There were some low points last season for North Carolina – the embarrassing performance at East Carolina, the way the season ended with blowout losses against N.C. State and Rutgers – and the 47-20 defeat at Miami was right up there with any of them.
“That was a low for us,” Ryan Switzer, the junior receiver, said earlier this week, shaking his head. “It’s such a blur last year and that game, especially.”
The Tar Heels were never really in it. They came out flat, started poorly, trailed 30-6 at halftime and then couldn’t pack up their locker room and leave Sun Life Stadium fast enough.
And now here comes another game against the Hurricanes. UNC plays against Miami on Saturday at Kenan Stadium, and the circumstances couldn’t be much different than they were when the teams met a little more than a year ago in South Florida.
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Then: UNC’s defense was among the worst in school history.
Now: The Tar Heels’ defense is the most improved unit in the country.
Then: UNC lacked energy and enthusiasm and was trudging toward a 6-7 finish.
Now: It’s possible the Tar Heels could clinch the ACC’s Coastal Division on Saturday.
Then: Disappointment and negativity doomed UNC.
Now: Determination and positivity have become Tar Heels’ trademarks.
Looking back, UNC’s loss at Miami last year might have been the Tar Heels’ worst of the season. It didn’t come against a rival, like the one against N.C. State. Or against a hungry in-state opponent, like the one at ECU. It didn’t offer a bad ending to a bad season, like the loss against Rutgers did.
Our team has grit. And that’s built through the off-season, that’s built through overcoming adversity – or maybe not overcoming adversity but learning from the lesson of it.
UNC coach Larry Fedora
No, what made the loss at Miami so bad was this: From the start UNC played like it knew it was beat. There was no fight. No want-to. Just a go-through-the-motions, get-it-over-with-already loss.
Switzer earlier this week was charged with the unenviable task of re-watching that Miami game.
“And it just seemed like they just jumped on us early and just, guys were so lackadaisical,” he said. “And we know what happened.”
More important, now, Switzer knows what that loss – and others like it – led to: a transformation in attitude and approach that began almost as soon as last season ended. The Tar Heels have won eight consecutive games and are on the verge of winning the Coastal Division.
That visible success, though, is the result of a lot of unseen work, both physical and mental, that began almost as soon as UNC left Detroit last December with another ugly, embarrassing defeat – that one against Rutgers in a nondescript bowl game in front of about 10,000 people at Ford Field.
The changes began in January, when UNC coach Larry Fedora invited all of his players to air their grievances and share what they thought was wrong with the team and wrong with his program. The players spoke. Fedora listened. And then he implemented changes.
One thing became clear enough: UNC last season had terrible team chemistry. Players blamed each other for their failures. They blamed their coaching staff. The coaching staff, evidently, didn’t know how to solve any of it. And down the drain the Tar Heels’ season went.
“The Positive Dog”
Fedora’s primary off-season responsibility, aside from hiring a new defensive staff, was to take his fractured team and bring it back together. Along the way Fedora knew he needed to change attitudes and create a more positive environment. After all, UNC had been overcome by negativity last year.
The team worked on its attitude throughout winter conditioning last season. And during spring practice. And during preseason practice. That’s when Fedora gave his seniors a reading assignment. The book: “The Positive Dog,” by Jon Brown.
“The Positive Dog” is a short book, only about 100 pages, about two talking dogs who live in a shelter. One of the dogs, Bubba, has a positive attitude, and he helps another dog, Matt, overcome his negativity and pessimism and find the positive dog within. In turn, Matt’s increased positivity helps other dogs around him.
The concept is elementary but the message has stuck with the Tar Heels: be positive. Regardless of the circumstances.
Lose a game by four points after three red-zone turnovers and two endzone interceptions, like UNC did in a 17-13 defeat to start the season against South Carolina? Stay positive. Down 21-0 at Georgia Tech in the final minutes of the first half? Don’t let negativity creep in.
Positivity has been one intangible reason for UNC’s turnaround. Another has been grit.
Fedora earlier this week cited a University of Pennsylvania study that concluded that grit – defined by the study’s authors as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals” – is as important as talent in achieving success. In some ways, grit can be more important.
“A special group”
According to the study, “findings suggest that the achievement of difficult goals entails not only talent but also the sustained and focused application of talent over time.” In other words, talent is important but grit often makes the bigger difference. It’s something that Fedora has spent a lot of time discussing with his team.
“Our team has grit,” Fedora said. “And that’s built through the off-season, that’s built through overcoming adversity – or maybe not overcoming adversity but learning from the lesson of it.
“It comes from the heartaches of failure and it comes from the happiness of success and all the different experiences you have. This team has grit. They do. And they are a special group.
“That’s why I think we’ve been successful to this point.”
True grit. Positivity. Talking dogs.
And, now, the longest winning streak since 1997. A year ago UNC entered its game against Miami downtrodden and disappointed amid a long, losing season. A defensive overhaul and an attitude adjustment later, the Tar Heels enter this game against Miami in a different place – both in the literal and figurative sense.
“We know we’ve got a whole different attitude and team this year,” Switzer said. “And we’re looking forward to putting that on the field against these guys.”