UNC's Larry Fedora, N.C. State's Tom O'Brien are unfamiliar foes amid a familiar rivalry

Unknowns abound between coaches O’Brien and Fedora

acarter@newsobserver.comJuly 20, 2012 

— Reminded Thursday about N.C. State’s five-game winning streak against North Carolina in football, first-year North Carolina coach Larry Fedora reminded those listening that he is still counting down the days until the Tar Heels and Wolfpack meet again.

“I know we’re 99 days away,” Fedora said. “So we’ll see what happens.”

Tom O’Brien, entering his sixth season as the Wolfpack’s head coach, was sitting a couple seats to the left on the dais at the Raleigh Chamber of Commerce’s annual Triangle Pigskin Preview, held in a banquet room at the Embassy Suites in Cary in front of a couple hundred people.

“How many days is it?” O’Brien asked, referring to his team’s Oct. 27 meeting against the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill.

O’Brien’s question served as a subtle reminder of his approach – at least the one he endorses in public – of treating games against North Carolina like any other. Fedora’s attention to the countdown offers a glimpse into his philosophy of emphasizing the significance of rivalry games.

“I hope it’s like any other rivalry I’ve been involved in – (that) it’s pretty ferocious, and the fans get into it,” Fedora said. “And that’s what makes college football what it is, is the rivalries that you have. … The regional rivalries are what makes college football the greatest sport in the world.”

Coaches at N.C. State and UNC have long helped define the rivalry and some, including former Wolfpack coach Chuck Amato and former Tar Heels coach John Bunting, have taken part in the kind of banter that engages fans and creates headlines. The dynamic that Fedora and O’Brien will share, though, remains as unknown as they are to each other.

O’Brien had an established relationship with former UNC coach Butch Davis, dating back to when they coached against each other in the Big East when Davis was at Miami and O’Brien at Boston College. But Fedora and O’Brien are less familiar.

“I don’t know him that well,” Fedora said. “I’ve never coached with Tom. And I’ve never coached against Tom, either. So I really don’t know him that well, you know. We’ve met on one other occasion before I ever came to the conference, and that was just kind of a greeting, and that was about it.”

Fedora and O’Brien shared a quick handshake Thursday before the event began, and then made some brief small talk after it ended. Two others, including Duke coach David Cutcliffe, sat between Fedora and O’Brien during the event, giving them little time to mingle.

Afterward, O’Brien spoke in generalities about Fedora, saying they have been, and will continue, to fight over recruits, and for in-state prestige. Yet they are, for now, almost like strangers.

“He’s a good guy,” O’Brien said. “He’s a good football coach. So I think he’s a good addition to the ACC, and he’ll do a good job at Carolina.”

Still more than a month away from coaching his first game, Fedora already has done a good job of fanning the rivalry’s flame. At a UNC booster club event in late April in Charlotte, a Tar Heels fan asked Fedora about the significance of games against the Wolfpack.

Fedora said there would be “an emphasis” on playing N.C. State, but then said, “I don’t want to talk about (the rivalry) too much because I don’t want to legitimize their program.”

The comment spread over Twitter and on message boards, and drew the ire of Wolfpack fans. Thursday, Fedora playfully pleaded ignorance when Don Shea, the master of ceremonies, brought up UNC’s losing streak against the Wolfpack.

“You know, Don, that’s the first time I’ve heard that,” Fedora said. “I didn’t realize that’s what’s happened the last five years.”

The crowd laughed; and even O’Brien smiled. He later said the UNC game is “one game on your schedule,” and that N.C. State hasn’t “won five games in a row” but “one game at a time for five years.”

Later, O’Brien shared his philosophy on rivalry banter – friendly or otherwise.

“I ignore it,” he said.

The two coaches walked out of the room, and went their separate ways, 99 days before they will see each other, when it counts.

Carter: 919-829-8944

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