Withers focuses on Duke

His job status at UNC looms

acarter@newsobserver.comNovember 22, 2011 

— Everett Withers used to think a lot about being a college football head coach, never believing that his first opportunity to do so would come at a place like North Carolina - the school he rooted for as a boy growing up in Charlotte.

"As an assistant you grow up and you always talk about wanting to be a head coach," Withers said on Monday. "Maybe not all guys, but I (did). And to have this opportunity, it's been great."

It's an opportunity that Withers understands could soon end. Named interim head coach after the university fired Butch Davis before the start of preseason practice, Withers will coach the Tar Heels in their final home game on Saturday, against Duke.

North Carolina's senior day could also represent the final time that Withers coaches the Tar Heels inside Kenan Stadium. He said on Monday that he had been busy preparing for the Blue Devils - that he was focused on the game. Had Withers thought about the fact that this could be the final time he leads Carolina into a game at Kenan?

"Not one bit," he said.

Still, Withers allowed himself a moment of reflection. He stood behind a podium on the fifth floor of the Kenan Football Center - a roomful of reporters in front of him and the field stretched out five floors below him, to his right - and he thought of the first time he'd stood in this setting.

It was days before preseason practice was to begin, after UNC had promoted Withers.

"When I first stood up here (in August) my only concern was trying to help these kids have the best experience that they can have," Withers said. "And that (was) it from the start. (It will) be it at the end."

At times, Withers on Monday spoke like a man who doesn't expect to be back. He used the past tense to describe his time on a job that hasn't yet ended. And he was cryptic about recent conversations he'd shared with Bubba Cunningham, Carolina's new athletic director, who began work last week.

Withers said he and Cunningham have had "several" conversations about the future. Asked how those discussions had gone, Withers smiled and said, "Good."

In a statement released by a school spokesman, Cunningham declined to offer specifics on his discussions with Withers.

"Those conversations are between Everett and me. But I agree with Coach that those have been good conversations," Cunningham said in the statement.

Withers said he believed he'd factor into UNC's search for a permanent head coach.

"I believe I'm a candidate," Withers said.

For now, though, he's more than that: He has the kind of job he's always wanted - at least for another regular-season game. The Tar Heels, who are bowl-eligible by virtue of their six victories, will learn their postseason fate in the days that follow their season finale against the Blue Devils.

If North Carolina is indeed bowl bound, Withers could remain in his role for another month or so.

"Coach Withers, man, he's a great coach," senior receiver Dwight Jones said. "(Not just) a great coach, but a great man. He teaches us a lot ... We just have to fight for coach Withers like he's fighting for us. We'd love for coach Withers to stay and continue at the University of North Carolina.

"Especially someone that grew up a Carolina fan his whole life."

Bryn Renner, the Heels' sophomore quarterback, insisted the team is most focused on Duke and not Withers' status.

"We want to win every game for our head coach," he said. "Or whoever our coach is."

Still, Withers' future is likely to be intertwined into the storyline of Carolina's final home game of 2011 - a game that could be his last, at least as the Tar Heels' head coach, inside Kenan Stadium.

If it is, Withers expressed gratitude for a chance he wasn't sure would ever come.

"Not many guys," he said, "get to start at a Division I school in a top conference (as) their first job."

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