Butch Davis and his last-second replacement for the 2011 season, interim head coach Everett Withers, delivered a 9-7 record against in-state FBS opponents from 2007-11. Against its Triangle adversaries, Duke and N.C. State, the record dropped to 5-5, including an 0-5 mark against the Wolfpack.
Davis had adopted the NFL mentality that all 12 regular season games were equal, no one more important than the next. Former UNC head coach John Bunting (’01-06), whose overall resume in Chapel Hill paled in comparison to Davis’s, had no issue hyping the rivalry matchups.
Bunting’s rivalry approach worked, as evidenced by his 9-3 record against Duke and N.C. State.
Fedora’s high energy level lends itself to the college game much more than the even-keeled NFL atmosphere, so it’s understandable that fans and media alike assumed the first-year UNC head coach would ratchet up the emotion for rivalry weeks, which arrive back-to-back with Duke on the schedule for Saturday and N.C. State arriving in town next weekend.
When asked on Monday if the intensity in practice would increase for the matchup with the 5-2 Blue Devils, Fedora replied: “I don’t know.”
“I expect us to practice the same way,” he continued. “The culture that we are trying to create is that every game is the most important game. The next game is the most important game and it’s still about how you prepare. It’s about preparation, it’s about energy level and so I’m hoping that our guys do exactly what we’ve done the last three or four weeks in a row.
“I want the same intensity level in practice. That’s what I want. I don’t need to see anything differently. If we just match what we’ve been doing then I feel like we’re going to be okay.”
Junior safety Tre Boston has played under Davis, Withers and Fedora and points to an increased urgency in all games this year, not just for rivalry games.
“We just prepare for them like every other game, honestly,” Boston said. “It’s not even so much them, it’s about us coming out to play. It’s about us executing every week. We don’t worry too much about our opponent.”
Red-shirt sophomore running back Gio Bernard went so far as to downplay the importance of rivalry games.
“People consider it a rivalry, but rivalries are just another game,” Bernard said. “Each and every single rivalry, it’s really just another game. It’s just the hype around it that makes it a little bit more than what it is. For us, it’s a football game and we’ve got to go out there and get that win.”
While N.C. State is a different story, North Carolina has had little problem with Duke over the past two decades, rival or not. UNC has won 21 of the last 22 meetings with the Blue Devils.
Regardless of his approach to rivalries, Fedora won’t allow complacency to set in, according to Bernard.
“He’s been able to stress not ever getting complacent with anything,” Bernard said. “That dates back to when he first came in here. Each and every day that we work out, he wants us to get better. He doesn’t want us to plateau and be in that complacent shape. We have that mentality; we know not to be complacent. We know that nothing should be taken for granted.”
Boston had difficulty – and he’s not alone – in explaining the divide between treating each game the same while acknowledging rivalry contests.
“To us, it’s just a little bit more, [but] I don’t want to even say a little bit more,” Boston said. “I feel like the fans are in it just a little bit more, even. The fans know that this rivalry goes back way before we even started playing. We have older fans and when they come to these games, they tend to cheer and cheer a little bit louder.”
Fedora addressed the issue a second time toward the end of his weekly press conference.
“For me personally, I truly believe in what we’re preaching, that the next game is the most important game,” Fedora said. “And it happens to be a rivalry game. It happens to be an in-state rival, it happens to be Duke. It doesn’t, for me, make it any more important because when I say it’s important, it’s important. It’s the next game; it’s a conference game. It stands between the goals that we’re trying to achieve and so it’s big because of that alone.”
The irony, of course, is that the Tar Heels rolled out the Victory Bell to the practice fields on Sunday afternoon, where it will stay for the remainder of the week.
“We’re going to ring that thing every day, every practice and every period,” Boston said. “We make sure we know that’s our bell. We haven’t lost it in years and I don’t plan on losing it while I’m here and I know Fedora doesn’t plan on losing it while he’s coaching.”
At the end of the day, results are the only thing that matters. But, regardless of how Fedora and his players approach the next two weeks, the North Carolina fan base expects to see impassioned play followed by bragging rights after each game.
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