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UNC Athletics: Catching up with Corey Holliday

The former UNC wideout and current Associate AD discusses growing up, the NFL, and Larry Fedora’s Freak Show.

North Carolina v Duke Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

I recently got the chance to sit down with former UNC wideout and current Associate Athletic Director Corey Holliday. By the time he graduated in 1993, Holliday held the the since-broken school record for career receptions. He played in 47 games in his career and caught a pass in every one of them.

Holliday went on to play for the Pittsburgh Steelers and caught two passes in the Steelers’ loss to the Dallas Cowboys in Superbowl XXX. He now coordinates day-to-day football administration and supervises football operational personnel, among other responsibilities.

So, tell me a bit about yourself. What first got you into football?

I’ve been playing football my whole life. I started playing football when I was six-years-old. Everybody else in the neighborhood was playing on a team so I joined. Actually, my favorite sport was tennis until I was about 13 and then couldn’t afford to keep playing in the tournaments, so I stuck with football instead.

When did you know that you were really good at football?

I started realizing I was good at about my tenth grade year. I realized that I had some skills that my teammates maybe didn’t have, but still, in high school, I was never the best player on the team. They gave me something to work for—they had a lot more talented players on the team in high school. Unfortunately, a lot of them didn’t get to go to Division I schools because of grades or different issues, but, like I said, it was a competitive environment.

From high school, how did you end up at Carolina?

I wanted to go somewhere I could get a good education and also play big-time college football. I grew up being a Virginia fan so I thought I’d end up going to UVA. I wanted to go to UVA—Herman Moore, Shawn Moore... Coach (George) Welsh was winning. They were top 10 in the country my junior year so I really thought that I was going to end up committed to UVA until Mack Brown got involved recruiting me. I came on a visit to Chapel Hill and fell in love with it.

And then out of the NFL, how did you end up in Chapel Hill?

I moved up to Columbus, Ohio and worked at Ohio State for a semester in athletic academics. There, I realized that I did not like working in athletic academics at Ohio State. So I worked in corporate America for three years at Anderson Consulting, and then I had an opportunity when Coach (Carl) Torbush left and Coach (John) Bunting came in with a position on his staff. Rick Steinbacher, who was my teammate at Carolina, told me he’d had a position open up so I applied for it and was fortunate enough to get it and I’ve been here ever since.

So, you played in 45 straight games, and you caught a pass in all 45 games. Was there a time when the streak was in jeopardy?

I played in 47 games—at that time they didn’t count bowl games. So I caught a pass in 47 straight games. We only had to manufacture a pass one game, I’ll be honest. It was the first game of the year my senior year against Southern Cal. It’s funny, we were winning the game handily and we only threw 10 or 12 passes that game. We get to the fourth quarter and Coach Brown realized that I hadn’t caught a pass yet. So he put me in, called a screen, told me to fall, then I went back to the sidelines and the game was over. It was somewhat early in the fourth quarter but we had the game in hand so we weren’t really trying to throw the ball. He just called a safe screen pass and I caught the pass then we proceeded to run the option which they hadn’t seen a lot of at that time.

Over your career at UNC, is there a game or moment that sticks out to you that you’re particularly proud of?

There were quite a few moments in my junior year under Mack Brown when we finally turned the corner and felt like a winning program and felt like we could finally be a top 25 team. We beat Virginia and Georgia Tech back-to-back and became a top 25 team, first time we’d done that under Mack Brown. They took down the goalposts after that Georgia Tech game—that was really special because it showed that, okay, people do care about football around here and that we don’t have to be average. That was a big moment.

My senior year against Florida State, it was a night game, first night game we’d had in awhile. The stands were already packed two hours before the game. That was pretty neat. We came out of the locker room at the old Kenan Football Center and heard all this noise and went out to the field to see how many people were in the stands already. It was pretty exciting.

Conversely, do you have a ‘what if’ moment?

Well, I was wide open running down the sidelines in the Super Bowl when we had our last interception thrown. What if he had thrown me the pass? That may have changed things—that may have won the Super Bowl for us. That’s my biggest ‘what if’ moment. But at Carolina? No. I really think that what we came in for, we came in and did. I was on the team that went 1-10. By the time I was a senior, we went 10-2 and played Alabama in the Gator Bowl. People told me not to come here because we recruited four other top receivers. At the same time, they told me that I won’t catch any passes, and we proceeded to have a 1000 yard rusher every year I played, and one year we had two 1000 yard rushers, yet I still ended my career with the most receptions in school history at the time.

Yeah, the program pulled a complete 180 in your four years here.

Yeah, it was tough. We were being recruited during the 1-10 year and it was tough, me coming to Carolina. Virginia—my favorite school—was recruiting me and they were in the top 10 and predicted to be in the top 10 the next year as well. Mack recruited me to help turn the program around. My redshirt freshman year we went 1-10 again, won our first game and lost the next ten. So there were definitely some moments in time that you question decisions but, at the end of the five years, I ended up with two degrees, met my wife, and had some great moments on the football field.

So then, how in the world did Mack Brown sway you to come to UNC?

He did a great job of showing me all the good things about this university and also, the coaching staff made me feel like it was about more than just football. Once I got here I felt very comfortable on campus and I liked the diversity. That’s what made it special for me. And Virginia is very similar academically so I knew I would get a great education here as far as the things I was interested in majoring in. Virginia had the edge in football but socially and the things we are doing here, with the guys Coach Brown was recruiting at the time, really made me think that we could get it done here. Plus, he recruited my mom.

You were in an NFL player, so take me through the jump that these six UNC players in the 2017 draft class are facing.

It’s such a different culture in the NFL. In college, you have a small range of ages, everybody is within four or five years of each other. Everyone is going through the same thing: gotta go to class, pass your classes, and you’re in a limited timeframe to get a lot done, football-wise. Once you get out of college, it’s a profession. It’s truly a profession. From eight to five, your craft is becoming the best football player you can be and your teammates are at all different levels of their career, too. Some of them are trying to take your job, whereas in college it’s always doing your best and being the best team you can be to win. The common goal in the NFL is to win but it’s also everyone to be the best individual player they can be, and that may be taking your position or taking your job.

So these guys just drafted are getting ready to enter training camp. They have to focus on being the best player that they can and doing whatever the coach asks them but realize that it’s a profession. You just have to stay focused.

Mitch Trubisky is obviously expected a lot of in Chicago, but is there a player from this class that will surprise people?

I really think that Naz Jones and TJ Logan are guys that you didn’t hear of a lot but they were professionals while they were here as far as doing what they were supposed to do and taking care of business. The NFL is somewhat set up for their skill sets. A big defensive lineman like Naz and the quickness that TJ has, I think they’re set up to do special things. Obviously, I think all of them are special; that’s why they got drafted. But two guys that maybe didn’t get as much attention while they were at Carolina who will do well are TJ and Naz.

Thoughts on the upcoming 2017 season?

Well, we have to replace 99% of our offense and 75% of our defensive coaching staff, so we have some areas to show some improvement and show what we can do. I think Coach Fedora is the perfect coach to be in charge right now because his attitude and demand to be the best is going to make his guys deliver. The way that he coaches and demands excellence in being smart, fast, and physical in everything we do, I think we are going to surprise some teams. They think we are missing a lot of offense, which we are, but he isn’t going to accept that as a reason to not be good.

Have you seen any of Brandon Harris?

He is not enrolled yet so I have not so I have not. But I’ve seen some of the other grad transfer guys have started working out with the team and they will be helpful—Cam Dillard, Khaliel Rodgers. Their experience has been helpful and also makes other guys on the team realize that it’s not a big difference as far as what we’ve been doing and what places like Auburn, LSU, Florida, USC have been doing. So I think that helps reinforce to these young guys that it’s not a big difference between some of these programs as far as work ethic and what you have to do to be good.

Carolina is opening at home against Cal this year after opening on neutral sites the past two seasons. What are your thoughts on neutral field openers versus home openers?

I think there’s two parts. Obviously, as a student athlete, you love to open up at home in front of your family and friends in a comfortable environment, but it’s also about being a part of the University of North Carolina where we only have 60,000 seats. So those neutral field games sometimes give us extra revenue that we wouldn’t usually get from a home opener. So you gotta balance it out. I think our AD, Bubba Cunningham, and Coach Fedora do a great job of making sure we don’t do it every year but we do it enough that we can get the financial benefit from it, as well as the motivating factor of our players opening up against a fairly good team at a neutral site. So with those two things combined, there’s a place for it but obviously we love to play in front of the Tar Pit at home.

Coach Fedora has now long established a high energy culture around UNC football, culminating with the Freak Show in June. Tell me about that culture.

The neat thing when you talk about the Freak Show and what happens there, you’re talking about some of the best high school kids in the country—I mean, we’re getting them from all over the country who come and compete. A lot of the times, you get players going into their senior year and they’ve been offered by so many schools and they just want to show up and watch. But the kids at the Freak Show want to compete against other talented kids and it becomes a very festive, energetic atmosphere. And I think that’s what we’re about at UNC—smart, fast, physical. It’s exciting. It’s not just about sitting back and watching. You better get involved. You better get pumped. You better be ready to go. The recruits who came to the Freak Show know that and I think it’s paying dividends in commitments and some of the things going on in the country.

Lastly, where do you see UNC football in five years?

I think our recruiting classes definitely make you excited, but the foundation is Coach Fedora and the staff and what we do as far as the recruiting process. So I think we have set a foundation for what we want this program to be like. I can see us winning some more Coastal divisions and hopefully going ahead and winning the ACC and compete for a national championships. Obviously, we’re not one of those teams that you think of every year at that level, but I think we definitely have the foundation with the pieces here to win an ACC championship.