If the opportunity hadn’t come through like it did and if Larry Fedora hadn’t become a graduate assistant coach at Baylor in 1990, he’s not sure he’d be where he is now, North Carolina’s head coach. He’s not sure he’d be coaching in college at all.
“Well I’d probably still be coaching high school ball in the state of Texas,” Fedora said Monday after he thought for a few moments about what might have happened, and how everything could have been different, had he not received what turned out to be the opportunity of his lifetime.
Fedora and the Tar Heels (11-2) are here to play against Baylor (9-3) on Tuesday in the Russell Athletic Bowl. It’s a game of significance for UNC, which is seeking a school record 12th victory. And yet it’s meaningful on a different level to Fedora, too, given his deep ties to Baylor and to Waco, Texas.
In 1989 Fedora was 27, in his third season as an assistant coach at Garland High in Garland, Texas. The man who’d hired him for that job, a former Baylor player named Scott Smith, had gone back to Baylor to become an assistant coach.
Not long after, Baylor had an opening for a graduate assistant. The job didn’t pay much but it was an opportunity for someone young and energetic, an up-and-comer who was willing to take a chance. Smith called Fedora, and Fedora and his wife visited Waco and met with Grant Teaff, Baylor’s head coach.
Soon Fedora had a job offer. He accepted. Two weeks went by, though, before Fedora learned that his wife was pregnant with the couple’s first child.
“And so I called (Teaff) back and I said, ‘Coach, I apologize, I just don’t think I’m going to be able to do this,’ ” Fedora said Monday, standing in the hallway of an upscale hotel before he joined his team for a bowl kickoff luncheon. “And coach Teaff said, ‘No, Larry, the Lord will provide for you somehow.’ And I was like, ‘Really?’ And he said, ‘Yeah – he’s going to provide for you.’
“I don’t know how we made it but we made it. A wife and a child on a $400 a month salary.”
I don’t know how we made it but we made it. A wife and a child on a $400 a month salary.
UNC coach Larry Fedora on his time as a graduate assistant at Baylor
And so that’s how Fedora’s college coaching career began, as a low-level grad assistant who for two years took home $200 every two weeks and stretched it far enough to support a young family. Fedora was 28 when he started coaching at Baylor. He was 34, his star rising, when he left after six seasons.
A start in Waco
Those six years have stuck with him. Since leaving Baylor, Fedora’s four-year tenure at UNC equals his longest anywhere. He spent two years as an assistant at Air Force and three years each at Middle Tennessee, Florida and Oklahoma State before he was the head coach at Southern Miss for four years.
His ascent through the coaching profession might not have been possible if not for his first major move – the one that brought him to Waco and to Baylor. And so when the bowl match-ups were announced Fedora began receiving calls and texts from old friends who first knew him as a hungry late-20s grad assistant and then, after two years, as an energetic early-30s assistant coach.
Fedora said he has heard in recent weeks from old Baylor boosters he knew, and from fans who just want to wish him well on Tuesday against their school. He has heard from local business owners near Baylor, like Sammy Citrano, who runs George’s Restaurant and Bar in Waco.
“If you go through there,” Fedora said, sounding like a Waco local, “you’re going to have to go to George’s.”
Citrano and Fedora have been friends now for nearly 25 years. They’ve watched each other grow in their professions and the game on Tuesday will be difficult, Citrano said, for Baylor fans like him who also share a bond with Fedora.
“We’re proud of him”
During a phone interview on Monday, Citrano said people in Waco remember Fedora for being “sharp” – both in mind and in dress. You could tell then, Citrano said, that Fedora was going places.
Still, Citrano said, Fedora “never forgot where he came from, and never forgot his friends here. We’re proud of him.”
They spoke on Christmas about Citrano’s new grandchild and about his mother’s health. About family and personal matters and about anything other than the game, Citrano said with a laugh, “because there’s too much on the line.”
For Baylor, a victory would help ease the sting of a disappointing final month of the regular season, one in which the Bears’ College Football Playoff hopes ended amid a nasty rash of injuries. UNC, meanwhile, is after history and a win that would give the Tar Heels their most victorious season.
It’s an opportunity Fedora never could have envisioned, back when he set his path by accepting a $400 a month coaching job that didn’t include housing or regular meals with the team. Fedora figured it’d work out, one way or another, and that it’d likely work out with him remaining in Texas.
An uncertain time
“My wife was very naive at the time,” Fedora said with a smile. “I was, too, because I told her, ‘Let’s take this shot and see where it leads. And if it doesn’t work out, we’ll just go back and coach high school ball in the state of Texas, and be happy.’
“And she was good with that. And I said, ‘If it does work out, we’ll just stay in the state of Texas – and your family is here, my family’s here, we’ll stay in colleges in the state of Texas.’ So we left there in ’96 and haven’t been back.”
Since he left Texas Fedora has followed his career from Texas to Colorado and Tennessee, from Florida to Oklahoma, from Mississippi and to North Carolina. And now he has found himself preparing to coach against the school where it all began for him.
In some ways, Fedora said, the experience has been “fun” – hearing from old friends, reliving some memories. Facing Baylor is a reminder, too, of an uncertain time in his life, a time when he took a risk and believed it’d work out, somehow.
“When people tell me that they want to get into college coaching,” Fedora said, “I say sometimes you’ve got to go backwards before you can go forwards.”