If Everett Withers keeps it up, he’s going to make it easy on Carolina’s new athletic director.
Withers began his season as UNC’s interim football coach with a slight blip that had some people chortling in their corn flakes – publicizing that the game ball from the opening day win over James Madison would go to his fired predecessor because this is really “Coach Davis’ team” or something like that. An okay gesture in private, but not the separation he needed to show from the beleaguered Butch.
Since then, Withers has been darn near perfect. He wants the “interim” removed from his title but he’s not campaigning for it. He is saying and doing all the right things, reaching out to the UNC faculty and using buzz words like “accountability” and “responsibility” which apparently Holden Thorp and the Board of Trustees thought was lacking in the last head coach.
Because most assistant coaches (with the exception of John Blake) are seen and not heard, we never knew how engaging, entertaining and enlightening Withers is. You get more direct answers out of one interview with him than in a season of “coach speak” from other head honchos. He startled the radio audience Saturday night in Greenville when his players came out of the locker room for the second half with a comfortable lead and told sideline reporter Lee Pace that they were “going for the jugular.”
His team starts games as if shot from a cannon, outscoring opponents 42-3 in the first quarter. It gave up the ball too often early but four take-aways at East Carolina evened their turnover ratio on the season. After Bryn Renner threw six picks in the first four games, he was perfect against the Pirates. Withers says it his job to make life easier on his talented rookie quarterback.
His weekly radio show is amazingly informative. Withers explains technical football terms in such a way that you actually learn something. Did you know, for example, that one reason teams like to run plays toward their own sideline is so they can substitute quickly for the next snap before the defense has time to run players on and off across the field? Never thought about that, but it makes perfect sense.
On the field, so far, the Tar Heels play with the same combination of toughness and intelligence. In the red zone, they score touchdowns 83 percent of the time and give them up less than 40 percent, far better than how any of Davis’ four UNC teams began the season. Yes, Withers inherited outstanding interior lines, but offensive boss John Shoop is bringing Renner along beautifully with a balanced attack that does not allow the defense to cheat. If it does, it gets burned by the quick opener on the ground or one-on-one coverage in the secondary.
In short, the 2011 Tar Heels play harder and smarter than any team I can remember dating back to the Mack Brown era. These are kids who look like they care far more about football than who their head coach is, and Withers is ideal for that role. After a quarter century as an assistant, he clearly knows his stuff and articulates it candidly without giving away the ranch. He seems as comfortable as your favorite pair of loafers.
Now the schedule is turning out to be very much in his favor. Undefeated Georgia Tech looked like an “L” on paper and so it was against the favorite to win the Coastal Division of the ACC. But the next five weeks will be telling for the Tar Heels, who should easily get by a young Louisville team that struggles on offense and looks to have too much talent and discipline for Miami the following week, also at home. Even if they lose at Clemson, the ACC’s only other unbeaten, they can come home to whip Wake Forest and do something Davis couldn’t do in four tries, beat N.C. State on November 5 (in Raleigh).
That would leave Carolina 8-2 (and way bowl eligible) going to Blacksburg for the Thursday night
ESPN game on November 17. The Hokies could wake up like they have in other slow-start seasons, but right now they are the most beatable Beamer team in years. Should that be accomplished, followed by the almost annual edging of Duke, ol’ Interim Everett would finish 10-2 in his first fall as a head coach. And no matter who they hired as athletic director, that person could not possibly send Withers packing or back to the coordinator’s office.
Of course, there are some long-range issues to address, such as whether Withers can close on highly regarded recruiting classes like super salesman Davis. And can this career assistant generate enough excitement and unity amidst a traditionally lethargic football fan base, some of which is suddenly spitting mad over how Thorp bounced their man Butch. That is important because a large debt is left to pay on the Blue Zone, and the only way to do that is to sell the sucker out.
Head coaches at Carolina have had a history as scapegoats, dating back to when Jim Hickey took over after “Sunny Jim” Tatum died in the summer of 1959. Bill Dooley won two ACC titles despite his oft-ridiculed three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust offense. Dick Crum went to five straight bowls and won an ACC title without talking very much. Mack Brown went to seven straight bowls and never stopped talking his way out of two 1-10 seasons. Carl Torbush never should have gotten the job, and John Bunting never should have blown the only job he ever wanted. Davis falls somewhere between a scapegoat and scam artist, depending on your point of view.
After all that Carolina football history, unassuming Everett Withers could wind up the ultimate right man, right place, right time. Just win, baby, and he can take the drama out of it.
How many games do you think Withers has to win to keep the job?