CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – The white parking tickets of all varieties keep showing up under the windshield wiper of ’s 2017 Black Jeep Cherokee. There’s an array of spots where he’s targeted outside the football facility, his Jeep’s omnipresent home. Tickets from metered spots cost $15 or $20. The spots reserved for service vehicles near the facility’s front door can cost $50. Howell has accumulated so many that he rarely pays attention anymore.
The enduring emblem of Howell’s UNC football career will long be the presence of the Cherokee, which arrives before the assistant coaches and lingers long after they leave. And if you need receipts, UNC parking enforcement has handed Howell “a couple of thousand dollars” worth of tickets as he enters his third season as a Tar Heel.
Howell has yet to pay the trove of tickets, but he’s clearly paid his dues. The gradual accumulation of violations symbolizes his tunnel vision as he approaches a Last Dance junior season that could leave him remembered among the best players in school history. “It is what it is, I gotta come here,” he says recently with a shrug at UNC’s facility. “Parking is probably the biggest downfall of this program.”
Sam Howell isn’t looking for pity. The tickets are a small price for the devotion to a vision that began while growing up outside Charlotte, his heart stained Tar Heel blue even after initially committing to . After arriving as the linchpin recruit of Mack Brown’s second act at UNC in January of 2019, Howell has been on a breakneck linear climb from precocious prep quarterback to instant college star with Drew Brees comparisons to potentially the school’s first No. 1 overall NFL draft pick.
That gilded road hasn’t come with the kind of college experience that makes for glamorous Instagram stories. His dating life in Chapel Hill remains quiet. Brown recalls Howell defiantly telling him one February night that, “‘Madden is my Valentine.”
Howell has interest in exploring his Korean heritage, but didn’t want the academic stress of a “tough course” so he decided not to learn the language.
His college existence has been the blur of freshman-year adjustment, the mess of COVID-19 last year and now the sprint through his final five months on campus. He has been trying to hang out with teammates more to relish the time he has left, but sightings of Howell on Franklin Street are scarce. He’s unwavering about early bedtimes and says he has never drank or smoke. “I just don’t see the point of drinking, man,” he says. “I’ve been waiting for someone to give me a good reason why I should drink.”
Howell’s career offers the chance to be toasted for generations as both successful and significant. The success has come taking a program that went 2-9 the season before he arrived and leading the Tar Heels to the Orange Bowl last season. The significance comes with a player who grew up infatuated with Tar Heel blue and inspiring others to follow his path, despite the school’s four-decade ACC title drought.
Most important, perhaps, no one looks cross-eyed at UNC players and coaches when they talk of contending for the College Football Playoff.
“At some point, I think someone has to take Clemson down in the ACC, so [I] definitely want to be a part of that,” Howell told Yahoo Sports. “If it doesn’t happen, I think just being a part of the change, just trying to leave the program better than I found it. But I would say my main goal is trying to be more significant than that.”
Sam Howell didn’t measure up for Carolina and he never forgot the slights
The index card with the North Carolina logo sat on the left corner of Sam Howell’s mirror on the dresser in his bedroom during high school. The card from a UNC football camp listed in pencil all the faults that he felt his dream school fixated on early in the quarterback’s high school career – 5.0 40-yard dash time, 9.5-inch hand size and a height measurement under 6-foot.
The metrics belied the output, as Howell led all high school freshmen in America with 3,586 passing yards at Sun Valley High in the Charlotte suburbs. Howell wanted nothing more than to play quarterback at North Carolina, as he visited there nearly 10 times unofficially as a freshman and set his goal to “actually bring a championship to this school.”
Not only did a Heisman-caliber quarterback grow up in UNC’s footprint, but he yearned to stick around and resist offers from , and . Despite the pull of home, UNC’s early ambivalence toward him nearly pushed Howell away.
Larry Fedora’s staff hesitated to offer Howell even after more than a dozen other schools already had. Fedora acknowledged this “upset” Sam and his father, Duke Howell. The Howells recall one UNC staffer even borrowing a tape measure from the wife of Howell’s high school coach to measure Howell’s hand. Howell left the card on his mirror for nearly two years to marinate daily on his shortcomings, a tactic from the adversity motivation handbook.
“Ever since they told me that they weren’t really interested, I just wanted to prove them wrong,” Howell said, noting another former staffer advised him to look at FCS schools. “I don’t like being told ‘No’ or I’m not good enough.”
Along the way to throwing for a state record 13,415 yards, Howell picked up plenty of believers. But one of the most important recruits in UNC history initially attempted to flee elsewhere.
after his sophomore year in December of 2016, as then-offensive coordinator Walt Bell saw a handful of throws in warm-ups and predicted he’d be special. Bell teased the other college coaches sitting in the Sun Valley football office: “You better call your boss, you need to offer this guy, too.”
The offers soon came flooding in, but it took until June of 2017 for UNC to pull the trigger. By then, all those glances in the mirror spurred Howell to mentally move on. “We weren’t going to throw out an early offer to a kid in-state and then pull it back,” Fedora told Yahoo Sports. “At that position, we wanted to be right.”
Howell nearly committed to early in Dan Mullen’s tenure, but the Gators took a surprise commitment from a long-forgotten prospect named Jalon Jones. Instead, Howell stuck with the familiar and committed to FSU in April of 2018, not long after Bell became the Seminoles’ coordinator.
Howell’s school search soon circled back to the logo on the corner of his dresser. UNC fired Fedora in late November after a 2-9 season in 2018, and Willie Taggart’s debut season at Florida State famously sputtered at 5-7. Then Bell bounced in early December to become the head coach at .
Once UNC hired Brown, Fedora nudged him to stay on Howell to keep him home. “That was the school he needed to be at,” Fedora said. “It was great for him and his family and the coaches he played under in high school. It worked out perfect, it was where he was meant to be.”
How Sam Howell helped Mack Brown’s restart at Carolina
When UNC coach Mack Brown arrived at Sun Valley High School in the Charlotte area to recruit Sam Howell soon after getting the job in December of 2018, he stared back at a dark-haired version of himself.
Behind coach Tad Baucom’s desk loomed a picture of Brown with a former Baucom player named Clayton Eddie, who lettered at UNC in 1994. Brown’s two tenures at UNC spanned from the analog to digital ages, and in between his tenures UNC found itself amid a blur of mediocrity. Brown last coached at UNC in 1997, where he delivered Top 10 teams his final two years. Since then, the Tar Heels have won more than eight games in a season just once.
After Brown bolted for , UNC’s coaching eras spanned the forgettable (Carl Torbush and John Bunting), the scandalous (Butch Davis) and the tease of Fedora’s 11-3 2015 season before the brass decided to pay him $12 million not to coach there three years later.
Two seasons after Brown’s arrival, nearly everything has changed. In the wake of Hall of Fame basketball coach Roy Williams’ retirement, this is the rare season in school history where football has a better chance at the national title than the basketball program.
Howell arrived at a program that won five games the prior two years, and Brown acknowledges his commitment provided the shock to resuscitate the program. and are .
“He’s been the most significant difference to me from when we first got here until now,” Brown recently said in his office. “And we’re recruiting better, we’re about to have a better team because we’re gonna have better players around him. But I don’t think it would’ve happened this quickly without him.”
There was plenty of competition. Urban Meyer showed up for a late push for . Coaches from met with Sam Howell in the hospital at Matthews Medical Center where Howell’s father, Duke, was scheduled to undergo triple bypass surgery. Then- offensive coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz saw all the boldfaced names, knew he’d be ignored, and cut out a picture of himself from his business card and taped it over Brown’s face on the picture with Eddie from the 1990s. Anything to leave an impression.
proved prescient, especially after Brown hired Air Raid guru Phil Longo to install the offense. Howell has filled in and thinned out, as he’s 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds after arriving as a 230-pound “square block,” according to Longo. He’s since lost 13.2 pounds of fat to trim off 5.6% body fat.
After 7,227 passing yards in two seasons, Howell is already in the discussion of where among UNC greats he’ll be remembered. He is tied for the school record in touchdown passes (68), can break virtually every school quarterback record in 2021 and has the chance to be remembered alongside Lawrence Taylor and Julius Peppers among the best players in Tar Heel history.
When UNC last won the ACC in 1980, Taylor had 16 sacks and Dick Crum manned the sideline. Howell would like someone reading his ACC championship season stat line 40 years from now. “I don’t want my legacy to be ‘He almost won something,’” Howell said. “I want to win something.”
Howell’s moving gesture of love keeps high school legendary coach going
To understand the full circle of significance of Sam Howell’s commitment to UNC, take a trip to Baucom’s current office at Hickory Grove Christian High School in Charlotte. There are pictures, memorabilia and dozens of toothpick holders that come from coaching high schools in six different decades at outposts around North Carolina, including 31 years in Charlotte’s Mecklenburg County.
Sam Howell is part of the reason why Baucom, 65, is still coaching. And playing for Baucom is part of the reason why Howell realized the power of planting roots, thriving around loved ones and the enduring power of winning at home. “Success is one thing,” Baucom said, his own career motto doubling as a life lesson for Howell. “But significant is another.”
Howell got a four-year tutorial in Baucom’s folksy wisdom, which starts with stories like Brown promising Howell on a recruiting visit that he’d be the rare prospect in the history of college football to play his entire high school and college career for a white-haired coach.
Baucom is a mustachioed football Yoda with a honeysuckle accent. He chews through 12 Daneson toothpicks a day. That ups to 24 on gamedays when the nerves churn. Baucom began in the business focused on compiling state titles – he won one in football in 1981 at Pender Academy – but evolved to broader goals. “I just want to be important to kids, and try to make a difference in their lives,” he said. “This is all I ever wanted. This is the greatest job.”
Baucom brokered Howell an introduction with one of the featured speakers at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes breakfast, coach Dabo Swinney, while Howell was still in junior high. Howell delivered iced tea to Swinney’s table, and he did a triple-take when learning he was an eighth-grader. “What?” Dabo said. “He’s in middle school?”
The next week, Clemson assistant Danny Pearman followed up with Baucom at Sun Valley. He looked perplexed when Baucom told him Howell attended school in the junior high nearby. “If that old guy with a toothpick ever calls and says they’ve got a player, you’ve got to make sure to write it up,” Baucom recalls Swinney saying later. “He was right on this one.”
At Sun Valley, Howell saw the power of winning at home. Duke Howell served as Baucom’s offensive coordinator all four years. Sam’s mom, Amy, worked in the school’s front office the data manager. Baucom’s wife, Pam, dutifully kept statistics on the sideline. They all saw Sam break Florida star Chris Leak’s state passing record, switch hands to throw a left-handed touchdown and occasionally sneak in on defense to deliver de-cleating hits while moonlighting at safety.
Through all the wins, yards and shared experience, Howell grew so close to Baucom that he inspired him to continue coaching when his life and career hit a crossroads. Baucom’s middle daughter, Taylor Baucom McAuliffe, died unexpectedly at age 31 in May of 2020.
Sam Howell drove the nearly three hours back from Chapel Hill for the funeral. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, there were only 50 people allowed in the church. Howell waited outside on the sidewalk and touched his heart when Baucom drove by in the procession.
The gesture came from a social distance, but it stuck close with Baucom. He tears up in his office recalling the moment, and reveals that a pep talk from Howell helped guide him back to the sideline and accept the job at Hickory Grove Christian later that year.
“I just told him how much I enjoyed being around him as a coach,” Howell said, “and that I think it’d be cool if he kept doing it, impacting all these kids’ lives.”
Reflecting on unrealized heritage, and unrealized goals at UNC
For all the buzz, Howell arrived at UNC with a remarkably low level of maintenance. On Howell’s official visit, wide receiver recalled a vibe that was more walk-on than five-star.
When dinner at Ruth’s Chris ended and the players got set to go out for the night, Howell made it clear he had no preconceived notions. “Man, it doesn’t even matter,” Corrales recalled Howell saying. “I’m just trying to hang out with y’all for the night.”
Howell gradually built credibility by putting in the work. Teammates saw his Jeep at the facility every morning his first spring, and it has essentially been parked there since. Outside interests remain limited.
Howell has become increasingly curious about his Korean heritage and would like to take a trip there to learn more about it. His grandfather, Bruce Howell, and grandmother, Han Howell, met while his grandfather was stationed in South Korea in the late 1960s after the Korean War.
For now, kimchi remains an intriguing mystery as Howell jokes his grandmother made him homemade chicken tenders: “I think just the fact that I don’t know a whole lot about it is why I’m so interested in it,” he said of his Korean heritage. “I think there’s so much to learn and see. I’m super excited to go over there at some point in my life.”
But Howell says that can wait until after his rookie year. The structure and discipline of the military background from his grandparents has been passed down. Duke Howell, a probation officer by trade, had side jobs mowing lawns and working at the airport to help pay for the kids to play sports. He wrestled at Appalachian State where he met Amy, a middle blocker on the volleyball team. (They split soon after Sam enrolled at UNC and have since divorced.)
“It was nothing extreme, like some military kids have it,” Sam Howell said. “But you can tell it’s definitely some type of structure. My parents weren’t hard on us, they just kind of expected things.”
Howell found the immediate success he expected. He won the starting job in camp and then announced himself by leading UNC to opening wins over and Miami in 2019. Losses to and followed, but an upset bid against No. 1 Clemson, foiled on a failed two-point conversion, instilled belief that UNC could compete at a high level.
Howell stayed the same. Speaking only when spoken to in the facility and remaining unflinchingly stoic. “If anyone ever tells me that Sam has an ego issue, I won’t believe it,” Longo said. “I don’t know if that’s possible.”
, his center, points out that every week Howell puts about 20 items on his surface pad to prepare for each game – every opponent game the past two years, every down-and-distance, short yardage and goal line. He estimates the video work is about 15 hours. “You go in there Tuesday, look at his checklist and it’s done,” Anderson said. “He never shows he’s tired. He just goes to work.”
Howell led UNC to seven wins and a bowl game in 2019. Last season, Howell led UNC to an 8-4 record, finished fourth-nationally with 3,586 passing yards in Carolina’s heavy vertical route scheme. The , 41-27, a game where the key Tar Heel opt outs gave UNC fans a preview how the offense would recalibrate for 2021.
Howell’s lack of returning established weapons, especially tailbacks and , makes him the clear identity of UNC’s offense. Longo compares him to Brees because of his accuracy, intelligence and awareness playing within his own ability. “He wants to be the best ever,” Longo said. “He wants to be better than anybody in the country. He wants to go to the NFL so he can try to prove the same thing there.”
Howell’s father has reminded his son to “stop and smell the roses” during his final months on campus. Duke Howell worries that soon football will be a job, and Howell responds, “Well, it’s kinda a job.”
Instead of smelling the roses, Howell wants to honor the opportunity. “There’s so many people who have sacrificed things to get me where I am today,” he said, “so I’m just trying to make them proud and give kids from where I’m from back home just hope that they can make it something big one day.”
Howell says there are plans to take his linemen to dinner weekly at Stoney River Steakhouse weekly, little college things to help him savor his final months. His new name, image and likeness endorsements with Bojangles and some memorabilia deals may help him pick up the check. But don’t expect anything to fundamentally change.
All those parking tickets, early morning film sessions and endless weekly checklists have built to this moment, and he’s ready to re-define modern success for UNC football and show how significant the program can be. Howell predicts to Yahoo Sports that UNC will meet Clemson in the ACC title game as part of the “realistic goal” of winning the ACC. But the belief he has helped instill goes beyond that.
“We talk about it here,” Howell said. “I think the main thing, your team’s gotta believe it. And people here believe it from top down, from head coach to janitors they believe that, they truly believe we can win a national championship.”
Parking enforcement believes, too.
More from Yahoo Sports: