thomas made the tying layup.
Bourret, now in his 36th season doing color commentary on Tiger radio broadcasts, recalls looking down press row toward Woody Durham, then UNC’s radio voice, after the Tar Heels won 103-93. “When that game ended — and we were separated by about seven people — but as soon as that ended I turned and looked at him, and at the same time he turned and looked at me, and we just kind of shook our heads like, ‘Can you believe this happened again?’ ”
Now, as another Smith Center meeting approaches, aficionados savor the sense of uncertainty heightened by Carolina’ weaknesses, Clemson’s strengths and a belief the laws of probability must surely doom the streak — sooner or later.
Roy Williams’ 11-7 squad this year is groping for answers, with four losses in its past five games. This is the second-lowest scoring team of Williams’ 11-year tenure (75.2 points), eclipsed by the NIT entrants of 2010. That season, Clemson did not visit Chapel Hill.
The 2014 Heels are UNC’s worst free throw shooting club in the ACC era (.615). Junior James Michael McAdoo, the team’s most prolific foul shooter, has a 57.5 percent career conversion rate at the line, 53.1 percent this season. The outside game is rendered one-dimensional by the school’s least accurate 3-point accuracy (.304) since the shot was instituted in 1987.
Brownell nimbly sidesteps any suggestion the Heels are vulnerable. Nor is he anxious to discuss the streak. “Here we go again,” he says when asked.
But, knowing his players will hear about the 56 straight losses, he concedes he will mention it. “I’m sure I’ll allude to it,” he says. “I don’t make a big deal out of it. It’s not the center point of your speech, of what you’re trying to do to win the game. ‘Let’s be the first team.’ You’re not doing that.”
If history is any guide, there’s no more place more hostile to Clemson’s aspirations than the Tar Heels’ home court in Chapel Hill.