The Throne has been prepared at North Carolina, awaiting only the crowning of the newest member of college football's elite. There's a $47 million addition to Kenan Stadium that includes not only 8,000 new seats in the west end zone but also a marble-floored hall-of-fame atrium, a locker room so opulent that Martha Stewart could throw dinner parties in it and a weight room with nine television sets and a monstrous stereo system. The Tar Heels could sell health club memberships and pay for the whole shebang by the millennium. There's a team on the field, flush with late-1990s necessities like blinding speed and attacking defense. There's widespread applause, in the form of Top 10 preseason rankings and the hosannas of opposing coaches. Everybody knows North Carolina is ready.
Nine seasons have passed since Mack Brown succeeded Dick Crum as the Tar Heels' coach and slowly pointed North Carolina—which did cameos in the Gator and the Peach bowls and occasionally sent a Lawrence Taylor to the NFL but didn't threaten to win any national championships—toward the high ground where its basketball program has long lived. His efforts began with consecutive 1-10 seasons ("I thought, What on earth have I gotten into?" says the 46-year-old Brown) but showed real promise a year ago when the Tar Heels went 10-2 and lost to Florida State narrowly, 13-0, in Tallahassee. North Carolina was ranked seventh before this season began, with a chance to supplant the Seminoles as the ACC champions and play in an alliance bowl. After a blistering practice on the day after Labor Day, linebacker Kivuusama Mays, an emotional senior known across the campus simply as K (for obvious reasons), chewed on these expectations and smiled broadly. "I see people wearing football jerseys around here instead of basketball shirts," said Mays. "All the hype, all the attention, this is what we've been trying to get for ourselves. This is our year."
Every season brings a comet or two, teams that win 10 games then slide back to mediocrity. "We don't want that type of thing, where people say, 'North Carolina has a pretty good team this year,' " says Brown. "We want to be an every-year team." The Tar Heels listlessly dumped overmatched Indiana 23-6 in their season opener on Sept. 6 and last Saturday night hosted Stanford, a team also on the rise. The Cardinal came to Chapel Hill with six consecutive wins, dating back to last November, and cared not in the least what destiny was planning for North Carolina.
With 2:36 left in the third quarter, Stanford led 17-14, despite having gained just 135 yards against the Tar Heels' defense, which had played as advertised. At that juncture Brown inserted junior quarterback Oscar Davenport into the game for the second time, replacing more-publicized senior Chris Keldorf. The first time Davenport had come in, early in the second quarter, he had taken the Tar Heels 99 yards in 17 plays to tie the score 7-7. Davenport had also played briefly in the season opener. This time the circumstances were far more pressing. North Carolina's offense hadn't made a first down in the second half. Davenport ran in from the sideline, stuck his face into the huddle and shouted, "We've got to go here, so why don't you guys get your heads out of your butts."
He would know about urgency and about patience. In 1996 Davenport sat on the bench, watching Keldorf flourish in the job that Davenport had thought would be his. Late in the '95 season Davenport, a redshirt freshman from Osceola High in St. Petersburg, Fla., had begun to earn small slices of quality playing time behind senior Mike Thomas. But in a loss to Clemson, Davenport tore the anterior cruciate ligament and sprained the medial collateral ligament in his left knee. Reconstructive surgery ended his season.
With Thomas gone and Davenport injured, North Carolina needed an experienced quarterback to work spring practice in 1996. Assistant coach Cleve Bryant looked through a junior college scouting sheet and found Keldorf, a second-year player at Palomar Junior College in San Marcos, Calif. Bryant and Brown were intrigued. Keldorf was big (6'5") and strong, but players are usually in junior college for a reason: bad grades, head problems, whatever. "We thought, There must be something wrong," says Brown. He had only brought one junior college transfer to Chapel Hill, but the Tar Heels were desperate. In the spring of '96, while Davenport hobbled around in a knee brace, Keldorf ran the first-team offense. Last fall, even with Davenport able to play, Keldorf won the job and threw 23 touchdown passes and just five interceptions.
What's more, Keldorf was a story, a rags-to-riches quarterback straight from central casting. He had gone from a low-key program at St. Bernard High in Playa del Rey, Calif., to Utah State, the only Division I-A college to offer him a scholarship. Lacking proper mechanics and short on experience, Keldorf was told by none other than former Seattle Seahawks quarterback Jim Zorn, then an assistant at Utah State, that he would never be a quarterback and that he should move to tight end. "He was right about my skills, and he had six other quarterbacks to worry about," Keldorf says. "I wanted to play quarterback, and I didn't care about anybody else at Utah State." He transferred to El Camino Community College in Torrance, Calif., where he found the quarterback position occupied by future Brigham Young star Steve Sarkisian. Stymied again, he prepared to pack it in.
Keldorf's father, Russell, persuaded him not to. "He told me, 'You don't want to be 40 years old and wish you had given it a shot,' " says Keldorf. He went to Palomar and then came to North Carolina, where he became a star. Newspapers and magazines profiled him. Mel Kiper Jr. rated him as the No. 2 senior quarterback in the country. He injured his ankle in the Tar Heels' regular-season finale against Duke last Nov. 23 and missed their 20-13 Gator Bowl victory over West Virginia, a game in which Davenport was named MVP. But after Keldorf showed in spring practice that he had recovered from ankle and back surgery, he was reinstalled as the starter. Davenport would be a junior, and he would sit again.
"I'm the type of person who has faith in his ability, and I never wanted to be a quitter, but it wasn't easy," said Davenport after last Saturday's game. To wait his turn he would need the perseverance he learned from his mother, Patricia Reynolds, who raised him and four siblings and step-siblings until he was 12 years old. He would need the discipline he learned from his father, also named Oscar, a hospital cook with whom he lived from seventh grade through high school. The elder Davenport would occasionally take away young Oscar's phone privileges for two weeks at a time for misbehavior. "That's punishment, I'm telling you," says Oscar Jr.
Davenport was called during the third quarter against Stanford to breathe life into a stagnant offense. North Carolina gained a yard on each of two running plays. But on third-and-eight, Davenport created magic, racing out of a collapsing pocket for a 20-yard gain. After five more plays, two of them pass completions, the Tar Heels faced second-and-12 on the Cardinal 15-yard line. Davenport sprinted right, twice froze defenders by tucking the ball as if to run, then drilled the go-ahead touchdown pass to senior wideout Octavus Barnes. North Carolina later returned a blocked punt for a touchdown, sealing the 28-17 win.