CHAPEL HILL — Before he coached his first game at North Carolina, Larry Fedora stood on a stage in Charlotte at a booster club event and made clear he understood the significance of the Tar Heels’ rivalry with N.C. State.
Fedora then, back in late April, faced a question from a fan who wanted to know what kind of emphasis Fedora would be placing on his team’s game against N.C. State, which has defeated the Heels five years running.
“There’s going to be an emphasis,” Fedora said, a firmness in his voice.
He came armed with a number, too, about the N.C. State game: “It’s 184 days from today,” Fedora said.
Now it’s only five days away. Fedora said here on Monday that he has continued to count down the days to UNC’s game against N.C. State – a game that finally arrives on Saturday. It has been a countdown, really, to the Tar Heels’ chance at redemption – a countdown, Fedora and his players hope, to a reckoning.
Because of NCAA sanctions, North Carolina this season can’t play in a bowl game. If the Tar Heels finish first in the ACC’s Coastal Division, the league won’t even recognize them as the divisional champions. But UNC can end a five-game losing streak against N.C. State that Fedora has heard about, he said, since the day he took the job.
Fedora said people around him informed him of the significance of his team’s game against the Wolfpack “since my first handshake when I took the job.” Asked on Monday how long it took for that five-game losing streak to come up, Feodra smiled.
“It might have been on that first handshake,” he said. “I don’t really remember. It’s been a one-sided situation for the last five years. So that’s something that obviously our guys are aware of and our fans are very much aware of. So I think everybody in the program is aware of it and what has to be done.”
The Tar Heels on Saturday suffered a 33-30 defeat at Duke that was perhaps UNC’s most difficult loss of the season. The Blue Devils scored the game-winning touchdown with 13 seconds to play.
One day later, UNC players arrived at the Kenan Football Center for their usual Sunday practice. They went into their locker room and found N.C. State paraphernalia everywhere.
There were red and white streamers and balloons. Pictures of N.C. State players celebrating after a victory. Signs with a hand on them that said, “Five in a row.” There were signs with N.C. State’s logo and the words, “Our State,” plastered on them.
At first players thought someone had snuck into their locker room and vandalized it.
“I wasn’t over there,” N.C. State coach Tom O’Brien said later, joking. “So, I mean, I was flying back [from Maryland]. I don’t know who did it.”
It didn’t take long for UNC players to figure out who had decorated the room red. It was Fedora and his staff.
“The whole locker room was red,” Bryn Renner, the UNC quarterback, said. “It was almost like he went to Party City, and put up all the flyers and the big hoopla. Definitely walking in, the magnitude of this game [was clear].
“… We need to have a good week of practice and just come ready to play. So I think that’s what his message was.”
Fedora downplayed the decorations, saying, “I don’t know if that’s a big deal or not.”
“We have stuff in the locker room each week on teams,” he said. “… We do things to motivate our players, I’m sure just like everybody else does.”
But not like this, said offensive lineman Jonathan Cooper. By the time he arrived in the locker room on Sunday, most of the N.C. State stuff had been torn down. It sat in a big pile, trashed.
Cooper, though, went through the pile and found a couple of items to put up inside his locker. One was a picture of jubilant N.C. State players celebrating. Another was a picture of the hand, with “five in a row” written on it.
“I took some of the stuff and put it up in my locker, just as a reminder that they have beat us five consecutive times,” Cooper said. “I don’t want to end my senior season with that on my record.”
Before practice began on Sunday, the sounds of loud popping could be heard from the locker room. It was UNC running back Giovani Bernard, busting red and white balloons.
After a devastating loss on Saturday night, the Tar Heels received new life on Sunday. N.C. State week had arrived, and the long countdown to Saturday was nearly over.