Most successful college athletic programs attempt to create a culture around their environments. Some schools lean heavily on teams that bring national attention, such as football at Alabama. Other programs, like Stanford, utilize their expansive resources to spread their athletic wealth around numerous men’s and women’s sports. Sometimes a university, such as N.C. State, will attempt to claim bass fishing as a successful club sport because winning real championships are hard.
North Carolina is no different. Anyone who has associated themselves with Tar Heel athletics either as student, fan, or employee often gushes over the “Carolina Family”. The UNC family has always been a source of comfort, stability, and pride. It’s why Stuart Scott used to give a special shoutout to Tar Heels who made highlights on SportsCenter. That family is why we cheer during the “I’m a Tar Heel” montage at football and basketball games. Pick almost any sport in the universe, and there is an undeniable familial aspect to that program at Chapel Hill.
For various reasons, the North Carolina football program has long struggled to gain any sort of consistency in building a brand and culture of a “family”. That’s not to say that former stars are forgotten about, have been unsuccessful, or are unwanted.
The NFL is littered with former stars that bleed Carolina blue. In fact, the Heels boast 28 former players who have earned a Super Bowl ring. That’s more than National Championship winning programs Nebraska, Texas, Florida, Oklahoma, and Clemson. One of those players, Lawrence Taylor, was arguably the most feared defensive player of all time.
Depending on your age, Charlie Justice, Don McCauley, Dre Bly, Greg Ellis, and Julius Peppers still bring back overwhelmingly pleasant memories thanks to their athletic abilities. Chris Keldorf has always been my favorite quarterback and I will always wonder what Darian Durant could have done in Larry Fedora’s offense.
However, with the exception of a few successful years in the early 80’s and mid 90’s, consistent college success has been elusive. Poor performances, coaching changes (or lack thereof), and the recent NCAA violations (both real and alleged) have stalled forward progress. While UNC may perennially be a “basketball school,” the absenteeism of any noticeable football culture has always been unsettling. Yes, there are plenty of former football players who have positive and robust relationships with the university, but all too often a Tuesday night women’s soccer game often has more energy than a Saturday ACC football game.
Now, heading into head coach Fedora’s sixth year, there are signs of that elusive family culture beginning take shape.
It’s important to remember when Larry Fedora came to Chapel Hill prior to the 2012 season the program was fractured and reeling. Everett Withers admirably held the program together in 2011 after Butch Davis was unceremoniously fired just weeks before the season started. In 2012, the Heels won the Coastal, but were banned from any postseason play. In 2013, players were given disassociation letters for their role in accepting illegal benefits. There was no football equivalent of Roy Williams coming home to right the proverbial ship. In essence, there was no “family” UNC has become accustomed to.
It was a recipe for disaster, which, ultimately, the 2014-2015 season turned into. An underwhelming 6-7 record was the first time Fedora ever coached a team with a losing record. A mix of final holdovers from the Butch Davis era, recruiting restrictions, lack of overall talent, and personality conflicts within the program finally caught up with the Heels.
Fedora led an overhaul of the program with a newfound emphasis on accountability. Those changes made 2015’s success possible and indirectly have served as the potential turning point in bringing that family vibe to the football program. Using a formula that has worked since Adam and Eve walked the Earth, by forcing the players and coaches to take ownership and accountability of their actions, North Carolina found a closeness that did not exist prior to 2015. The Heels have only continued to strengthen that bond.
Despite the successes on the field and in the draft, the elements of a family environment are often much more subtle. Finally this summer, the growth of the program began to be noticeable. The most important sign of a changing atmosphere was at this year’s Freak Show. As most know, the annual June event is a way to attract top talented recruits from around the country for a night of camaraderie, football drills, and dodgeball. This year’s event had a different tone thanks to the success the Heels had in the 2017 NFL draft.
While Tar Heels finding success in the NFL draft is nothing new, the Freak Show now gives the football program a way to capitalize on that success in a controlled environment. More importantly, those new NFL players came back this year to take part in the activities. Ryan Switzer, Mack Hollins, Mitch Trubisky, Bug Howard, and T.J. Logan all made appearances. So did Super Bowl champion Sylvester Williams.
The ability for recruits to see the tangible results of the UNC football program cannot be overstated. It has helped the baseball, soccer, and basketball programs for decades. Much like the famed summer pick-up games in the Dean Dome, Larry Fedora’s Freak Show is slowly turning into an unofficial homecoming. As Fedora’s first full independent recruiting classes begin to graduate, it’s a theme that could, should, and probably will be repeated in the coming summers. Subtle, but extremely important.
That family atmosphere has continued to filter filtered down to former and future players as well. Marquise Williams’ could barely contain his emotions when he spoke with our Daniel Bayer earlier this month. Former running back A.J Blue is now a strength and conditioning coach.
Recent commit Jevon Terry told Inside Carolina that UNC “felt like family”. Two weeks ago, four-star QB recruit Tyler Shough also invoked the word recently on his twitter account, telling another recruit to “Come join the family”.
Now, I acknowledge that “family” is often thrown around the recruiting trail. I also know the emotions of 17 and 18-year-old recruits aren’t the most secure of sources. However, there has certainly seemed to be an uptick in the use of the word “family” when recruits talk about UNC. In a sport where athletes cannot turn pro until after their junior year, the need of a “family” is a strong attraction. Perhaps more so than any other sport where the restrictions are not as burdensome to play at the next level (if there is a next level). It’s subtle, but important.
Additionally, the willingness of the program to welcome back linebacker Allen Artis and offensive lineman Jared Cohen after both took leaves of absence for different reasons is also indicative of a true family atmosphere. Many programs would have cut their losses and moved on. North Carolina instead will allow both young men to receive a second chance and finish their career as a Tar Heel. Again subtle, but important.
Building a family is a process, and not a singular event. However Fedora’s program clearly places value on loyalty, family, growth, and development. Those are standards that have not always been directly associated with UNC football. Subtle and important changes continue to be a trademark of Fedora’s tenure.
By doing so, the product on and off the field has and will continue to improve.