CHAPEL HILL — One by one, members of The University of North Carolina Board of Governors lined up and walked toward Bubba Cunningham, the new University of North Carolina athletics director.
They extended their hands, congratulated him. Cunningham, a few weeks into the job, walked out of the room with a smile.
The news wasn't official then but about an hour later it became so, when UNC-Chapel Hill announced Thursday afternoon that Larry Fedora will be the Tar Heels' new head football coach. Fedora, 49, comes to North Carolina after four years at Southern Mississippi, where he guided the Golden Eagles to the Conference USA championship this season.
Word leaked Wednesday that Fedora's hiring was imminent. It will become finalized after UNC-CH's board of trustees gives its final approval in a meeting that will begin today at 9 a.m. A news conference formally introducing Fedora as the Tar Heels' coach is scheduled for 1 p.m. in the Concourse Club at the Loudermilk Center, which is attached to Kenan Stadium. The event will be open to the public.
On Thursday, both the UNC-CH Board of Trustees and the university system's board of governors gathered in separate meetings behind closed doors. They formally discussed hiring Fedora at the meetings, which both lasted about an hour, and adjourned without debate.
"I was impressed we were able to get someone that good, that quickly, seeing (Cunningham) had been on the job only six weeks or so," said Brent Barringer, a member of the board of governors. "He obviously had a very good understanding of the process and showed his expertise and professionalism (in making the hire)."
Both Cunningham and Holden Thorp, the UNC Chancellor, left the board of governors meeting without comment. In a statement the university released later, Cunningham said that UNC "identified and spoke to a number" of qualified candidates.
"The person whom we believe is the best to lead the Carolina football program forward is Larry Fedora," Cunningham said.
Fedora, whose salary is expected to be in the $2.2 million range, will replace Everett Withers, the Tar Heels' former defensive coordinator who became UNC's interim coach after the university fired Butch Davis before the start of the season. Davis was fired amid a multipart NCAA investigation into impermissible benefits and academic fraud within the football program.
In his statement, Cunningham thanked Withers, and said that Withers would coach UNC when it plays against Missouri on Dec. 26 in the Independence Bowl. Fedora will coach Southern Miss in the Hawaii Bowl against Nevada.
Fedora spoke Thursday of his decision to leave Southern Miss.
"My time has been awesome at Southern Miss and it was an agonizing decision for me to make," Fedora told the Biloxi Sun Herald.
Leaving Davis era
Fedora will next turn his focus to North Carolina, where the Tar Heels' football program has received more attention in the past two seasons for controversy off the field than for any successes on it. The Tar Heels were set to begin the 2010 season amid high expectations when controversy erupted.
Fourteen UNC players served suspensions of at least one game during the 2010 season, and seven missed the entire season amid the NCAA investigation. Associate head coach John Blake, whose ties to sports agents came under scrutiny during the NCAA investigation into improper benefits given to football players by agents, resigned Sept. 5, 2010. He was also cited in the NCAA's Notice of Allegations against the university's football program.
The hiring of Fedora further removes UNC from the troubled Davis era. Those who know him say Fedora is the right man to lead the Tar Heels' new beginning.
Grant Teaff, the president of the American Football Coaches Association, was the head coach at Baylor when he gave Fedora his first Division I college coaching job in 1990. Fedora joined Teaff's staff as a graduate assistant, and then worked his way up to coach the Bears receivers and running backs.
All these years later, the first things Teaff mentions when he talks about Fedora, a native of College Station, Texas, are not his ability to call effective plays or his imaginative offensive philosophy. Both of those helped Fedora climb the coaching ranks, from position coach at Baylor to offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State and Florida.
Teaff remembers more than anything Fedora's character.
"He brings to the table not just the important coaching ability and the ability to [hire] the right kind of assistant coaches to surround himself with," Teaff said. "But he is a man of deep, deep integrity. And believes very strongly in doing whatever you do the right way - don't bend the rules."
In Hattiesburg, Miss., and in other parts around Southern Miss, news of Fedora's departure has been met with sadness and appreciation. The Golden Eagles were in need of rejuvenation when they hired Fedora before the 2008 season. The Southern Miss football program had grown stagnant.
Then Fedora arrived, and brought with him an up-tempo offensive style and an energetic persona. Fedora quickly won over personnel inside the Southern Miss athletic department, as well as fans, said Dick Vogel, an associate athletic director at Southern Miss and the executive director of Eagles' booster club.
"There's not a better motivator out there," Vogel said. "He was a great speaker, great motivator, great recruiter."
Rebuilding the image
Vogel described Fedora as "the perfect example of a coach." He acknowledged that some at Southern Miss might be sad to lose Fedora, that some might even be angry that he's leaving. Vogel said he wouldn't be, though.
"I'm going to miss him," he said. "And it's good for him. I'm happy."
At UNC, Fedora will be charged with not only succeeding on the field but rebuilding the Tar Heels' image off of it.
Davis' hiring in 2006 was met with anticipation in part because of his name recognition. A former NFL coach, he'd rebuilt the University of Miami into a national power. People were excited about Davis because of who he was.
Now, they're excited about Fedora because of who he might become - and what he might do at North Carolina. After 18 years as an assistant coach, Fedora's first chance to lead a program came at Southern Miss, where he led the team to a conference title and an 11-2 record in his fourth season.
Leadership on tap
On Thursday, David Norman, who played alongside Fedora at Austin College in Sherman, Texas, remembered Fedora succeeded in a similar way a long time ago. Norman's mind took him back to 1981, when Fedora was a freshman on the Austin College team that won the NAIA national championship.
"In the playoffs, you have a limited roster," Norman said. "Larry did not dress for the national championship game. But he did what he needed to do. He worked hard in practice to prepare us ... Larry then went on to be an academic All-America and (honorable mention) All-America.
"He's a great story in that he never got discouraged, never gave up."
Now comes Fedora's time to lead the Tar Heels, who have perhaps needed new leadership more than anything in recent years. Before the board of governors meeting began on Thursday, Barringer, a Cary attorney who graduated from UNC in 1981, said he walked up to Thorp and shared a brief conversation.
"It's so good to see you under happy circumstances," Barringer said he told Thorp. "There have not been a lot of those in last year or so."
On Thursday, though, there was. The trustees met, and the board of governors, and for once they weren't there to talk about a coach's firing or an NCAA investigation. They were there, in many ways, to discuss a new beginning.
Staff writer Chip Alexander contributed to this story