Now It's About Winning
Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham and new UNC head coach Larry Fedora have said all the right things. They want to win football championships at UNC, and they want to do it the right way. That's it in a nutshell, with Chancellor Holden Thorp holding their coats and praying they can deliver the goods. Now the tough part begins: Fedora's got to win games.
If you'll think back to some former press conferences, you were probably ready to go out and tackle someone when John Bunting was hired, and when Butch Davis was hired you were all in – you know you were.
I recently went back and read a piece on John Bunting's first press conference I wrote for the January 2001 edition of the Inside Carolina Magazine. Aside from the disturbing visual, which was a mishmash of New Orleans Black and Gold with a hint of Carolina Blue in his tie thrown in, Bunting pretty much nailed the press conference.
With apologies to Lee Pace, the following was something he penned in the very beginning of the Bunting era in one of his pieces on UNC's web site:
"Around Chapel Hill and its world of baby-blue devotees, only the football players and coaches of the Bunting era truly understand what the man is all about. For the rest of us, it's a learning process. As the answers unfold over the coming years, we might someday wonder what all the fuss about Frank Beamer was anyway."
In fairness, I've written a lot of things I hope never to see again in print.
Bunting went on a whirlwind media tour immediately after being hired, the thinking then was that the more the coach was out there, the more excitement he'd generate. Bunting could certainly talk a good game, and was a big hit on the sports radio talk show circuit. Saying the right things comes easy; it's what comes after the initial tour of the sports talk radio show circuit that comes hard.
There is no question in my mind, none whatsoever, that a significant portion of the UNC football fan base is going to fall in love with Larry Fedora and his family. That family is charming, and a fitting subject for a Norman Rockwell cover for the Saturday Evening Post, and you're showing your age if you know what that is. Fedora is a likeable guy, and appears to be someone the UNC football fan base will warm up to easily.
Whether Fedora goes 10-14 or 20-4 in the next two years, there are going to be a lot of Tar Heel fans that are going to be mad for Fedora, and ready to go to the wall for him. Obviously, the closer to that 20-4 mark the larger that group is going to be, but even at 10-14, there are going to be some UNC football fans so in love with Fedora and his family that they'll always be wiling to give him "one more year." Right up to the end of the Torbush and Bunting sagas, there were numbers of UNC football fans that were torn about their dismissals. Deny it now if you can, but they existed.
But what many in the North Carolina football fan base have been looking for over the past decades is not just a coach they can love, or just a coach whose family would look good on a Christmas card, or just a coach who gives terrific sound bites to the media, or even just a good coach – what North Carolina has been looking for is a great football coach. A great coach as in "basketball good" coach. That's a tall order, but that's what North Carolina football fans have wanted since the Jim Hickey days, and thought they had before Mack Brown decided he liked burnt orange better than Carolina blue.
Since the departure of Mack Brown, and even before, the expectations engendered by each new football head coach hire at UNC have largely been like a second marriage: the triumph of hope over experience. The hope being that the new coach was going to be "the one."
What will help the North Carolina fan base to have that "great coach" is something that is in very short supply in Chapel Hill – patience. Many fans thought that when Butch Davis took the reins of the North Carolina program he would begin churning out 10+ win seasons as far as the eye could see – it didn't work out that way. Perhaps had things gone differently, Davis would have fulfilled his promise at UNC and became that "great coach " UNC has always wanted. There's an argument to be made that he was on his way, yet what could have been never happened.
In the world of college football, a quick fix for any program is a rarity. It isn't a coincidence that Larry Fedora's best season as a head football coach came this year, winning a conference title after four years at Southern Mississippi. He wasn't a miracle worker at Southern Miss, and there's no reasonable justification to believe he will be at North Carolina. Fedora inherited some talent at North Carolina, but he'll have to mold that talent into his systems. That may not happen overnight.
What I do believe is that football will be exciting in Chapel Hill in the years to come, bearing in mind the old Chinese curse, "May you live in exciting times." Over the next year, two years, three years – there are going to be highs and lows on the football field – count on it. North Carolina will win some games they weren't expected to win, and lose some games they weren't supposed to lose. That's how it is when you're building a program.
In order to be a "great" coach at UNC, Fedora has to do more than win the press conference, he has to break the cycle of mediocre football at UNC and deliver on the implied promise of championship seasons he expressed at his press conference.
In short, Fedora's gotta win.
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