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UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham on Fedora’s future: ‘I don’t engage in any speculation’

North Carolina football fans likely won’t know the future of head coach Larry Fedora until after the season.

Speaking with The News & Observer Monday night before UNC basketball’s home opener against Stanford, UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham said he would do a complete evaluation of the football program at the end of the year. That will likely include the status of Fedora, whose buyout is more than $12 million.

“I don’t engage in any speculation,” Cunningham said. “At the end of the year I evaluate our program from top to bottom and I’ll do that with coach at the end of the year.”

The Tar Heels have struggled this season and are currently last in the ACC Coastal Division standings at 1-8. In the last two seasons, they are 4-17 and have only two wins against FBS opponents. The Tar Heels’ four wins include Pittsburgh twice, Western Carolina and Old Dominion.

When asked Tuesday night whether he felt UNC’s final two games — against Western Carolina and N.C. State — were “make or break” games for him and would determine his future, Fedora said he doesn’t look at it that way.

“I look at it like this game, this is the most important thing that I have going on,” Fedora said. “My life surrounds it. My family. Everybody. We’re all involved in it. So I don’t really look at it that way. I just look at this is the next game and it’s the most important thing that I’ve got going on, and I’m going to pour all my heart and soul into it for these players.”

UNC’s latest loss came against rival Duke last Saturday 42-35. Duke quarterback Daniel Jones amassed 547 total yards, which was a record by a UNC opponent.

But the Tar Heels still had a chance to tie the game before the end of regulation.

Freshman quarterback Cade Fortin threw a Hail Mary pass at the end zone for the game-tying touchdown, but it was batted down.

Proud of the effort

On Monday, Cunningham emphasized that his only focus is on the student-athletes.

“I think everyone has been disappointed by the win-loss record this year,” Cunningham said, “but I couldn’t be more proud about the effort our kids give, the energy they bring, their enthusiasm, and I’m just very pleased with the students, and the way they’ve worked.”

If Fedora were fired after the season, he would be paid the remaining part of his contract, which runs through January 2023. That would make his buyout roughly $12.2 million. Fedora signed an extension in 2017.

The Tar Heels have two games remaining and will finish the season with at least eight losses for the second consecutive year. The Tar Heels finished 3-9 in 2017 after an injury riddled season that saw at least 17 players go down for the year.

Optimistic about the future

UNC had one of its most successful seasons in program history in 2015, finishing 11-3 and losing the ACC Championship to Clemson 45-37. The Tar Heels finished 8-4 in 2016. Star quarterback Mitch Trubisky entered the 2017 NFL draft and was picked No. 2 overall.

In 2017, when it was apparent that the injuries had ruined the season, some fans, Cunningham and other university leaders appeared willing to give Fedora a pass.

Cunningham said during the summer that he remains optimistic about the future.

“I feel great about the football program,” Cunningham said in July. “Because obviously we’re disappointed in last year but that’s an anomaly. We had a rough year with all the injuries.”

But things continued to be rough for Fedora, who is in his seventh season at UNC, before the 2018 season started.

Later in July, at the ACC’s media day, Fedora drew criticism when he said football was under attack and that it constituted a threat against America. He also said that there had been no studies to support that football was the cause for CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). His comments made national headlines and many critics felt he was being insensitive to those who had suffered head injuries while playing football.

Cunningham defended Fedora, saying his point was “poorly communicated.”

“You know, I think Larry was really concerned about the health and safety of students, and I don’t think it came across all that well, obviously,” Cunningham said then.

In August, the university announced that 15 football players had participated in selling their team-issued exclusive Air-Jordan 3’s, which was a secondary NCAA violation. Thirteen players were suspended for at least one game. Nine of those players were suspended for four games. Cunningham indicated that his coaches had also been disciplined, although he did not specify how.

Angry fans

UNC began the 2018 season with a 24-17 loss to California on Sept. 1. Fans upset with the loss emailed Cunningham, asking him to fire Fedora. On Sept. 7, Cunningham replied to at least one of the emails defending his football coach.

“As you know, Coach Fedora has led this program through some tough times,” Cunningham wrote. “He came to Carolina in the midst of an NCAA case and coached the team through a one-year postseason ban and a reduction of 15 scholarships. Despite that, Coach Fedora’s first five teams were bowl eligible and he brought stability to our program when we needed it most. Last year, we were hit hard by injuries— something Coach Fedora does not like to discuss because he doesn’t want to use it as an excuse. But it is a reality.”

But things continued to spiral.

UNC lost to East Carolina 41-19 on Sept. 8, and the hashtag #FireFedora re-emerged on Twitter, as fans tweeted their dislike for how the program was going.

UNC won its next game against Pitt, 38-35, on Sept. 22, but was blown out by Miami on Sept. 27, 47-10. The Tar Heels turned the ball over six times and gave up 24 points off turnovers.

Over the next five games, UNC played better, but still lost all five by 10 points or less, including three that came down to the last drive or play.

Many of his players have defended Fedora.

“You’re going to hear Fedora go take the blame,” running back Michael Carter said last Saturday. “It’s not his fault. It’s not. A lot of people giving hate. It’s not his fault. He put us in positions to win. We let it slip.”

Fedora described the season as “frustrating,” but maintained that he was determined to help his players get another win. He said they deserved it.

After the Duke game, he said he remained confident that he could help turn the program around.

Two final games

UNC plays Western Carolina on Saturday and N.C. State on Nov. 24.

Fedora said he tries not to pay attention to what others have said about how he’s performed. He said his main objective is to help his players become successful.

“I want them to reach all their dreams and goals,” Fedora said. “And if they can reach their dreams and goals, then I’ve done my job and that’s what I want. So when they leave this program, I want them to be better men, I want them to be better husbands later, I want them to be better fathers later. That’s the important thing.

“I know my job is to win football games, but it’s also to raise young men into full grown men.”

Alexander, 919-829-4822; @jonmalexander
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