Three years ago, Larry Fedora took North Carolina to an ACC Championship game, and finished the 2015 season with an 11-3 record. In May 2017, the university awarded him with a contract extension through 2023.
But on Sunday, after a 2-9 season, Fedora was fired.
Because Fedora was fired “without cause,” the university will owe him the remainder of his contract, which is a little more than $12.2 million. It will be paid to him over the next four years.
Under the terms of his contract, if Fedora were to land another job as a coach or TV commentator, the amount UNC owed him would be reduced by the salary in his new job.
Those funds will be paid by the Department of Athletics and not through state funds, UNC said in a press release.
Athletic director Bubba Cunningham said he consulted with the Board of Trustees and UNC chancellor Carol L. Folt about the decision. He said he met with Fedora on Sunday morning.
Cunningham informed the players that Fedora was fired in an email Sunday morning. Cunningham was expected to meet with the team at 1 p.m. Sunday afternoon.
Fedora, in a statement, said it was a “great honor” to have coached at UNC and disappointing not to be returning,
“I hate that it had to end this way,” he said. “The last two seasons have been challenging and heartbreaking. The results are not what we wanted and it has been frustrating for everyone involved – coaches, athletes, fans and supporters alike. The results did not reflect the commitment and hard work put in by our players and staff. The players never quit – ever. That speaks to the character of this team and this great University.
“I wanted the opportunity to fix this. I wanted to make the changes necessary to win again. I also understand this business. I understand that you don’t always get the time you want to turn things around. I respect the administration’s position and understand their actions.”
Fedora, who spent seven seasons as the Tar Heels’ head coach, had a 45-43 overall record, and 28-28 in ACC play. It was Fedora’s final two years at the program, though, that likely cost him his job.
The Tar Heels finished 3-9 in 2017, and 2-9 this past season. UNC’s final loss of the season came to its rival N.C. State in overtime 34-28 on Saturday.
Over the last two seasons, the Tar Heels are 2-14 against the ACC, including four losses —two each — to Duke and N.C. State.
Earlier this month, Cunningham said in an interview with The News & Observer that he would evaluate Fedora’s performance after the season. But he said he did not want to speculate on the seventh-year coach’s future.
“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.”
When asked how he evaluates a program and its coach, Cunningham said: “It’s everything you do from recruiting, to game day, to the environment you create, to the atmosphere that you provide.”
CTE, shoes, ‘threat to America’
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 8-5 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 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.
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 47-10 by Miami on Sept. 27. 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 after UNC’s loss to Duke on Nov. 10. “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.
UNC finally picked up its second win on Nov. 17 against Western Carolina. But it lost its season finale to N.C. State in overtime. Seven of UNC’s nine losses were by 10 points or less.
UNC had also taken a big hit on the recruiting trail this season.
In Fedora’s seven seasons, he has never had a recruiting class ranked below No. 35 nationally. In 2018, his recruiting class was ranked No. 20, which was his best, and that was after a season in which the Tar Heels finished 3-9.
But with 13 recruits committed for 2019, UNC is ranked No. 61. By comparison, N.C. State is ranked 22nd, Duke is 36th, Wake Forest is 50th, and East Carolina is 56th.
The struggles have particularly shown with in-state recruiting. Of UNC’s 13 commits, four are from in-state. The highest ranked in-state recruit the Tar Heels currently have is Welton Spottsville, a 6-foot, 195-pound wide receiver, and the 50th best recruit from North Carolina, according to 247sports.
The struggles were first highlighted in 2017, after in-state recruit Payton Wilson, a linebacker who was among the top 100 prospects in the country, decommitted from UNC and signed with N.C. State.
Stuck with UNC
Fedora came to UNC in 2012, while the school was being investigated by the NCAA. The Tar Heels were later given a one-year post season ban and had a reduction of 15 scholarships.
But in his first season as head coach in 2012, Fedora’s team finished 8-4. The following year in 2013, UNC finished 7-6. In 2014, UNC finished 6-7, and in 2015 UNC finished 11-3 and went to the ACC Championship game before losing to Clemson 45-37.
After that season, some speculated Fedora may go to a higher-paying job.
But Fedora remained with the Tar Heels, even with the threat the school could be penalized by the NCAA for its academic scandal. The NCAA ultimately decided it could not penalize the school.
Fedora said in an interview with The News & Observer earlier this month that he understands that fans were likely not happy with him. But he tried not to pay attention to it.
He said his primary objective was to help his players grow and 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.”
“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.”