As criticism of UNC football builds, players rally behind Larry Fedora

North Carolina coach Larry Fedora following loss to Miami: ‘They put it on us today’

North Carolina makes costly mistakes, Miami capitalizes. The Tar Heels loose by 37 points.
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North Carolina makes costly mistakes, Miami capitalizes. The Tar Heels loose by 37 points.

Michael Smith didn’t wait until the end of North Carolina’s loss at California on Sept. 1 to send UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham an email.

Smith, a UNC alum from Charlotte, was upset about how the Tar Heels opened the season in a 24-17 road loss to Cal. He wrote that what he was seeing on the football field was “unacceptable.” He insisted he was cutting his contributions to the Rams Club.

“...(F)ind us a leader,” Smith wrote to Cunningham. “We deserve it.”

Smith wasn’t the only UNC fan to send Cunningham a similar email about seventh-year coach Larry Fedora. From Sept. 1 to Sept. 9, one day after UNC’s embarrassing loss at East Carolina, Cunningham received at least 24 emails from people calling for Fedora’s job, according to a public records request for emails obtained by the News & Observer. Some fans said they didn’t care about his buyout, which is about $12 million. Cunningham also received at least two emails in support of Fedora.

Larry Fedora's post game comments on Saturday, September 8, 2018 at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville, N.C.

Some fans were upset that players who had suspended been for selling their team-issued sneakers. Others were upset with Fedora’s controversial comments on football and CTE in July, but most were motivated by the increasing number of losses.

Since a 7-2 start to the 2016 season, UNC has lost 15 of its past 20 games. The Heels will take a 1-3 record into Saturday’s primetime (7 p.m., ESPNU) home game with Coastal Division rival Virginia Tech (3-2).

“If this continues any further I will pull all funding and denounce my allegiance to this once fine university,” Drew Coleman, who graduated from UNC in 2008, wrote to Cunningham. “You should be ashamed of yourself to let this raucous affair continue. I hope you do what is best and relieve Larry Fedora of his head coaching duties immediately.”

University of North Carolina football coach Larry Fedora talks about stress, a lack of sleep, and playing lots of freshman as the Tar Heels' head into the 2018 season.

Cunningham, according to the records from UNC, responded to at least four of the emails. In his response to Smith on Sept. 7, Cunningham defended Fedora and asked for patience and continued support of the program and Fedora.

On social media the backlash has been worse. Some fans have started the hashtag “#FireFedora.” After the 41-19 loss at ECU — as a two-touchdown favorite — Fedora said he understood the criticism. He said he would continue to work hard to change the direction of the program.

The 2017 season was the first losing regular-season for Fedora at UNC and only one in 10 seasons as a head coach. In 2015, Fedora led the Tar Heels to a Coastal Division title (with a perfect 8-0 ACC record) and tied the school-record for wins (11) in a season. Overall, Fedora has a 44-37 record and 28-22 mark in ACC play at UNC.

Fedora and Cunningham address the suspensions of 13 football players for selling shoes during a press conference on Monday, August 6, 2018 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel HIll, N.C.

The displeasure from fans showed in its first home game two weeks later. UNC officials announced that 44,168 tickets had been distributed for the home-opener against Pitt, a 38-35 win. Kenan Stadium’s seating recently-lowered capacity is 50,500 and many seats, across different sections, appeared empty.

Players say they have noticed the criticism, and even the “FireFedora” hashtag, but they say they are playing for their coach.

“Always,” junior receiver Anthony Ratliff-Williams said of Fedora. “He’s the reason I came here. He’s the reason guys are here. You definitely want to play hard for your coach and kind of tune out that noise. You can’t worry about it.”

Senior safety J.K. Britt said the same.

“We’re playing for coach Fedora,” Britt said. “We’re playing for ourselves because we know when we go inside the locker room as a team, it doesn’t matter who believes in us — as long as we believe in us — and we know that we’re all we got.”

When asked his thoughts on what his players said, Fedora said the players don’t need to worry about him.

“I don’t want them to listen to the noise outside,” the coach said. “Just focus on what we got to do, inside our walls, and we’ll be OK.”

Alexander, 919-829-4822; @jonmalexander