Ironically, Bunting’s final words to the press during the official announcement were an answer to a question about how he intended to inspire his players during the final five games of the season. His response?
“Let’s go play the dadgum ballgame. Let’s go have some fun.”
It is no surprise that Bunting’s last words to the press included the word, “fun.” For John Bunting, no sport on earth creates more opportunities for having fun, and it is the joy the game brings him that fuels his passion for the sport of football. It was a fact he reiterated again on Monday.
“The fun and the passion for this game is unmatched in any sport,” Bunting said.
In the games played through last Thursday night, UNC and Bunting won 25 of 67 football games. To be sure, at times, there were some good times had along the way. That first big win, over annual ACC bully Florida State, was certainly a lot of fun as happy fans struggled trying to pull down goalposts that were secured a little too well on the Kenan Stadium turf. I recall seeing Rick Steinbacher on the field that afternoon as UNC fans celebrated on the field. Steinbacher, sporting a wide grin, looked at me and said, “Recruiting just got a whole lot easier.”
There were other fun times that season, none more so, however, than the Peach Bowl and the win over Auburn. The entire trip seemed like one long party. The Tar Heels ended the season at 8-5, and the future looked bright for UNC football and for John Bunting. I recall Steinbacher talking to Bunting on the way to the press conference, telling him what a great ride it had all been. Happy times.
Those times didn’t last very long before Bunting heard his first sour notes, criticism at the time he didn’t understand.
On Signing Day, after an inaugural season that had to be deemed successful, North Carolina was turned down by prospect after prospect, and one verbally committed player made a very public and much-publicized defection to UNC’s arch-rival, NC State. Before the press conference was even held to announce the signing class, the media and the Internet were full of predictions of dire consequences. At the start of the press conference, Bunting looked out at the press corps and expressed his disappointment in the negative treatment the class had received. There was not a lot of merriment had that day.
Then North Carolina entered into the long, dark tunnel what was the 2002 and 2003 seasons. Gone were talented defensive players like Julius Peppers, Ryan Sims, Quincy Monk, David Thornton, and Joey Evans. Torbush had not left the program well-stocked to fill in talent behind those players, and Bunting’s first two classes provided little relief for a team outmanned nearly every time they stepped on the field, a talent-gap made more egregious by the poor timing of playing some of the toughest schedules in the nation both years.
Those two years now seem like a lost weekend, but minus the type of fun that usually accompanies them. At Syracuse in 2002, after the press conference following one of the only wins that season, on the way out of the tunnel Bunting stopped and spoke to me. He was clearly emotional and just wanted to tell someone how proud he was of the team, a team he felt was outmanned and yet still managed to win. I just happened to be the one standing there, but I’ll never forget how passionately he spoke about the effort of his team.
But 2003 finally did bring some smiles to the faces of the Tar Heels. North Carolina was engaged in recruiting one of its best classes in years, headlined by such players as Adarius Bowman, Fred Sparkman, Isaiah Thomas, and Terry Hunter. It seemed that recovery was just a matter of time.
The 2004 season seemed to hold some promise. When I would see Bunting at fall practice, he’d ask me, “Still think football is the greatest sport, Buck?” I would answer, “Yes, coach, it is the greatest sport.” That exchange never failed to bring a smile to his face. But the season took a dramatic turn immediately after North Carolina beat the odds to defeat NC State at home on a controversial last second call, a turn that was perhaps fatal to Bunting’s chances to succeed.
Following that game, some of the brightest stars of that 2003 class; Sparkman, Thomas, and Bowman, were interrupted by campus police in their dorm room while they were smoking pot. The NC State game turned out to be their last game in a Tar Heel uniform. They were not the only highly-touted players from that 2003 class to fall by the wayside and never fulfill their potential in a Tar Heel uniform. North Carolina is still feeling the effects of the talent drain from that class.
North Carolina would go on the next week to face a powerful and emerging Utah team and suffer one of the worst beatings in its history, in terms of yards yielded on defense. After that game, Bunting stood in the end zone of Utah’s field, taking questions from the press. Dick Baddour was there, standing a respectful distance away. I am not sure how I found the nerve, but I recall asking Bunting how he would be able to pull the team back together after such a devastating loss. I don’t recall much about his answer. Something about the team had to decide how they would finish the season, but at the time all I could think about was the impossibility of recovering anything from that season after such a loss. No one had much fun that night.
After that game, rumors flew everywhere that Bunting’s dismissal at the end of the season was all but assured. Potential coaches were discussed ad nauseum on Inside Carolina’s message boards and at water coolers throughout the state.
On my office wall I have a framed photograph of Connor Barth’s leaping signal that the game-winning field goal had just sailed through the uprights against Miami. Just two weeks after North Carolina looked like a dead-team-walking, they had pulled off the biggest upset in North Carolina history, the first time the Tar Heels had ever beaten a top five opponent. That was a night I’ll never forget. Not only was it the biggest win in UNC history, it might be the most improbable victory in college football I’ve ever witnessed.
How North Carolina pulled itself off the canvas after the Utah game and managed to deliver a knockout blow to Miami will remain, for me, one of life’s great mysteries. North Carolina would go on to close out the season with only one more regular season defeat, a closely-contested battle against Virginia Tech. The North Carolina defense had somehow discovered how to play the game.
The 2005 season would mean breaking in a new quarterback, senior Matt Baker, among other challenges. One of the biggest challenges was another brutal schedule, a fixture in the Bunting era. The season stumbled to a 5-6 finish, punctuated by a dismal loss to Maryland at home after enjoying a double-digit lead. But the bright spot was recruiting and UNC looked to be on its way to a very good class. It closed well, adding four-star players Jarrell Miller and Aleric Mullins to the type of class it takes to be competitive in the ACC.
The offseason brought more good news. Marvin Sanders, who had directed a resurgent 2005 defense, was persuaded from moving to Texas A&M by a salary increase and a multi-year deal. Then Bunting lured one of the hot young offensive coordinators in the game, Frank Cignetti, to come to Chapel Hill. Other solid coaching hires were added to the mix, and UNC was experiencing positive momentum going into spring practice. The coaching staff was excited and enthusiastic about the prospects for the 2006 season, and both spring and fall practice seemed to suggest that this year the Tar Heels might be able to get over the hump and back to a bowl. The 2006 schedule looked less daunting, and the expectation level increased among UNC fans.
The first game of the season would be against Rutgers, a Big East team that deserved to be respected, but one that the Tar Heels should be favored to beat. When that game ended, so did all the fun. Now six games later, the Tar Heels have only one win to show for the tireless efforts of six years. The decision was painful, but necessary. Dick Baddour officially ended the party Sunday night and the doleful press conference addressed the inquiries of the press today. Baddour and Bunting looked like the unhappiest men alive.
I hope that Bunting gets his wish during the remaining five games and that both he and the team can manage to have some fun. It won’t be easy. We can hope that the team can go out and play for the sheer joy of the game that exudes from every pore in Bunting’s skin. That would be the greatest tribute the team could pay him.
Go out have some dadgum fun, guys. And Coach Bunting, if you’re reading this, football is still the greatest game, and I hope it doesn’t lose you.