If you’re looking for a soft landing and words of encouragement in the wake of the UNC's 47-34 loss at N.C. State, then stop reading right now.
Head coach John Bunting’s approval rating has plummeted over the past four weeks. Most of his supporters accepted the 3-9 record in 2002 as a necessary bump in the road to future success. But since the opening night loss to Florida State, that bump has reversed its growth into a seemingly impassible crevasse.
The fact that the Tar Heels are so far from defensive improvement is the problem. How long will it take? Speed can’t be taught, and evidently neither can tackling – at least to the current UNC soldiery. Unlike in the National Football League, Carolina can’t trade any of its high-profile freshmen or its record-setting quarterback for some immediate help either.
The slight signs of improvement during the early stages of the season doesn’t seem to be cutting it with some fans. And Saturday’s loss certainly did not help Carolina’s recruiting efforts, as many of the state’s top 2004 prospects list the Tar Heels and Wolfpack as their leaders. UNC coaches can only hope that many chose not to fork out cash for the pay-per-view television coverage.
Sure, Carolina’s latest recruiting class is chock full of potential defensive stars. But their capability of turning things around is years, not months away. And if the next class of recruits does not rival its predecessor, then the consensus Top 15 class of 2003 may not make much difference in future wins and losses.
The 2001 regular season and subsequent Peach Bowl championship should have been a boon to the Tar Heels’ recruiting success. But Bunting was then, and still is cutting his teeth as a Division I coach, amidst one of the nation’s most demanding fan bases.
Climbing to the top of the Atlantic Coast Conference can take years. Just ask Duke fans. But Carolina proved last season, that falling back to the league’s second division can happen almost overnight.
Thanks to one of the more potent offenses in recent memory, the Tar Heels should win some games this year. Heck, other than a 37-0 loss to the Seminoles, UNC has had a chance to win in each of its other contests.
A near miss versus Syracuse, and a respectable loss at Wisconsin has kept hope alive for change in Carolina’s tumbling fortunes. But, the loss to the Wolfpack may have changed that – not due to the final margin of defeat, but because of the importance of the opponent.
The frustration was evident on Bunting's and some of his players’ faces during post-game interviews in Raleigh. Yet for the most part the Tar Heels should be commended for keeping their heads up during their current swoon.
Patience is virtueless to Bunting's growing list of detractors. Perhaps it will be best for the current coaching staff if fans can now turn down the volume on their expectations. In the meantime, the pressure is going to grow even stronger on the current regime, especially with no tangible proof that a recovery will come sooner than later.
Next Saturday’s match-up with Virginia is also winnable, but it has yet to be determined if this year’s Tar Heels even know how to win. It may be the following week when they travel to Greenville before they will enter a game as a legitimate favorite, and even a win over East Carolina is not a sure thing.
As likable as Bunting is, there is no guarantee that the program has been turned around and is headed in the right direction. On the other hand, it may still be too early to hang him in effigy, although that seemed to do wonders for a certain UNC basketball coach about 40 years ago.
Matt Doherty found out how hard fans can come down on an alumnus with a stellar reputation from his playing days. He was exiled from the program to the point that his future coaching career is now in doubt.
Prior to this football season, it appeared Bunting would be immune to such criticism. However, he now is experiencing the grass roots of a dissent that only Carolina fans seem capable of.
Bunting’s greatest skills may be in the way he impresses new prospects with his no-nonsense approach and the genuine love he portrays for his alma mater. Successful recruiting is as important as any single-game victory in college football, which is quite remarkable considering the majority of Bunting’s background has come at the professional level.
Former Tar Heel coach Mack Brown, who could sell ice to Greenlanders, resurrected the UNC program almost solely through recruiting, while he has rarely gained respect for what he has accomplished on the sidelines.
Bunting’s firing is by no means imminent, nor is it deserved at this point. But the first step to a coaching change begins with dissatisfied fans, whether their actions and comments are warranted or not. The train of negativism has left the station, with the only braking mechanism available through a UNC win.
Carolina fans should hope that win comes soon, because another coaching transition will only prolong the program's progress.