As students begin classes, and the weather…well, remains hot and humid for now, football is in the air here in Chapel Hill.
Despite the beautiful Carolina Blue sky, a figurative cloud hangs over campus as the local and national media continue to dissect the scandals erupting from the bowels of Kenan Stadium. It is easy to say that many other major college athletics programs likely commit similar infractions on a regular basis, but that doesn’t excuse UNC for its mistakes.
It’s obviously disappointing to know that your team can’t win the conference title nor play in a bowl game before the first coin toss of the season, but I’ll leave it to others to discuss the validity of the punishments handed down by the NCAA.
What I will say is that the continued focus on past wrongdoings is incredibly frustrating. It’s never fun to hear constant criticisms about something you love, and, as a student, it’s especially disconcerting to hear that the academic integrity of your school is in question. UNC’s educational reputation was a big reason I chose to apply to Chapel Hill, and facing many awkward questions from UVA fans and alumni while interning in Richmond this summer was not exactly the experience I had imagined when I was accepted.
In addition to generating a negative impact on future recruiting for athletes and students at large, the scandals are eliminating much of the excitement that would ordinarily accompany a team such as this season’s Tar Heels. Carolina has a number of electrifying playmakers on both sides of the ball, which include star running back Gio Bernard and wide receiver Jheranie “Jay” Boyd on offense and linebacker Kevin Reddick on defense. Given that quarterback Brynn Renner now has another year under his belt, and given that the special teams should improve with the return of beloved kicker Casey Barth, Tar Heels fans would be eagerly anticipating a decent bowl game appearance and possibly an ACC title without the penalties. Instead, the football team seems to be an afterthought at best and a source of shame at worst, with casual fans asking, “When does basketball season start?”
It’s really an unfortunate attitude, especially considering the arrival of new Head Coach Larry Fedora. With his frenetic spread offense and creative special teams, Fedora was the perfect choice to replace the bland Everett Withers and get Carolina fans energized about football again. The guy is a walking Red Bull advertisement, downing several cans a day, and his motor never seems to stop.
The team even had a series of spring practices starting at 6:00 AM dubbed “Blue Dawn” (explanation video here), with Fedora yelling encouragement and involving himself in drills (check out a fan favorite example here). Most importantly for this season, his passion for the game extends to the fans. Fedora has taken time out of his schedule to meet with various student groups, including Carolina Fever (some of the most dedicated fans), Greek organizations, and incoming freshmen during orientation. His message is simple: Be early, be loud, and have fun. Having seen the student section quiet and half-empty just before noon kickoffs, his mantra is appropriate and well-targeted.
Kenan Stadium could be one of the premier gameday atmospheres in all of college football, though. We have just seven home games a year to get together with our friends and cheer on our fellow classmates. Regardless of what’s happened in the past, the football team still represents UNC.
Isn’t that something we should all be rooting for?