The meeting was set for 6 pm in a classroom in Woollen Gym: Bill Dooley, ex-assistant coach at Georgia, brand new head coach at Carolina, with his new team. The winter semester of 1967 had just commenced. They closed the classroom doors on the hour, on the dot. Stragglers were not welcome.
“When I was at Georgia, we always loved to play the University of North Carolina,” Dooley told his new charges.
Some players exchanged glances. They could remember three straight losses over the previous three seasons to the Bulldogs — 24-8 in 1964, 47-35 in ’65 and 28-3 in ’66.
“We knew if we got to the third and fourth quarters and it was a close game,” Dooley continued, “we’d win the football game. We knew we were mentally and physically tougher than North Carolina.”
Privately, Dooley said it was a “country club atmosphere.” He’d been told you can’t win at Carolina — the school had had three winning seasons in 17 years, and two of those were 6-4 — because the town and campus were too liberal, there were too many social distractions, that it all led to a soft football player.
“We intend to do something about that,” Dooley said.
The winter workouts began in a few weeks. There was no weightlifting. It was all running, sprinting and wrestling. The intensity was a shock.
“I still have nightmares about it,” says Gayle Bomar, a safety under former coach Jim Hickey who would move to quarterback for Dooley. “None of us had been through anything quite like it in our lives. A lot of guys decided to hang it up. I think we had 90-some players in the winter, and about 30 dropped out before we made it to spring.”
Spring practice was another ordeal. It lasted for almost two months — early March through the end of classes.
“More nightmares,” Bomar says. “It was long, it was grueling, it was a tremendous amount of contact every day. I remember one scrimmage on a Saturday in Kenan Stadium. We started about noon, and we could hear the Bell Tower ring every hour. Before it was over , the Bell Tower rang five or six times. It was a long day, a very intense experience.
“Later, I went into the service and went to boot camp. It was a picnic compared to that first spring practice.”
Into this atmosphere, this mindset, Dooley welcomed his first full-fledged recruiting class to Chapel Hill in August of 1968. Dooley and his staff had corralled who they could the previous recruiting season, but they had only a month or so to pick up where Hickey and his staff left off. They landed Don McCauley, Flip Ray, John Swofford and Paul Hoolahan, to name a handful. But it was a catch-as-catch-can effort. The following year, Dooley had implemented the Southeastern Conference’s highly organized and year-around recruiting methodology into Carolina and the ACC.
John Bunting, for one, wondered what he’d gotten into, stumbling in the dark at 5:30 am from Ehringhaus Dormitory to Kenan Field House.
“I was homesick, I missed my girlfriend, I was overwhelmed,” Bunting says. “I remember getting up and walking over when it was still pitch black. They had a little freshman locker room. It was a dark, dingy place. They’d give us a little container of orange juice and an apple and say, ‘Let’s go practice. ‘
“We’d practice three times a day. I wasn’t used to that. I wasn’t used to the pace, the tempo, all the good players. All kids coming in face this, even today. All of a sudden, you’re not the superstar anymore. You’re just one good player among many. I was naïve, thinking I could come in here and be the force I was my last two years in high school. at, what I’m doing. “
Forty-five freshmen were listed as Tar Heels in that season’s Carolina game program. Most you’ve still never heard of. Every one gave some thought to going home those first few days and weeks.
“Every practice, your focus was survival,” says James Webster, a safety from Winston-Salem who’d later play linebacker. “The only thing that kept you going was looking around and seeing someone else still on his feet. You thought, ‘If he can do it, I can do it.'”
“Coach Dooley was in the process of changing attitudes,” says John Anderson, a linebacker / guard from Elkin. “It was a boot-camp mentality. We practiced at daybreak until we dropped. We went back at noon until we dropped. Then we went again in the afternoon.”
“Gayle Bomar talked me out of going home,” says Paul Miller, a quarterback from Ayden. “I was totally homesick.”
Years later, these players like Bomar, Bunting, Webster, Miller and Anderson would fashion themselves as “The Junction Boys” in the line of the Texas A&M players of book and movie fame who endured 10 days in the scoring August heat of Texas in 1954 in Coach Bear Bryant’s first season coaching the Aggies.
But their hard work paid off. The Dooley era had an almost perfect escalation of progress, posting records of 2-8, 3-7, 5-5, 8-4, 9-3 and 11-1 through the 1972 season. The last three teams advanced to bowl games (the Peach, Gator and Sun Bowls) and the last two won the Atlantic Coast Conference championship.
“And it would have been three ACC titles in a row if we’d beaten Wake Forest my junior year,” Bunting says, referring to the Deacons edging Carolina 14-13 and winning the 1970 conference title by one-half game over the Tar Heels and Duke. “That was when Larry Hopkins scored on the goal line with his quarterback pushing him over from behind. Coach Dooley wasn’t too happy after that. He filed a protest with the ACC office but what good does that do?”
Half a century after the fact, more than 50 players from those 1970-72 bowl teams will convene in Chapel Hill for a reunion that Bunting has organized. They’ll have a dinner in the Blue Zone on Friday night and be recognized during the Tar Heels’ game Saturday night against Pittsburgh.
“We put Carolina football back on the map,” Bunting says of the two-decade dip in the program’s fortunes following the acclaimed Justice Era of the post-war 1940s. The Tar Heels were on the way to establishing national credibility in the late 1950s under Jim Tatum until his untimely death in 1959, and Hickey had a single high-water mark of an ACC title in 1963. Beyond that, there were a lot of sub -500 seasons.
“The reason for this weekend is not only do I love Carolina, but I love my teammates,” Bunting says. “This honor for the Dooley bowl teams is long overdue. What we went through in the late Sixties bound us for life and to see it pay off in the end was a memory for a lifetime. It’s all about being together again — probably for the last time. It’s about remembering what we built and what we sacrificed. ”
After those first two losing seasons, the program began to coalesce in 1969.
The Tar Heels opened the season with a 1-4 record but then reeled off wins over Wake Forest, Virginia, VMI and Clemson before losing to Duke to end the year with a 5-5 record. That, Dooley believed, was the turnaround.
“Once we changed the attitude and the younger players who had been in winning high school programs matured, we were on our way,” said Dooley, who died in 2016 at the age of 82. “I believe that happened in the second half of the ’69 season, when we won four of our last five. “
Carolina challenged for the ACC title in 1970 but finished 5-2, losing to Wake Forest by a point on the road and by 14 at home to South Carolina. The Deacons collected the league title, but the Tar Heels posted an 8-3 mark in the regular season and earned a bowl berth against Arizona State in the Peach Bowl (the Sun Devils won in the snow and sleet, 48-26).
By 1971, Dooley’s first true recruiting class had matured into seniors and was bolstered by two more years of excellent talent hauls. The Heels won their first two games on the road, shutting down Richmond 28-0 and Illinois 27-0.
“Rolling into the Big 10 and beating the stuffing out of Illinois was really big,” says Bunting. “That told us how good we were.”
Carolina beat Maryland and NC State, then suffered a two-game losing streak by falling to Tulane by eight at home and being shut out at Notre Dame, 16-0. The Heels ripped off five straight wins over Wake Forest, William & Mary, Clemson, Virginia and Duke to finish 9-2 and 6-0 in the ACC. They were edged 7-3 in a Gator Bowl match featuring Dooley against older brother Vince, head coach of the Bulldogs.
Dooley was named ACC Coach of the Year in 1971 and had firmly established the parameters of his program – strong running game, consistent kicking game, excellent defense and the occasional flare of the forward pass. The Tar Heels averaged 265 yards running in 1971 and 100 yards a game passing.
“I’m not against the forward pass, contrary to what a lot of people think,” Dooley said at the time. “I believe you have to throw well to win. And the key word is well. You have to be able to run the ball first, then it’s much easier to throw the ball well. The past couple of years, Paul Miller completed 60 percent of his passes and led the league in touchdown passes. Now, that’s throwing the ball well. “
The 1972 Tar Heels had to replace Bunting on defense, Miller on offense and other key players, but the machine was up and running and just as strong the following year. Nick Vidnovic took over as quarterback, and Ike Oglesby, Sammy Johnson and Tim Kirkpatrick ran behind a Ron Rusnak-anchored offensive line. That team developed the “Cardiac Kids” nickname for its penchant to win close games at the end. The Heels beat Maryland by five, NC State by one, Florida by four and Texas Tech in Sun Bowl by four. A 15-point loss on the road to Ohio State was the only blemish of the season.
“That ’72 team never got down,” Dooley said. “Football is a game of momentum, and that team always found a way to regain the momentum after losing it. Some way, somehow, they found a way to come back. They got knocked back and came right back at you.”
By 1972, Bunting was a rookie with the Philadelphia Eagles and setting off on a decade-long run as an NFL linebacker. Next he would enter the coaching profession, winning a Super Bowl ring as co-defensive coordinator with the St. Louis Rams and being named Carolina head coach in 2001 for a run into 2006. Today, he’s retired and lives most of the year in Naples, Fla., With summertime excursions to Maine. In the last decade, he’s been a regular visitor to Chapel Hill for the spring Carolina Football Family reunion.
“We were at dinner with a bunch of guys the Friday night before the spring game back in April and got to talking,” Bunting says. “I said, ‘We need to get everyone together, to bring those Dooley teams of the early Seventies back.’ Those are two championship teams. How were they built? They were built with tough guys, with tough, hard-nosed guys working really hard together. They overcame some adversity to get to where they were. “
Chapel Hill writer Lee Pace is in his 33rd year writing features on the Carolina football program under the “Extra Points” banner. He is the author of “Football in a Forest” and reports from the sidelines of Tar Heel Sports Network broadcasts. Follow him at @LeePaceTweet and write him at [email protected]