When North Carolina football players last greeted as many reporters as two of them did on Monday at the ACC’s annual preseason kickoff event, they spoke in anger about a locker room divided and about acrimony among teammates. They spoke of division.
That was after the Tar Heels’ ended last season with a dreadful, uninspired defeat against Rutgers in the Quick Lane Bowl. The loss secured a losing season for UNC, and afterward players spoke openly of problems they had largely tried to keep to themselves.
And now? Now seniors Marquise Williams and Jeff Schoettmer, the Tar Heels’ player representatives at media day, insist things are different. They insist the lack of leadership – the me-first attitude, as Williams described it – is something of a distant past.
“It was too many I’s on the team and we don’t have that (any) more,” Williams, the quarterback, said on Monday. “A lot of those guys left and graduated. And we’re thankful that we have the people that we have now.”
Williams sat at one end of a table surrounded by reporters, with Schoettmer at the other end. Surrounded by so many microphones at the end of last season, both players spoke of chemistry problems and about teammates not buying in.
Too many people (were) just all about themselves.
Ryan Switzer, then a sophomore receiver, was one of the more vocal critics of the team’s intangibles. Some players bought in, Switzer said at the end of last season, and some guys didn’t.
Switzer’s comments came as something of a revelation when he shared them, but they weren’t surprising to his teammates. Williams said he and Switzer had spoken about the problems throughout last season.
“Me and Ryan talked about it before,” Williams said. “Before he went and had that interview he was like, man, the chemistry wasn’t there (last) year. And what he meant by that is that too many people (were) just all about themselves. We didn’t have (anybody) who would come out with comments or a leader that would say, ‘Hey man, you need to do this in order to be a good teammate.’”
A long fall
When the season ended and players went their separate ways, UNC coach Larry Fedora had a long list of problems to address. He confronted one of them by firing Vic Koenning and most of the defensive coaching staff and replacing them, and hiring Gene Chizik to lead the defense.
Off the field, repairing the fractured sense of team unity was a concern, too. It had been a long fall – UNC’s first losing season since 2007.
“Chemistry wasn’t great and then it goes back to leadership,” Schoettmer said. “That’s what we did not have enough of last year.”
Schoettmer then described UNC’s leadership council, which is comprised of 14 players across a range of classes. He and Williams are on it, as are five or six other seniors, Schoettmer said.
Schoettmer said the council met throughout the offseason and discussed how to rebuild the chemistry that had been lost. The team also has worked with Jeff Janssen, an expert who runs the Janssen Sports Leadership Center, which has worked with athletes and teams from more than 200 schools, according to its website.
Chemistry wasn’t great.
Schoettmer said he and his teammates went through the normal team-building activities during the spring and summer: bowling outings and beach volleyball games and home run derbies. Eventually, the division of the past started to feel like a memory.
“I think the players on this team are much closer this year than last year,” Schoettmer said. “There probably was a little divide. Maybe not offense-defense, but 100 guys in the locker room aren’t always going to get along together.
“But I think more so this year we’ve focused on that and guys actually caring about each other and not just saying it but actually meaning it.”
Hints at a division
The start of the preseason practice, though, is still nearly two weeks away, and the season won’t begin for more than a month. A year ago at this time, Schoettmer and Williams might have spoken, too, about an increased sense of togetherness – one that unraveled as the losses and disappointments mounted.
At the end of last season, after UNC’s final game, some players hinted at division between older players and younger ones. Or, rather, a division between the players former coach Butch Davis recruited and the ones who arrived after Davis was gone.
But Williams, himself a former Davis recruit, said the problem “was more than just the seniors.”
“It was a lot of guys that just didn’t buy in to what we needed to do to win football games,” he said. “And now everybody’s getting (it) – either you buy in or coach Fedora’s going to send you home. And he’s not playing. He wants to win games. And we all want to win games.”