Since then, the UNC senior from Miami, Fla., has been a team leader – first by example, then by voice.
“It was my fault; it was self-inflicted,” Richardson said. “My mouth got me in trouble a lot and Coach Bunting and I didn’t see eye-to-eye a lot. There was a lot of head clashing during my first couple of years here. But, by the grace of God, I started to become more humble.”
Yet it took time and working through some troublesome experiences for Richardson. Out of necessity, Bunting was not able to redshirt him, so Richardson played in 11 games as a true freshman – primarily on special teams. Then as a sophomore, he played in four games at safety, with his most extensive action coming in the Tar Heels’ 37-0 season opening loss to Florida State.
That was not a good night for linebackers, and Bunting, along with everybody in Kenan Stadium on that hot, muggy night. Those watching on national television could see Carolina needed to increase its speed at the position.
Richardson was moved to linebacker at the start of last season, but the root of the conflict between him and Bunting concerned playing time.
“I was like, ‘I’m here to play football,” Richardson said. “I’m going through all the weight training and all of the late night studying and I’m not playing.’ I was like, ‘What’s the use of doing all of that and not playing?’
“Finally I looked at it and assessed what I was doing wrong. He wanted me to move to linebacker.”
Still, five games into his junior season, Richardson had yet to fully get it. First, he was suspended for the third game of the season against Georgia Tech for what UNC officials referred to as "an internal disciplinary matter."
"My mouth had gotten me in trouble," Richardson recalled.
Then, after starting the next game against Louisville, his low-point came on Oct. 2, 2004, when the 2-2 Tar Heels traveled to Tallahassee to face FSU. Bunting decided to send a message and pulled him from the starting lineup.
To make matters worse, 30 or so of Richardson’s family and friends had come up from the Miami area, including his 68-year-old grandfather.
“They sat me out; I didn’t play at all,” Richardson said, as the only record of his performance from that game in the box score is a special teams tackles.
But when Richardson met his family in the parking lot after the game, there were no long faces. No one said anything like, “Coach should have put you in.” Instead they simply encouraged him to hang in there.
“And that was the turning point,” Richardson said.
It certainly was. Richardson went on to finish the season as the team co-leader with 67 tackles, including 39 solo. He led Carolina with a career-best 14 tackles against Boston College in the Continental Tire Bowl.
“He’s made advancements every single year,” Bunting said. “He’s a young man who had to make an adjustment to college life, and most young men have to do that. I think he needed to get adjusted to the speed of the game. He was one of about 15-20 players that if we had had the ability to redshirt him it would have been beneficial to him and more beneficial to us because he would have had another year of playing.”
An incident during preseason training camp this past August demonstrated just how far Richardson had come. During a drill involving both running backs and linebackers, Bunting became so incensed that he ran over and got in Richardson’s face. The two were nose-to-nose. Bunting yelled, as his hat flew off and his clipboard hit the ground, “You’re not in the Pro Bowl yet, Tommy Richardson!”
Richardson said not a word and went back to work.
“It was just a regular day for us,” Richardson said after practice. “We’re just running around trying to get better.”
“We had a discussion,” Bunting added, tongue in cheek, referring to an error Richardson had made prior to lining up for action. “I want drills to go fast and I want our practices to get a lot of repetitions.”
No problem at all. Point taken. That was it. And Richardson’s demeanor has rubbed off on his teammates. From the beginning of the season, there’s been no doubt who is the leader of the defense.
“He’s one of those guys who brings the same attitude every day,” Larry Edwards said. “He brings a positive attitude to practice, he keeps us hyped and he’s just non-stop all day. He’s a great role model, a great friend to have on the team and we’re real lucky to have him on our defense.
“He’s going to joke with you off the field, but in the game he’s going to have your back. He’s the first one to say, ‘Let’s go to work. Playtime is over, now it’s time to get the job done.’”
UNC linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen added, “When stuff starts to happen in the game, a lot of those kids look to Tommy
Richardson because he knows every play on defense. He’s as good as I’ve ever been around in terms of getting kids going off the field. This summer he stayed around all summer long, didn’t want to go home, wanted to be
around the young guys and show them how to do things the right way.
“If you cut him open right now, he bleeds that blue.”
This week Richardson is preparing for what will be his final game in Kenan Stadium this Saturday versus Duke.
“I’m kind of at a loss of words thinking about it,” he said. “My grandfather is going to go out on the field with me.”
Though there is likely to be more football in his future. He expects to get his chance to perform this spring for NFL scouts. At 6-foot-1, 228 pounds, size should not be a major concern, and Richardson says he can still bring it with ‘4.5 speed.’
While he’s certainly not overly consumed with the potential of a professional football career at this moment; of course, it’s on his mind.
“I believe if you want to be a really talented player you have to think about that,” Richardson said. “You want to see what your weaknesses are and what you have to work on.
“When the scouts came, I had been running 4.5s, but they clocked me at a 4.7 because I had some illegal shoes on and I didn’t know anything about it. I run down people all of the time. Whatever system I’m in, I’m ready to adapt. I’ve played safety and quarterback. I’ve played tight end as well. Hopefully they can see that.”
Bunting said, “Tommy has really good football instincts and he has a great mind for the game. Since he’s been playing that WILL linebacker position which started about the fourth or fifth game of last year, he’s just taken to it. He’s our signal caller. He’s a guy that can anticipate plays. He can tell guys what to look for out there on the field as far as formations, splits and motions, which gives him an edge over a lot of players, because he then can anticipate getting from Point A to point C without going to B."