Photos by Smith Hardy
Larry Fedora sat unsteadily in an uncomfortable, boring office chair. A battalion of cameras and microphones pointed in his direction. One after another, the questions came from the media and, by extension, from a disgruntled fan base. It’s fair to say Fedora wasn’t exactly in his element at that moment.
The North Carolina Tar Heels football team had just lost 42-35 to the Duke Blue Devils. UNC had fallen to 1-8 on the season and had suffered another loss, another close loss and another painful loss for a program that was losing its footing.
Fedora watched his team fight hard and then ducked into the press conference. He sat while a dozen or so media members surrounded him in a makeshift room tucked away behind the back of Wallace-Wade Stadium. He extolled the virtues of his hardworking ball club, but UNC’s record, the program’s direction and Fedora’s answers cemented one fact – it was hard to get excited about the future of North Carolina football.
UNC finished out the season with a win over Western Carolina and an overtime loss to N.C. State, a loss that underscored all that had gone wrong for UNC throughout the season. The announced attendance at that game was 41,510, but the number of North Carolina fans with their butts in the seats, braving the 40-degree temperatures, was much lower. The game ended in an ugly way, too – a brawl between UNC players and N.C. State players in the end zone. The fight, the overtime loss, the gameday environment and the season-ending record (2-9, 1-7 in the ACC) made it hard to look forward to next season. Seasons are supposed to end in exclamation points, but UNC’s ended in a whimper.
This was the reality of UNC Football just a couple of months ago. Fortunes can change quickly in college football. Memories are short, after good and bad times. But it’s worth revisiting those low points because 10 months ago, fans were really and understandably worried about the direction of the North Carolina program over the next few years under Larry Fedora or whomever the next coach would be.
And then Mack Brown was hired.
On November 27th, just three days after that N.C. State game, Mack Brown took center stage in the Blue Zone in the back of Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill. Cameras flashed and Brown smiled, projecting confidence and stability and most importantly, hope. He talked about winning football games and supporting the lives of young men with his wife, Sally, and about winning championships and bringing UNC back to the top of the college football world.
The whole tenor around the program changed in an instant. Brown jumped in on the recruiting trail, finding major wins. He energized the fanbase with a vision for recruiting the best players in the state of North Carolina and coaching them up with the smartest coordinators in college football. He executed on that vision by finding early wins on the recruiting trail and by bringing in Phil Longo and Jay Bateman. And now, he has helped North Carolina sell out its allotment of season tickets ahead of the 2019 college football season.
Mack Brown has yet to win a football game this time around in Chapel Hill. It’s easy to forget, given just how smoothly he’s handled this offseason. And UNC very easily could go 0-5 to start this college football season. A schedule of South Carolina, Miami, Wake Forest, App State and Clemson is no cakewalk for a young football team. The roster, as currently constructed, still has many of the same holes that have plagued the team over the past two seasons – unproven quarterback play and lack of depth, for example. That's without even mentioning how UNC could start a former quarterback at linebacker against South Carolina on Saturday (not an ideal situation).
But the fanbase is hopeful. And that’s what matters, at the end of the day. See, college football fanbases, like all fanbases, just want a reason to get excited about their team. That’s why the NFL Draft and the NBA Draft and National Signing Day are exciting – they are days that represent hope. Fans can see a vision for the future and get excited about watching that vision come into focus.
Larry Fedora had let his ability to sell hope to the fanbase slip away. He’d done great things at UNC, including taking the Tar Heels to the ACC Championship in 2015. He’d been recruiting okay! UNC’s 2018 class ranked 20th in the nation, only two spots behind where this year’s class ranks today. And his teams the last two seasons were decimated by injuries. And UNC was bound to win some close football games eventually. But after losses to ECU and Duke and N.C. State and a 2-9 record and a 3-9 record the season before that, Fedora had lost the ability to sell his vision of the future to the Carolina faithful. That perception outweighed the reality of UNC’s unlucky circumstances and Fedora had to go.
Mack Brown may not win many games this year, or next. But Tar Heel fans can look out on the horizon and see the wins coming. This 2019 team has a true freshman four-star quarterback, Sam Howell, leading the charge. UNC’s got those two new coordinators who are both whip-smart. The program has an army of reinforcements coming in behind it, including a couple of blue-chip defensive recruits that otherwise may have gone to Clemson or an SEC school.
As the season starts Saturday in Charlotte, who’s not excited about the return of North Carolina football? And, honestly, it’s all thanks to one coaching change and a couple of months of positive momentum in the offseason.
Mack Brown is back. And with him, he’s brought hope to the North Carolina fanbase.