Fedora Painting Rivalry Red

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Less than 24 hours after a heartbreaking loss at Duke, North Carolina's players walked into a locker room bombarded with N.C. State paraphernalia. Consider it a message sent by the newest member of this heated rivalry – first-year UNC head coach Larry Fedora.

Publicly, Fedora has been subtle in acknowledging the rivalry with N.C. State ever since accepting the North Carolina job last December.

On Apr.25, Fedora assumed he was talking in a private setting at a Ram's Club booster event in Charlotte when he answered a question about the rivalry by saying the game was 184 days away.

He then added his now infamous remark: "I don't want to talk about it too much, because I don't want to legitimize their program."

On the way to the airport following the event, Fedora check his Twitter feed only to find it overrun by N.C. State fans. He played the politically correct card at his next booster outing, only noting the countdown of days and saying that he had learned his lesson.

Fedora would stress the importance of the rivalry in a different way less than a month later. In a series of hype videos for the upcoming season, the team mascots of every team on the schedule were named in rapid succession all in white lettering, except for one.

There was a "state" in red lettering slotted in between "blue devils" and "yellow jackets." The implied emphasis promptly became a hit with the Tar Heel fan base.

So while Fedora has continued to play the status quo card with media in highlighting the next game as the most important, Sunday's locker room decorations spoke volumes.

There were posters of N.C. State's schedule, photos of Wolfpack team celebrations and red and white ribbons taped to the walls, as well as a handful of personalized NCSU items aimed at specific Tar Heel players, according offensive guard Jonathan Cooper.

"When I came in, it was all ripped down and in the middle of the floor," Cooper said on Monday. "But I grabbed a few of the things and taped them up in my locker."

Cornerback Jabari Price told reporters the coaching staff's theatrics obtained its desired effect. Players were flying around with intensity during Sunday afternoon's practice session, as the Duke loss from the night before had been replaced with a dramatic splash of the rivalry week to come.

Fedora, of course, downplayed the decorations during his weekly press conference.

"It ties in with everything," he said. "We have stuff in the locker room each week on teams, but, again, we do things to motivate our players I'm sure just like everybody else does. I don't know if that's a big deal or not."

After stressing the "all games count the same" angle prior to the Duke contest, Fedora was more open on Monday in acknowledging the magnitude of this weekend's affair.

"We only get 12 opportunities and we're running out of opportunities," Fedora said. "This is the next one and it's the big one because it's our rivalry game. I can't tell you that we go out and change the way we practice, but it's something that is talked about amongst the team and it's talked about with the coaches and everybody. Everybody understands the importance of it."

Fedora indicated that he's heard about this rivalry since the first handshake upon taking the UNC job and fully understands what the fan base wants and expects.

There's a fine line with regard to embracing rivalries that is difficult to manage. Place too much emphasis on one game (see former UNC head coach John Bunting) and you can be saddled with inconsistency in other areas of the schedule. Adopt the NFL approach of "all 12 games are equal" (see former UNC head coach Butch Davis) and you can fail to match the intensity level of a hated rival.

Thus far, Fedora is playing his hand just right. He's providing the proper sound bites while making strong statements with his actions leading up to the first benchmark game of his tenure in Chapel Hill.

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