Every year, a new class of outstanding athletes, coaches and other athletic personnel are inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame.
From Michael Jordan to Roy Williams, many UNC basketball alumni have earned the honor of having their names etched amongst the legends of this state, but on June 23, it was all about the football program. Headlining a class of 11 at the Raleigh Convention Center, current head coach of the UNC football team, Mack Brown, and former defensive star, Julius Peppers, represented a new sight for the Tar Heels.
Also inducted posthumously was UNC's former director of track and field Dennis Craddock, who won more ACC titles than any other coach in conference history. Craddock, who died in 2019, claimed 45 ACC titles over the course of his career at Virginia and North Carolina.
In a state full of famous sports names and storied athletic programs, it is a great honor to reach this stage and for Brown and Peppers to be inducted together — two of the greatest to ever walk the turf of Kenan Stadium — it was a grand occasion for the UNC football program.
Brown's first-ever head coaching job was with Appalachian State for the 1983 season. He would go on to North Carolina in 1988 where he coached until 1997, then returned for a second stint with the program in 2019. Peppers came to Chapel Hill as a defensive end in 1998 and would go on to record 30.5 career sacks, second-most in program history.
This pair of North Carolina sports legends have a special bond.
Coach Brown recruited Peppers all through high school, and although he left for Texas prior to Peppers' arrival in Chapel Hill, the two have kept a relationship over the years.
Brown still remembers laying his eyes on Peppers as a high schooler during his first tenure as head coach of the Tar Heels, and he knew right away the impact that the young man from Southern Nash High School in Bailey, North Carolina, was due to make.
“We recruited Julius and he was a 6-foot-5, 235-pound running back with all of these little guys trying to tackle him and nobody was tackling him,'' Brown said. “When he got there, we had trouble figuring out what he would be. 'Was he going to be the best tight end ever, or the best defensive end ever?'”
Although college football coaches were hot after Peppers for his potential on the football field, it took him a while to come around to the idea of throwing on a helmet and shoulder pads due to his first love — the game of basketball.
Part of the reason Peppers decided to attend UNC was actually because of the promise he was given by the basketball coaches to allow him a chance to walk on to the team and be a dual-sport athlete.
“My passion was basketball,” Peppers said. “Part of the story is that I had to be somewhat convinced to try out for the football team in high school. So, when I had the opportunity to come take the football scholarship and try out for the basketball team (at UNC) it was something that I couldn’t pass up.”
Peppers held his own on the basketball court in Chapel Hill and played a key part of a Final Four run for former head coach Bill Guthridge in the 1999-2000 season, but his football accomplishments were on a totally different level.
During his sophomore season, Peppers led the nation in sacks with 15. A year later, he was unanimously voted a first-team All-American and received the Chuck Bednarik Award, which is given to the top collegiate defensive player.
Peppers not only made his mark during his time in Chapel Hill; he also went on to be a nine-time Pro Bowler in the NFL, where he recorded 159.5 sacks and 51 forced fumbles.
On Friday, Peppers attributed a lot of his success to coach Brown and other UNC personnel for helping keep him in-state.
“I was always proud to be a North Carolinian, so it’s a special night for me and it’s a special night for all of us, really,” Peppers said. “It is even more special that coach Brown is here with me, and we’re going in together. He’s a big part of the reason that I became a Tar Heel, so to be here going in alongside him is something that I never expected, but that I am grateful for.”
Although he never got to coach Peppers himself, Brown first scouted the potential in the teenager from Nash County.
His eye for talent has resulted in many young players like Peppers being given the opportunity to forever be immortalized in the football record books, and that is something Brown said he will forever be proud of.
“It’s the coolest thing in the world to be able to watch these young people whom you have been involved in their lives get married and have children and become very successful," Brown said. "To watch them give back to the community and then come back and be around them to see the lives that they have built for themselves — that’s the real reward for coaching.”
Being honored in this way is rewarding to anyone, but Brown views the induction as a chance to reflect on the people who made his work possible.
On a night in which he and Julius were in the spotlight, the long-time coach wanted most of all to highlight the help he has received over the years.
“The first time I went into a Hall of Fame I tried to figure out what it meant — I knew that it was cool,” Brown said. “Then I started thinking about how big this is and that it looks back over your whole life and career, and then I realized it’s really not about me at all, but that it is a wonderful opportunity for me to tell every staff member, coach and player at Appalachian State and at the University of North Carolina that worked with me, ‘Thank you.’”