College Sports

Larry Fedora’s vision realized amid difficult journey

UNC's Larry Fedora says Marquise Williams will have the 'game of his life' against Clemson

University of North Carolina football coach Larry Fedora talks with reporters in advance of the ACC Championship game against Clemson.
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University of North Carolina football coach Larry Fedora talks with reporters in advance of the ACC Championship game against Clemson.

Almost exactly four years ago, Bubba Cunningham, who had then been the North Carolina athletic director for less than two months, met with Larry Fedora in a New York City hotel to discuss the football head coaching vacancy at UNC.

Cunningham wanted to hire someone energetic, someone who had an abundance of experience coaching in college, someone who could bring a sense of vibrancy to Chapel Hill. He was interested, too, in a coach with a reputation for leading exciting, high-scoring offenses.

Fedora, then in his fourth season as the head coach at Southern Miss, fit all of Cunningham’s requirements. And in UNC, Fedora saw a lot that he liked, too.

“You live in Chapel Hill, North Carolina,” Fedora, in his fourth season as UNC’s coach, said recently. “It doesn’t get any better. It’s a tremendous college town. You’re at one of a handful of universities across this country where you can get a world-class education and play football at the highest level.

“And we’ve got great fans. We’ve got great support. We can attract great players that want to be successful on the field and off the field. And so everything’s here.”

And here Fedora and his program are, one victory away from the Tar Heels’ first ACC championship since 1980. UNC on Saturday in Charlotte will play in the ACC Championship game against Clemson. It’s the kind of game, on the kind of stage, that attracted Fedora to this job and to UNC.

And yet still, on many occasions during the past few years, Fedora has sometimes thought, “What have I gotten myself into?” His journey – leading the Tar Heels to the ACC’s Coastal Division championship and to an 11-win season – hasn’t exactly gone according to plan.

“There were a lot of things that were unexpected and a lot of things that were tougher than I thought coming into the situation,” Fedora said. “I’d be lying if I told you that it was any other way. But at the same time, even though it may be frustrating, the plan was set in place and we were going to work the plan every day.”

Dealing with scandal fallout

For one thing, Fedora didn’t expect, in his fourth season, to still be talking about an NCAA investigation. He didn’t expect that he’d still be defending his program – to potential recruits, to the public – amid a torrent of negative publicity and negative recruiting.

Months after Fedora arrived at UNC, one NCAA investigation concluded in March 2012. Then in the summer of 2014 a new one began amid revelations of a long-running scheme of bogus African studies courses that disproportionately benefited athletes.

The problems that are the focus of the second NCAA investigation began two decades before Fedora arrived at UNC, and they ended before he ever stepped on campus. Yet he has been charged with cleaning up some of the mess, and with dealing with the fallout of a scandal that didn’t involve him.

“The ongoing investigation or the multiple investigations or the regurgitation of the same information over and over and over, just to keep bringing it up to create a negative atmosphere for as long as somebody could create it – that was difficult,” Fedora said.

And so, too, was putting his plan into practice on the field. The Tar Heels won eight games in Fedora’s first season, in 2012. They won seven games the next season. And six last season.

Cunningham, meanwhile, had been hoping for a breakthrough in Fedora’s third season. That’s when you can tell the direction a program is headed, he said.

Any hire you make, you’ve got your fingers crossed. This has turned out exactly how we hoped it would.

Lowry Caudill, who was on the search committee that brought Larry Fedora to Chapel Hill

Fedora had been hoping for the same. He entered the 2014 season saying, “It’s time.” But that time never came – at least not that season.

Instead this has been UNC’s time. After a season-opening loss in Charlotte against South Carolina, the Tar Heels have won 11 consecutive games, their longest winning streak in a single-season in school history, and they finished the regular season undefeated in the ACC for the first time since 1980.

That was a little more than a year after Lowry Caudill graduated from UNC. Now Caudill is on the university’s board of trustees, and he was on the search committee that brought Fedora to UNC four years ago.

It was “critical” then, he said, for UNC to make not only the best coaching hire it could have, but also the right hire – one that would restore some of the prestige and pride the university lost amid the scandal-ridden end of Butch Davis’ coaching tenure. Caudill, a former chair of the Board of Trustees, first met Fedora on campus at the chancellor’s house.

At that point, Fedora’s Southern Miss team had just beaten Houston, badly, in the Conference USA championship game. Then Fedora met with UNC officials, Cunningham included, in New York City before making his way to Chapel Hill.

Caudill asked Fedora how he was maintaining his energy amid the whirlwind.

“Red Bull,” Fedora told him.

Caudill laughed at the memory. During his first couple of seasons that might have been Fedora’s trademark: Red Bull. The at times, over-the-top, cartoonish energy. This season he has dialed that back some. He has been more low key. The energy is still there, but it seems more channeled, focused.

There has been less bravado and more winning. Fedora’s vision – and the vision of the people who hired him – is becoming reality.

“Any hire you make, you’ve got your fingers crossed,” Caudill said. “This has turned out exactly how we hoped it would.”

‘Establishing a vision’

Even if the path to reach this point looked nothing like Fedora thought it would. Asked recently to detail his plan when arrived at UNC, he said “that would take us hours to talk about.” Yet it involved everything from academics, strength training and nutrition to recruiting and “the people that clean the building,” Fedora said.

“Really it was establishing a vision of where we wanted to go and then putting the plan into place to do that,” Fedora said. “It’s making sure that we have great people on our staff, not only football-wise but the support staff and everything that (goes into understanding) the vision and understand it’s all about the kids.

“And that everything we do is doing it in a first-class manner for these players and putting them in a position where they can be successful.”

It didn’t happen just like that, though. His plan didn’t include losses to Wake Forest in 2012, and East Carolina, in 2013 and 2014, and it didn’t include a humbling end to last season, with lopsided, uninspired defeats against N.C. State and Rutgers.

The plan didn’t include coaching a team with one of the worst defenses in school history, which is what Fedora did a year ago. And it didn’t include having to replace his defensive coaching staff with a new one led by defensive coordinator Gene Chizik, the former Auburn head coach.

The past two seasons, before this one, UNC lost as often as it won. There were .500 regular seasons. There were humiliating losses.

There was the loss, a little more than a year ago, against Rutgers in the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit, where players stood outside their locker room after it ended and spoke of a team chemistry that had turned sour.

Any hire you make, you’ve got your fingers crossed. This has turned out exactly how we hoped it would.

Lowry Caudill, who was on the search committee that brought Larry Fedora to Chapel Hill

And then, finally, there was the revival. The most important team meeting of Fedora’s tenure at UNC likely came in early January, after the players returned from that defeat in Detroit. Fedora wanted to hear it himself – wanted to hear about everything that bothered his players. He encouraged honesty.

That, perhaps, represents Fedora’s most significant change: his relationship with his players.

“I think he has deeper, more personal relationships with our (players),” Cunningham said.

And so began the turnaround. Like his overall vision, that didn’t become reality quickly, either.

“It never never just works like this,” Fedora said, drawing a straight line in the air with his finger. “There’s always setbacks and always things you have to overcome and probably more than I expected.

“But you still knew what the vision was. And maybe we had to change the way we were doing some things along the way, but everybody understood what we were doing and where we were going.”

It’s easier to say that now, after a regular season in which UNC completed its two primary goals. It won the ACC’s Coastal Division. It won the mythical state championship. And Fedora won over any critics that might have been grumbling after the 6-7 finish last season, and after the South Carolina loss to start this season.

And now comes the most important game of Fedora’s tenure at UNC. A victory against No. 1 Clemson would be among the most significant in school history, and it would bring to Chapel Hill UNC’s first conference championship in 35 years. Win or lose on Saturday, though, this has already been among the most successful seasons UNC has ever had.

Three other teams in school history have won 11 games, though none had done it since 1997. No team has won the way UNC has won this season – often with an array of long plays that easily find their way onto highlight reels.

Fedora talked about that kind of thing, and those kinds of plays, when he was hired four years ago. He thought about creating an environment in which fans would hate to leave their seats in fear of what they’d miss. It took a while, but what he saw back then – and what Cunningham and others did, too – has become real in UNC’s best season in nearly 20 years.

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