Commentary

DeCock: For UNC's Fedora, a brief stop left a lasting impact

ldecock@newsobserver.comJuly 23, 2013 

UTAH AIR FORCE FOOTBALL

Air Force coach Fisher DeBerry talks with kicker Zach Sasser after Sasser missed a second field goal against Utah during the first half of a football game at Falcon Stadium in Air Force Academy, Colo., Saturday, Nov. 18, 2006.

2006 AP FILE PHOTO

— When the time came to choose his own path as an offensive coach, Larry Fedora saw two options. He decided on the high-tempo spread offense he uses today as the head coach at North Carolina, but he also seriously considered the triple-option flexbone he learned from Fisher DeBerry during a stint as receivers coach at Air Force.

Of everything he learned working there, the offense may have been the least valuable.

Fedora made many stops on his way to North Carolina – from Baylor to Middle Tennessee to Florida to Oklahoma State to Southern Mississippi – but the two seasons he spent at Air Force had as big an impact as any of them because of the man who was his boss and the way he approached everything but football.

Fisher DeBerry won a lot of football games at Air Force. But it was how he cared about his players, how seriously he took the development and training of these future pilots and military officers, that was his true contribution to the academy. Even after DeBerry retired in 2006, that spirit lives on through a coaching tree that includes Fedora and Wake Forest’s Jim Grobe.

On vacation in Florida recently, Fedora ran into a few of his former Air Force players and their families, which only reinforced the importance of what he learned there.

“Listening to them talk about the impact Fisher had on their lives, that’s why we coach,” Fedora said. “To know that you’re having that kind of impact on a young man’s life, that’s going to carry him through the rest of his life, that’s pretty strong right there. Fisher did a tremendous job taking care of kids and building them into full-grown men.”

DeBerry, who grew up in Cheraw, S.C., played football and baseball at Wofford and now divides his time between South Carolina and Oklahoma, was supposed to be in Raleigh for a fund-raising dinner on Tuesday but was forced to cancel at the last minute because of a family emergency.

“I’m very disappointed I’m not going to be able to see him and LuAnn,” Fedora said. “My thoughts and prayers go out to them.”

Fedora was there anyway. So was Grobe, who worked for DeBerry for 11 years. But so were Duke’s David Cutcliffe, N.C. State’s Dave Doeren, East Carolina’s Ruffin McNeill and Appalachian State’s Scott Satterfield. Such is the respect in which DeBerry is held in the profession. Those who actually worked for him carry that experience with them wherever they go.

“As much as anything, Coach was always more concerned about the person than the player,” Grobe said. “Anybody that’s ever worked for Fisher comes away with that and makes that the foundation of their program. You hear a lot of people talk about a family environment, but that guy lives it. So you can’t help but get swallowed up by that attitude.”

His assistant coaches were expected to come in early and leave after practice, to go home for dinner with their families and put their kids to bed. No one worked on Sundays. His players were treated like sons, the entire program run like an extended family.

Of course, that’s easier at a military academy, where they churn out leaders, not NFL draft picks. It’s more difficult at an ACC school, where the philosophies at work may be a little more diverse, but that’s the goal.

“I hope I can be half the man, half the coach that Fisher was,” Fedora said.

Fedora didn’t work for DeBerry long. He never ran the offense he learned there. Yet his time at Air Force had as big an impact as anything he learned.

Video: At ACC Kickoff, North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora talks about South Carolina star Jadeveon Clowney. Sr. QB Bryn Renner and Sr. DE Kareem Martin also represented the Tar Heels

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947

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