On The Fast Track
The way Larry Fedora likes to play football is the way Roy Williams wants to play basketball: Fast.
For the first time in 15 years, or since Mack Brown and Dean Smith ran things, Carolina may have compatible football and basketball programs. Fedora has no national championships and, to this point, has only won on the mid-major level, but he operates with the same confidence and speed as our hoops hall of famer.
Red Bull is Fedora’s drink of choice. Ol’ Roy downs caffeine-laced Coke at about the same rate.
But, early in the game, it just seems right. Butch Davis, with his pro background and million-dollar dowry, seemed in a different kind of hurry to get where he was going. And at the end, the $100 million or so he extracted from UNC to raise the Football Center and build the Blue Zone rubbed some of the other UNC coaches the wrong way.
Fedora is the beneficiary of Butch’s demands, if not the roster Davis left behind. And the new coach’s style is so NFL-unlike that it just smacks of good old boy Southern football. His staff wears jeans and works around the clock, just like their boss. No one is too small or unimportant for a stop and a handshake.
And the way Fedora wants to speed up the game, as he did at Southern Miss and previewed in last Saturday’s spring game, is remindful of Roy waving his players down the court after rebounds and even made baskets. Run, men, run. The more snaps and possessions, the better. The more our talent will rise to the top and the more their defense will drop.
NCAA statistics had Fedora’s Southern Miss team ranked 22nd last season for running an average of 75 plays per game (UNC was 110th with 65 snaps per). Ironically, UNC basketball was ranked 16th in 2011 for having 75 possessions per game. 75 to 75!
During spring practice, Carolina sped through scrimmages with more than 150 snaps and some players were in on half of them. The same players slogged their way through 15 or 20 snaps in the past. Fedora wants to run the next play so quickly that he instructs his players to hand the ball to the official after the last whistle, instead of leaving it on the ground or dropping it to bounce away. In that regard, it IS like an NFL hurry-up offense, when teams try to snap the ball before the defenses can send subs on the field.
But Fedora’s method is that and more. He wants to play before the defense gets set and after it gets tired. He wants to keep playing, and my guess is that he tries to make a big lead bigger so there is no chance for a comeback. Basketball coaches, including Williams, sometimes stop the game toward the end and run the clock. Momentum and occasionally the game (think Duke here) is lost.
The big difference between Fedora and Williams, of course, is that the new football coach wants to go somewhere and the veteran basketball coach is already there. But the passion to win only grows after you have won. Following the 2005 NCAA championship victory over Illinois, Williams said he’d like to do it again. He did four years later. Fedora will be running on high up to and through his first ACC title.
With both of these guys, it’s all about the team. Fedora gathers his troops after practice and the players who made the most mistakes that day have to lead their respective offensive and defensive units in push-ups for those “demerits.” That builds pride and unity among players and competition to do it better than the other side of the ball.
Who knows how many pro prospects Fedora will produce? But Williams is surrounded by them every year. And he’s convinced them that the more success the team has the better their draft status will be when the time comes. It worked like a charm in 2005 and again in ’09. The Tar Heels fell short of their ultimate goal this past season, but they did well enough to produce four NBA lottery picks.
Fedora even began his recruiting for next year at the Duke-Carolina basketball game on February 8, when he challenged a group of the best juniors in the state to “feel the buzz” at the Smith Center that night and told them he wanted to create the same kind of excitement at Kenan Stadium. If verbal commitments are any indication, he’s off to the right start.
Former football coaches here also entertained recruits at basketball games, usually on weekends when lots of other activities were planned. But they rarely felt secure enough to compare what was happening on the court to what they wanted to happen on the field in the fall. Fedora has a good example right in front of his eyes, and he’s smart enough to use it.
Williams has always been an avid supporter of football and all the other sports at Carolina. He rarely misses a Saturday home game in his box at Kenan Stadium. But, while he’s been proud of UNC football teams in the past, sometimes for operating under severe adversity, he probably did not take many tangibles away from the gridiron game and use it to challenge his players at practice.
That may change, once he sees Fedora’s fleet team. How fast? Let me count the plays and the possessions. The race is on!