There have been plenty of ups-and-downs along the way. Upsetting Miami at Kenan Stadium in ’07, winning at Virginia Tech in ’09 and then breaking “The Streak” in Charlottesville one year later. There were recruiting surprises and disappointments, but for the first time since Mack Brown’s tenure, UNC was competing for prospects with elite programs and that stirred the fan base.
That hope, however, seemed to accompany Brown to Texas in '97 and took nearly a decade to find its way back to Chapel Hill.
There were also plenty of negatives to go along with the positives. The NCAA’s investigation into agents and extra benefits began in July ’10 and an additional prong into academic misconduct started one month later.
Carolina fans tend to focus more on the pluses, while ABCers concentrate on the minuses, but the truth of the matter is that the final verdict of this era may still be years away. One critical factor in that eventual opinion will be the lone variable remaining – the NCAA’s final ruling, which is expected to arrive in the coming weeks.
But while much of the fan base and media had already turned their attention to Larry Fedora and his new approach, the current players wanted to take advantage of one last opportunity to send the remaining Davis era coaches out on a positive note with a bowl win.
“It’s definitely disappointing not letting them go out with a win,” freshman running back Gio Bernard said following Monday's 41-24 loss to Missouri in the Independence Bowl. “I think a lot of guys in there feel the same exact way. A lot of this coaching staff may not even be here next year, but it’s just a matter of us really wanting to win for these guys and win for the seniors and we came up short.”
Sophomore quarterback Bryn Renner agreed, pointing to the difficult journey that allowed UNC to play in the postseason for the fourth-straight season.
“I think we went through a lot this season, which shows the character of our coaching staff and these players and this team,” Renner said. “You can’t say enough about this team. It’s one of my favorite teams that I’ve been on because of what we’ve gone through and how close we’ve become.”
Bernard and Renner will play critical roles in Fedora’s new spread offense, but both underclassmen indicated that they wanted to reflect on the season first before turning their focus to the new coaching staff as Jan. 9 – the day that players return to UNC – approaches.
For Withers, it marked a heartbreaking end for an interim head coach that so desperately wanted the permanent title. But while he practiced brevity with the media in his final postgame press conference as UNC’s coach, he spoke openly and honestly with his players following the game.
Defensive end Quinton Coples shared some of Withers’s comments to the team: “Just keep our heads up. It’s unfortunate that we lost. Everybody in the building wanted to win. He said he loved all of us and he’s just got to go on and move on.”
It is time for this North Carolina program to move on, but don’t forget the memories. At the end of the day, collegiate athletics is about the players above all else, and this group of Tar Heels stuck together during a tumultuous 18-months when it would have been easy to fall apart.