Admit it. Somewhere along the line, you’ve said it or thought it. Let’s start with short yardage situations. It’s a goal line situation, or a 3rd and short, and there’s Mitch Trubisky, lined up six yards behind center with a back next to him. You want for all the world to play 1985 football right now, go to an I formation, and put Trubisky under center. And when the ball’s snapped, if the play doesn’t work, well, that’s when you say it or think it: “Man, that guy’s stubborn.” If you’re a Tar Heel, my suggestion is to be awfully glad that you’re exactly, 100% right. Larry Fedora is stubborn.
Quick – without googling it – how long has Fedora been at UNC? Two years? Three? Still feel a little like the new guy to you?
The answer is that it’s been almost five years. It’s worth stepping back to December 2011, because only by starting there can you appreciate the genius of stubbornness. UNC football had just completed what had to have been the most miserable 7-6 season the football gods have ever concocted. It started with Butch Davis being fired on July 27, little more than a month before the start of the season, and after he had appeared on ACC football media day.
Into the breach was thrown Everett Withers, an assistant coach known only to the most hardcore UNC football fans. He proceeded to lead a distracted, disinterested team through a slog of a season that took roughly 14 years to complete. It finally came to an end, fittingly, in Shreveport, Louisiana at the – wait for it – AdvoCare V100 Independence Bowl THE DAY AFTER CHRISTMAS, where neither fan, nor coach (Withers had already been told he wouldn’t be retained), nor player had the faintest desire to be. And that’s precisely how they played. To describe it as mailing in the game would be gravely insulting to the postal service. By halftime it was 31-10 and there was no one in the joint who had the faintest fantasy that any rally was coming. Happy Holidays. Enjoy greater Shreveport.
So this is what Fedora walks into, but of course that’s not the half of it. No, we were just getting warmed up. The NCAA was on campus and clouds were darkening. Not only was Fedora inheriting a locker room full of kids who he’d never met, many of whom felt angry, wounded, and betrayed (and that doesn’t count the ones suspended and ruled ineligible), but there was no reason to think it was going to be particularly easy to find the players he’d need to put out the fire. Things were so dire that Athletics Director Bubba Cunningham literally tried to talk him out of the job during the interview process.
Before long, Fedora must have wondered why he didn’t listen. Stubborn, I guess. He was purposely walking into what was almost certainly the lowest point in UNC football history. I say this as someone who sat through back-to-back 1-10 seasons, the rainy loss to a bad Navy team, and being humiliated at home 28-3 by Furman. This was worse, and it isn’t close. Putting aside the sanctions that pretty much everyone knew were coming, the uncertainty that set in over the program was perhaps an even greater drag. Although Fedora understood that this, too, was part of the deal, no one could have known how long it would drag on and how desperately some people – even people who ought to be allies – would want him to fail. It’s still not entirely over.
When there’s a defined sanction to talk about, a coach can sit in a living room and squarely address the issue and how it will be dealt with and how it will affect a recruit. He can be honest and direct. But when there’s a seemingly endless waiting period during which time there are endless theories about what might happen, well, let’s just say everyone you’re recruiting against can get very creative in describing what might happen. All Fedora had to sell was courage and his best guesses about what was coming. This has cost UNC a number of players that would have made a big difference. It has hurt. But somehow, often enough, Fedora’s pitch worked.
Approaching five years into it, Larry Fedora has not coached one minute in Chapel Hill without either some kind of sanction or the threat of more sanctions hanging over his program, to say nothing of the associated rumors and vitriol. He is not even faintly responsible for any of it. And here’s the thing: in five years, has anyone ever heard Larry Fedora utter a word of complaint? Would any college football coach be more justified in pointing out the frustration of dealing with burdens put upon him through no fault of his own? Would anyone have blamed him for leaving for greener pastures rather than continuing to deal with this mess? Yet here he is, and not a word. If anything, you get the sense that he almost likes the fact that you think he can’t do it – that this is too hard, too much, too unfair. Oh yeah? Watch this. Stubbornness is like that.
With a roster that is short both in absolute numbers and in elite players who chose to trust Fedora amidst the turmoil and fear-mongering, this is what he produced:
- A Coastal Division title, followed by an ACC Championship game that could easily have gone the Tar Heels’ way.
- Another Coastal Division title that the Tar Heels could not accept due to sanctions.
- An 11-game winning streak.
- An unprecedented nine-game road winning streak.
- Back-to-back road wins over ranked Florida teams.
- A credible shot at a third Coastal title and another crack at the ACC championship game.
- The words “College Football Playoff” and “North Carolina” have been used in the same sentence without a punchline.
- Just about every meaningful UNC offensive record anyone can think of.
- Zero complaints.
- Zero excuses.
The North Carolina football job is supposed to be impossible. You’ve heard it all before. It’s a basketball school. Football is there to pass the time before preseason basketball starts. Kenan is beautiful, but you’re never going to mistake it for Baton Rouge on a Saturday night. Too wine and cheese for all that. At the same time, because the fanbase is so accustomed to extraordinary success in basketball, they tend to turn their noses up at “pretty good” football and find other things to do, including complaining about the football team. The football fans, after a lifetime of almosts and never-closes, will simply never recover from the scandal. It broke them. They’re not coming back.
I hope Larry Fedora reads that. If he does, I bet he smiles. Oh yeah? Watch this. And that reaction is precisely the reason he is the person you want in charge of UNC football. North Carolina is now winning games it simply never wins: a 17-play drive converting 3 fourth downs en route to beating Pitt on the last play; beating Florida State on a game-winning field goal with time expiring in their house; producing a run defense seemingly out of thin air to beat Miami in Coral Gables, and then following up by having a much-maligned defense hold UVa to three yards per play. This is not normal for us. It may be a cliché to say that teams tend to assume the personality of the head coach, but is there a better way to describe this team than as one that stubbornly refuses to back down from a challenge?
Maybe it’s not the short yardage plays for you. Maybe it’s the PAT’s. You know the ones. The team lines up in some crazy formation, checking for who-knows-what, and you’re nervous as hell about it. Mostly they come back to an ordinary kick formation and Weiler puts it through. But every now and again, they snap it. When they get two, you feel more relief than joy. And when it doesn’t work? You know what you’re thinking -- Why is he so stubborn? Doesn’t he see?
And that’s fine. Larry Fedora isn’t perfect, but just like a good marriage, it’s the things that drive you nuts that make the whole thing work. You don’t get the Coastal on a short roster, or the win at FSU, or any of the rest of it if not for the guy who looks every adversity in the face and insists on handling it his way, no matter what anyone else thinks. You don’t get the guy who has the best chance in 50 years to establish North Carolina football as a program if he’s interested in your theories on play calling. He’s a stubborn SOB, but he’s our stubborn SOB, and so long as that is the case, you should hope he never changes, because he’s well on his way to taking us where we’ve never been.