The annual Pigskin Preview always offers the local college coaches a last bit of fun and frivolity before the more serious business begins.
It’s a last chance to eat lunch together, relax, laugh at each other’s jokes and talk football, all to benefit the Bill Dooley Chapter of the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame.
East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill joked Thursday about his first car, which he said was a “ ’72 Pinto, lime green,” and North Carolina’s Larry Fedora talked of buying a 1967 Mustang – minus an engine – for $200 out of a junkyard. Duke’s David Cutcliffe, an Alabama guy, talked about Joe Namath being a sports figure he admired in his youth, and N.C. State’s Dave Doeren mentioned former NFL star Ronnie Lott.
There were no coaching newcomers on the dais, but there was a big absence that was felt.
Don Shea, who promoted the Preview for years and served as emcee, died in February. Those who came to Cary’s Embassy Suites honored Shea, who was 77, with a standing ovation and by placing a referee’s shirt and helmet – which Shea at times wore during past programs – in an empty chair.
“Don was a friend and will be greatly missed,” Cutcliffe said.
Doeren, Fedora and Cutcliffe spent Monday and Tuesday in Pinehurst at the ACC Kickoff, covering every imaginable question about their programs, the ACC and college football. Asked Thursday if anything had changed in two days, Doeren smiled and said, “Only my suit.”
There has been one change at North Carolina since the ACC Kickoff: The Tar Heels added a wide receiver – Jordan Cunningham, a former four-star recruit who is transferring from Vanderbilt and will have two years of eligibility after sitting out this school year.
We’ve still got to find out where we are as a defense.
UNC coach Larry Fedora
Fedora, speaking after the program, was asked if he believed Cunningham’s transfer was an indication the uncertainty that has surrounded UNC athletics because of the school’s NCAA issues was beginning to ease. Although the NCAA has not decided on sanctions, Fedora remains confident the football program will not face serious penalties such as a postseason ban.
“I think he was really comfortable with what’s going on in the program,” Fedora said. “If you listen to him he’ll tell you what he thought the advantages are. He believes he’s going to walk in here and get a world-class education and his life after football is going to benefit by having a degree from the University of North Carolina.”
A pressing football issue for Fedora is on defense. The Tar Heels brought in former Auburn coach Gene Chizik as defensive coordinator, and Fedora said again Thursday that it’s more than about new coaches, new schemes or a new philosophy.
“The staff we hired gave our guys new confidence right off the bat – you could see it in the players’ eyes,” Fedora said. “But the jury is still out. We’ve still got to find out where we are as a defense.”
Doeren’s biggest issues in his third season at N.C. State are replacing several starters on the offensive and defensive lines, plus the kickers. Senior quarterback Jacoby Brissett returns, which is reassuring to Doeren, and will backed up by redshirt freshman Jalan McClendon.
“It’s the first time I’ve had a returning starter at quarterback,” Doeren said. “It’s the first scholarship quarterback I’ve had as the backup.”
Cutcliffe has lost quarterback Anthony Boone and dangerous wideout and kick returner Jamison Crowder, saying, “We’ve got to replace some playmakers.” But quarterback Thomas Sirk is in his fourth year in the program, Cutcliffe said, adding that a bigger focus for the Blue Devils was on being a team “willing to pay the price to win the fourth quarter” each game.
At N.C. Central, second-year Eagles coach Jerry Mack is coming off a 7-5 season and has 15 returning starters. He’s excited about his team’s possibilities.
Fall camp will begin soon, with most teams taking the practice fields a few weeks before the school year begins. Doeren calls it the best time of the year, saying there’s “zero distractions, all football.”
“Speculation and preseason rankings and preseason teams and all the hoopla and hype, it’s kind of fun for the fans this time of year,” Doeren said. “From the coaching standpoint, we know we have to prove it.”