Retired Southern Mississippi Athletic Director Richard Giannini knew he would have a hard time retaining his own football coach, Larry Fedora, late in his breakthrough season with the Golden Eagles. So when they talked about where the multi-million-dollar offers might come from, they discussed the UNC job. A former assistant A.D. at Duke, Giannini thought Fedora would be a great choice for the Tar Heels.
“Larry’s going to win 11 or 12 games with us this season,” Giannini said at the time, “and we’ll never be able to keep him. If he leaves, I’d love to see him in Chapel Hill.”
Bubba Cunningham, who came from Tulsa, and Giannini both worked in Conference USA. Bubba liked Fedora all along but knew Texas A&M, where Fedora grew up and his father and brothers still lived, was also courting him.
Fortunately, outgoing Texas A&M Athletic Director Bill Byrne could only interview Fedora and give his name to the school’s president, who would then offer one of the recommended candidates the job. Carolina was much farther down the road.
Fedora accepted a seven-year contract at UNC after Southern Miss won the Conference USA championship but before the Golden Eagles played in the Hawaii Bowl on December 24. He was introduced as Carolina’s new coach on December 9.
“Don’t miss the press conference!” Giannini said. “You’ve never seen anything like it. The guy’s unbelievable. Unbelievable.”
“Fast” Larry proved his old boss right, warning fans watching live over the Internet not to leave their seats when Carolina has the ball lest they miss a touchdown. And he continued to do it through his first spring practice, his first summer training camp and his first game on the home sideline at Kenan Stadium.
Forward to the season opener against Elon, when Fedora’s fast break attack scored 62 points and ran up nearly 600 yards of total offense while breaking a school and ACC record for return yards (260).
As advertised by Giannini, the hyper Fedora has taken Tar Heel Nation by storm with his non-stop work ethic, his willingness to talk to alumni, fans, students and faculty wherever and whenever, and his commitment to not only play smart, play fast and play physical, but also to demand dedication and accountability from his players. Bet the guy doesn’t sleep four hours a night, fueled by Red Bull all day long.
He’s refreshingly candid, sharing more in media sessions and on his weekly radio and TV shows than any Carolina coach in recent memory. And when he doesn’t want to talk about something, such as an injury report or the weather, he’ll just say so. No coach speak. Just the plain old truth.
Catch his press conferences on www.goheels.com and listen to his Tuesday night weekly radio show on 97.9FM from Top of the Hill. He’s funny, a bit flippant and very fair in his assessment of everything to do with his new program.
For example, he wants to run as many as 100 offensive plays a game, and the Tar Heels might have done it had Fedora not called off the dogs late with 18 minutes left vs. Elon. He will also use versatile Gio Bernard as a runner, pass catcher and punt returner without fear of overworking, of injuring, the sensational sophomore.
“In whose hands would you like to see the ball more?” he asked quizzically.
But despite Bernard’s star-studded performance, center Russell Bodine was the offensive player of the game because he had 19 “knockdowns”. A knockdown is a block that puts an opposing defender on the ground, where he can’t make a tackle.
Accountability is as much a part of his Tar Heel program as the Xs and Os. Each player has his own level of commitment written on his locker. A number of players have already earned the highest level — “Compelled”. According to the coach, accountability is not only taking care of yourself but watching out that your teammates are not making bad decisions. One of Fedora’s pledges upon taking over was that “we will win with good kids on and off the field.”
Fedora’s charisma is infectious and the Southern Miss secret will soon be out in the open at Carolina and around the ACC. The clouds that linger over the UNC football program and athletic department fall into Fedora’s philosophy, like the weather on game day: Don’t worry about what you can’t control.
He’s confident without seeming cocky, that he can turn the Tar Heels into a title-contender worthy of a giant ticket scrum before every home game. He praised the estimated 50,500 fans who showed up for the opener on Labor Day weekend in 90-plus degree heat and wasn’t fazed by a near-empty house at game’s end. He figures an exciting, winning team will fill the stadium early and keep it full.
When Fedora met with certain players who were eligible to transfer to other schools without sitting out a year due to the NCAA probation, they one by one decided to stay because they sensed something special was about to happen here. Citing Fedora’s intensity, they have all bought in early.
Ironically, the talent he came into from Butch Davis’ program and the bowl ban he also inherited have put his first team in the position to play all 12 of its games with great intensity and without much pressure. The Tar Heels will take them one at a time, try to win them all and be happy with the mythical “state championship” if they can defeat all five opponents on their schedule from North Carolina.
Next up is Wake Forest, Fedora’s first ACC road game. Fedora has admired Deacons’ coach Jim Grobe for years and respects how they have overachieved in his 12 seasons at WFU. Thus, he expects a well-coached and hungry Wake team that barely beat better-than-Elon Liberty University in its opening game.
With one day to put in the game plan (Tuesday), one day to take out what won’t work on such short notice (Wednesday) and one day to polish what’s left (Thursday), Fedora and the Tar Heels will go to war in Winston-Salem, combining a level of talent and tenacity that has rarely been seen here.
The Larry Fedora love affair at Carolina is catching on. Fast.