October 30, 2004, began as just a typical ACC matchup as No. 4 Miami traveled to Chapel Hill to take on unranked North Carolina. The Hurricanes entered the game undefeated (6-0) and huge favorites as the team at the time was considered a perennial national championship contender. What happened that night would the start of a steady decline for the highly successful and well known program.
It started when North Carolina running back Chad Scott ran for 175 yards and true freshman kicker Connor Barth booted a 42-yard field goal as time expired to give the Tar Heels a 31-28 upset victory over previously undefeated Miami. It also served as North Carolina’s first-ever victory over a top-five opponent.
Following that loss, the Hurricanes would go just 3-2 down the stretch, finishing the 2004 season 9-3 with a win over in-state rival Florida in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.
The following season brought about the same expectations, win a national title, but Miami went 9-3 again. This time, however, the Hurricanes were routed 40-3 by LSU in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. And things would only go downhill from there, as the program was on the verge of experiencing low points it hadn’t seen since the 1970s.
In 2006, the decline of the Hurricanes was one of the biggest stories of that college football season. Miami ended the regular season with a 6-6 record, it worst since going 5-6 in ’97. The school fired head coach Larry Coker, who had guided the Hurricanes to a 60-15 record, a national championship and three Big East titles in his six seasons.
When Miami promoted defensive coordinator Randy Shannon to head coach, many thought the Hurricanes would regain some of their swagger on and off of the field, but that was never the case.
Miami went just 28-22 in four seasons with Shannon at the helm. After posting a losing record in 2007 (5-7), the best the Hurricanes could do the next three seasons were invitations to the Emerald, Champs Sports and Sun Bowls, although he didn’t get to coach the team in the last one. Shannon was fired after Miami lost at home to South Florida to close out the 2010 regular season at 7-5.
Al Golden, who was responsible for turning around a moribund Temple program, replaced Shannon in 2011, but he was already at a disadvantage as the program was being investigated for its ties to booster Nevin Shapiro, who was imprisoned for running a $930 million Ponzi scheme.
Golden didn’t fare any better than Shannon, leading the Hurricanes to a 32-25 mark in four and a half seasons. Miami tied for first in the ACC Coastal Division in 2012, but was ineligible to play in the conference championship game or a bowl because of self-imposed postseason ban. The following season, the Hurricanes went 9-4, but didn’t win the Coastal and lost to Louisville (then a member of the American Athletic Conference) in the Russell Athletic Bowl. Golden was fired midway through last season following an embarrassing 58-0 home loss to Clemson.
Since that loss to North Carolina in 2004, Miami has not been ranked in the top five in any AP Poll. The Hurricanes’ highest ranking since then came in 2013 when they were No. 7 prior to losing to Florida State in Tallahassee on Nov. 2.
On the other hand, North Carolina’s fortunes slowly started to change following that historic upset victory. The Tar Heels went through a couple of rough seasons in 2005 and ‘06 under head coach John Bunting. But after Bunting was replaced by Butch Davis (who went 51-20 as Miami’s head coach from 1995-2000), the program begin to take shape and the results soon followed.
From 2008-10, North Carolina went 8-5, finishing each season with a bowl game. Even though the school vacated all of their wins from the 2008 and ’09 seasons as part of self-imposed penalties for NCAA violations involving ineligible players, the foundation was laid for the next head coach. Davis was fired in July 2011 in the middle of the NCAA investigation and was replaced that December by Southern Miss head coach Larry Fedora.
Now in his fifth season in Chapel Hill, Fedora enters Saturday’s game with a 36-22 record, including a 23-12 mark in ACC play. Last season, Fedora and the Tar Heels did something that the Hurricanes have yet to accomplish since – play in the ACC Championship Game. After winning the Coastal Division with a perfect 8-0 record, North Carolina lost to eventual national runner-up Clemson 45-37 in the ACC title game.
Not many point to that Oct. 30, 2004 game as to the beginning of the decline for Miami, but they should. The Hurricanes haven’t been the same team since Barth kicked that game-winning field goal. With former Georgia head coach and Miami quarterback Mark Richt now at the helm, Hurricane fans and supporters are hoping he can lead the team back to national respectability and claim that first win ACC championship. At 4-1 and ranked No. 16 in the AP Poll, Richt is certainly off to a good start in his debut season.
Meanwhile, North Carolina has become more than just a basketball school. The Tar Heels have developed into a contender in the ACC Coastal Division each season, as that upset win against Miami all those years ago proved that they can compete in the ACC. So no one would be surprised if North Carolina left Hard Rock Stadium Saturday with another victory over the Hurricanes. After all, plenty has changed for both teams since that game on Oct. 30, 2004.
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post and is a reporter for Pro Player Insiders. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.
(Top photo courtesy of www.unclettermen.com)