Thankfully, the ridiculously tired and equally absurd ritual of gridiron victory celebrations wasn't necessary at the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.
North Carolina coach John Bunting and his triumphant troops were showered instead with thousands upon thousands of pieces of colorful confetti at their fans' end of the Georgia Dome.
Although the celebrations of the midnight hour were fast-approaching, the ocean of Carolina blue that engulfed 20,000 green seats boiled with cheer, instead of spilling out the orifices of the cavernous dome.
There was one last party to be had in 2001.
The fans, who proudly cluttered the Eisenhower Interstate System of the Southeast to migrate in their powder-blue-clad vehicles to Atlanta, stood strong and proud as they had the entire game.
Meanwhile, the Auburn faithful, hailing from a traditional football school, were long gone. Some were never there in body or spirit that night. The supposed sellout of 71,827 included entire vacant halves of upper level Auburn sections. Those who were there seemed about as inspired as their team, which got shut out through three quarters.
Few empties existed on the Tar Heels' end at kickoff and at the final whistle. Their fans held firm and fanatic, waving their pom-poms in unison. As the players danced and hollered on the artificial surface and exchanged their pads for Peach Bowl championship T-shirts, the blue-and-white faithful added to the ticker tape by showering the squad with jubilant cheers, chants and applause.
"They're going to fall in love with this football team over the years because they're going to play hard," Bunting proudly said. "It's demanded."
As bowl officials presented senior quarterback Ronald Curry with the Offensive Most Valuable Player trophy -- his second in two career bowls -- Bunting and his players called out his name in tribute.
"Cur-ry. Cur-ry. Cur-ry."
His career-long 62-yard touchdown jog in the third quarter summed up his tenure. Curry started quickly, avoiding a sack and bursting through the middle. He made defenders look silly as he easily shook them off like pesky flies on his nose before he slowed substantially and strolled into the end zone.
But appropriately, the UNC defense was the king of this ball.
The Tar Heels held the Tigers to 176 yards of total offense (31 rushing) and two third-down conversions in 13 tries. Their two interceptions were the only ones by cornerbacks on the season.
All-ACC senior defensive tackle Ryan Sims hobbled out of the game in the first half with a sprained ankle. Later in the half, at the same time that a voice through the press box speakers announced that Sims might not return, the bear of a man retook the field for action. "I knew this was going to be my last game wearing Carolina blue and I wanted it to be a memorable one," Sims said. "So when I hurt my ankle I just sucked it up."
Sims sucked it up and sacked Auburn QB Jason Campbell for a 19-yard loss in the fourth quarter. He was the Defensive Most Valuable Player.
The effort and determination displayed by Bunting's team a month after its last regular-season game and throughout much of the season appear to be signs of change for North Carolina football.
After the trophy presentations, after midnight, the party continued at UNC headquarters, the Marriott Marquis, until the wee hours of 2002's first morning. Something changed that night for North Carolina football that the fans should remember during the next eight months.
"I'll never ever forget this team," Bunting said. "They're really special to me."
Mike Ogle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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