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WELL-HEELED AT LAST

It is a shrine to college football opulence, a $47-million addition to Kenan Stadium that provides the North Carolina program more proof the Tar Heels are committed to being contenders.

There in the west end zone are the 8,000 new seats the school has no trouble selling. Beneath them is the foundation of success, including a marble-floor atrium, a spacious locker room and a monstrous weight room that would put most health clubs to shame.

The place is so impressive that Florida State officials recently toured it to get ideas for improving their facilities.

Now there's a switch.

For years the Tar Heels have been looking up to the Seminoles, trying to emulate them in enough ways that North Carolina might one day overtake FSU in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

That day may be here. At least it is a day that has been circled on Carolina calendars for months, a day an entire program has embraced with huge anticipation.

For the first time in ACC history, two teams ranked in the Top 5 will do battle when the third-ranked Seminoles (8-0) play the fifth-ranked Tar Heels (8-0) Saturday night.

Whereas the Seminoles have been involved in such games annually over the past decade, this is new territory for the Tar Heels, who before winning the Gator Bowl Jan. 1 had not been ranked in the final Top 10 since 1981.

"I understand how hard it is to get here," said North Carolina coach Mack Brown, 46, in his 10th year at the school. "I understand that you better enjoy it and appreciate it when you get here, because not many people are here, when you start looking around the country.

"And you better fight your guts out to stay here, because not many people get here and stay. You learn all those things. I'm not spoiled. I'm not taking this for granted. And I'm enjoying every minute of it."

With good reason. The Tar Heels are 8-0 for the first time since 1914. They have clinched their eighth straight winning season for the first time since 1905. They will play in a school-record sixth straight bowl game.

Under Brown, the Tar Heels gradually have become a solid program, one teetering on greatness. But it has taken time. His first Carolina team went 1-10 in 1988. He followed that with another 1-10 season, which included 10 straight losses and a season-ending 41-0 defeat to a Steve Spurrier-coached Duke team.

That ended a decade in which the Tar Heels started with 11-1 and 10-2 records. And that was puzzling to John Swofford, a former Tar Heel football player from 1969 to 1971. Swofford became the school's athletic director in 1980, holding the job until last year when he was named commissioner of the ACC. He always wondered why a school with the reputation and selling points of North Carolina could not do better.

"I always felt the potential was certainly there for the program to be a consistent Top 10- to Top 15-type program," Swofford said. "If you look back at Carolina's history in football, there are a lot of ups and downs. It has not been consistent. I think Mack has done a terrific job in putting it back together and in bringing it to this point."

Swofford, who hired Brown, credited him with being a player's coach and re-establishing recruiting ties at home.

"When Mack came in, Carolina had totally lost its relationships with high school coaches in North Carolina and was getting beat by just about everyone in state," Swofford said. "If you're a state institution, you have to be successful in your own state. Mack did a remarkable job."

But you have to be able to coach those players, too. Brown, who lettered twice as a running back at FSU in 1971-72, had assistant coaching jobs at Southern Mississippi, Memphis State, Iowa State and LSU. His first head-coaching job was at Appalachian State, where at age 32 he posted a 6-5 record in 1983.

He left after one season, however, to become offensive coordinator under Barry Switzer at Oklahoma. From there he became coach at Tulane and went through tough times before getting the Green Wave to a bowl in 1987.

"At Tulane we were everybody's homecoming game," Brown said. "We built a float and tried to enter some parades."

There were no parades for Brown when he went 2-20 in his first two seasons at Carolina, and there were more tough times despite winning records every year since.

After a trying 7-5 season in 1995, Brown parted ways with offensive coordinator and longtime assistant Darrell Moody. Brown believed he needed to break with Carolina's tradition of having a run-oriented, power football team and install a pass-oriented, pro-style offense.

Much of Brown's decision had to do with competing against FSU. He took a similar approach to defense, installing a pressing, gambling style that would attract high-caliber athletes.

"We've changed our offense to be much more like Florida State," Brown said. "We've changed our defense to be much more like Florida State."

The result is a team expected to compete with FSU. This week few people on campus are discussing Carolina's basketball prospects.

"It's very exciting," tailback Jonathan Linton said. Tuesday night, he said, linebacker Kivuusama Mays and he went to the Smith Center to check out the crowd. "They were already camping out to get tickets for the game. I made the comment, "Just think, they're camping out and it's not even basketball season yet.'

"It's a tremendous thing to see. This campus is not just a basketball school anymore. This is a big game for us. It's very exciting for the players as well as the fans."

As an FSU alum, Brown takes pride in the Seminoles' accomplishments. He does not try to hide his reverence for FSU coach Bobby Bowden, whose accomplishments he can spout off at the snap of a finger. For example, Brown noted that FSU is the only team to finish among the Top 10 every year since 1987.

"That shows you how hard it is to be successful and stay at the level we've been for the last two years," Brown said. "They've done a phenomenal job of doing it.

"We're more on the verge of being a national power like Florida State. And we want to stay there."

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