North Carolina

From dawn till dusk: Behind the scenes with UNC’s Larry Fedora on signing day

North Carolina coach Larry Fedora and his staff gather in Fedora’s office to watch Nate Craig-Myers’s signing day announcement on ESPNU on Feb. 3. Craig-Myers picked Auburn over UNC.
North Carolina coach Larry Fedora and his staff gather in Fedora’s office to watch Nate Craig-Myers’s signing day announcement on ESPNU on Feb. 3. Craig-Myers picked Auburn over UNC. rwillett@newsobserver.com

6:20 a.m.

Larry Fedora walked into the Kenan Football Center in Chapel Hill about 6:20 on the morning of national signing day, as ready as he could be for one of the most hectic days of the college football off-season.

He reached his office on the fourth floor, set down his bag and walked out to the balcony overlooking the field at Kenan Stadium. The lights were on and in the fog North Carolina’s receivers, some of whom had missed too many early-morning workouts, were slowly crawling their way up the field.

“Freak, freak!” Fedora yelled, addressing the receivers by the position group’s nickname, the “freaks.”

It was a brief moment of levity, the players going through calisthenics at dawn while Fedora, in his fourth season as UNC’s head coach, watched from above. He looked for a moment like some kind of emperor lording over the plebeians.

Fedora walked back into his office. He took sips of coffee and paced around his desk. All he could do was wait. He had about 30 minutes before signing day began and he felt that familiar feeling: a sense of anticipation mixed with hope and dread. It felt like confidence and fear colliding.

“I’ve felt confident before,” Fedora said, “and I’ve had my guts ripped out by a kid.”

He spoke of signing day heartbreak the way other men might tell sad stories of lost loves. He remembered that pain, all the times he believed he’d won over a prospect only to lose him on the most important day on the recruiting calendar: today, signing day, when high school prospects make their college commitments official by signing a national letter of intent and sending it into the school.

The defeats reminded Fedora that anything could happen and that sometimes anything did happen. Many times high school players had told him one thing only to do something else on signing day.

And so Fedora, like more than 100 other Division I college football head coaches, felt those familiar nerves before the sun rose on signing day, Feb. 3. He felt the most uncomfortable thing of all for any college football coach: a lack of control.

It was a rare sensation. Coaches at all levels in all sports demand control, but college football coaches can seem militant in their pursuit of it.

One day per year those coaches relinquish all control to 17- and 18-year-olds, who, with the stroke of a pen, have the ability to crush the spirits of grown, powerful men.

“You just don’t know,” Fedora said. “When you lose a kid, you beat yourself up all day over it.”

He described such a scenario as “gut-wrenching.” First there’s the initial shock and disappointment. Then there are the questions: How did the prospect get away? What could have been done differently?

Was there a call or a visit that should have been made that wasn’t? A relationship with a high school assistant coach or an uncle that should have been better developed?

“In recruiting, you’re always trying to cast a wide net,” Fedora said, “Everybody that has (a prospect’s) ear is trying to influence him in some way.”

By this signing day, seven members of the Tar Heels’ 2016 recruiting class had already signed their national letters of intent and had enrolled in school in January. Fedora was expecting to receive signed national letters of intent from 19 others who had told him they’d be coming.

He was hopeful, meanwhile, that UNC would sign two others who were announcing their college decisions on national television later in the morning. Fedora had woken up repeating the same thing he has every day for the past 19 years:

“Today will be a great day. I cannot fail. I can only learn and grow.”

7 a.m.

With that sense of positivity, he walked out of his office a few minutes before 7 a.m., the time when prospects could begin sending in their signed letters of intent. It was nearly time. Fedora went door-to-door to each one of his assistant coaches and tried to replace the nerves and anxiety, which all of his assistants shared, with the fun of a quick game:

Who would be the first to send in his national letter of intent?

“All right,” Fedora said, speaking loudly to no one in particular but also to everyone on the fourth floor of the Kenan Football Center. “Who’s it going to be? Who’s it going to be?”

Assistant coaches began throwing out names of players who had been long committed to UNC. The next question was equally important: What was on the line? Fedora came up with a quick reward: honey buns.

I’ve felt confident before, and I’ve had my guts ripped out by a kid.

UNC coach Larry Fedora

Mrs. Freshley’s honey buns, in particular. They’d become a hit in the office since Tray Scott, the defensive line coach, found some in an airport vending machine during a recruiting trip. And so Fedora figured a Mrs. Freshley’s would be the perfect prize for the assistant coach who correctly picked the first player to sign.

It was time. Fedora shouted a reminder: “It’s 7 o’clock, men!”

Fedora walked briskly up and down the hall, checking in with assistants who were talking with various prospects. In years past the staff would have been waiting on a fax. Now they were waiting for text messages to pop up with pictures of a signed national letter of intent.

The first one came from Nolan DeFranco, a defensive end from Winter Garden, Fla., right at 7 a.m. to Scott’s phone. Scott looked at it and noted how dark the image was before walking over and presenting it to compliance.

It was light enough to count, at least. Scott, who’d picked DeFranco to be first, won the honey buns. There was no time to celebrate. Between 7 and about 7:45 the national letters of intent came in one after another. There were no surprises – a good thing for UNC.

“It will be a flurry of them,” Fedora said.

He still had his coffee in his hand and his phone in the other. It looked like a scene from the floor of the stock exchange – coaches bustling, waiting for news, checking phones, answering them, trying to find out the latest intel, passing information back and forth.

Signing day wasn’t just about prospects signing that day. Coaches were already working on the 2017 and 2018 classes.

Fedora estimated that before the day was over he’d talk with more than 100 high school juniors. He had his familiar line ready:

“Do you know what today is? No, it’s 365 days away from your signing day.”

Next year, those would be the kids who’d make Fedora wake up on the morning of the first Wednesday in February wondering if they were really coming or if he’d lose any of them at the last minute. But he had more immediate concerns this signing day.

For a while, though, the text messages kept coming. Congratulatory phone calls often followed. Sometimes an assistant coach FaceTimed with a player who had just signed.

It was a long way from the signing day scene of Fedora’s earliest years in coaching. Now here he was, looking at a small screen at images of signed national letters of intent, watching a board in the middle of the fourth floor fill up with the names of players who had sent in their paperwork.

8 a.m.

An hour into signing day just about everything was going according to plan. Twelve of the 19 players UNC expected to sign had done so, their names showing up on the board with the exception of two whose signings UNC kept quiet so the players could announce them later in the day.

As they came in, coaches spoke with parents, high school coaches and players who had just committed. It was important when talking to the kids not to sound so much like a 35- or 40- or 50-year-old man but to sound a little like a 17-year-old.

When Fedora talks to prospects at home, his wife can always tell by his use of expressions like “what’s up, G?” or “Hey, big man.”

“My wife hates it,” Fedora said of the lingo. “She’s like, ‘Why do you talk like that?’ 

Now he was asking himself another question. It was a few minutes past 8 a.m., and Fedora was still waiting on a signed national letter of intent that he had expected an hour ago.

It was the first, and only, surprise of the morning, and it was enough to fray the nerves of the entire coaching staff. Fedora and his assistants couldn’t contact the prospect or anyone associated with him. No one was picking up their phones.

As the minutes passed, the frustration grew. The vocabulary in the office turned coarser.

“I apologize for the language in this room right now,” Chris Kapilovic, the offensive coordinator, said to Teresa Vanderford, the longtime administrative assistant in the football office. “Need to get you some earmuffs.”

Fedora disappeared into Scott’s office, where several of the coaches gathered to figure out their move. All of them were worried that a prospect who had committed several months earlier might be wavering.

The fear was genuine. During a lull, Charlton Warren, the defensive backs coach, paced about with a racing heart. He’d played football at the Air Force Academy and worked on military bases, and here he was, frazzled at the specter of a 17-year-old deciding to play football elsewhere.

“My blood pressure, dog,” Warren said, shaking his head. “My blood pressure.”

Finally they made contact with a parent, and then with the prospect. Fedora recalled later what he told the kid: “What’s happening now, man? You’ve got me dang sweating.”

Another school had shown interest in the player. The prospect gave it some thought. Once they got him on the phone, though, UNC’s coaching staff wouldn’t let him off before he finished his paperwork. The text message came through at last.

Warren quickly told compliance to “post it” and added a colorful exclamation. Gunter Brewer, the receivers coach who was taking it all in, walked around with a wry smile, exuding a sense of Zen calm.

“Got to like the drama,” he said. “Going to have it on game day.”

Fedora emerged from an office as tense as if he’d just led the Tar Heels to an overtime victory. He and Warren talked about what had gone down, the stress of it all – how a commitment that seemed so secure and solid could turn the other way so easily.

“More times than not the family will go into a … cave,” Warren said.

“You better make sure you have 15 numbers for a kid,” Fedora said.

The stress stuck with Fedora for the rest of the morning: how close he appeared to be to losing a recruit. Even if he hadn’t been, in reality, that’s what he thought about – how one almost got away.

More than once, a coach walked around saying that this whole spectacle was enough to drive any one of them insane. And they’d all been doing it for a while.

By about 9:45 a.m. UNC had received paperwork for everyone it had expected to sign. Now it was a matter of waiting on the announcements of two undecided prospects.

There was a brief sense of hope with Amir Rasul, a prized running back prospect from Florida, who showed up to his announcement ceremony wearing a Carolina blue tie. But he stayed home and picked Florida State.

11:10 a.m.

The staff was more hopeful about its chances with Nate Craig-Myers, a heralded receiver from Tampa. He was deciding between UNC and Auburn and was set to announce at 11:10 a.m. live on ESPNU. Approaching that time, Fedora walked into his office.

“Where are you going to sit?” Gene Chizik, the Tar Heels’ defensive coordinator, asked Fedora.

“I’m going to stand,” Fedora told him.

Chizik told his fellow coaches they were “too stiff” and cracked a couple of jokes to lighten the mood. Eventually about 20 people had filed in to watch: coaches, graduate assistants, support staff members.

Some shouted words of encouragement at the TV, as if the message might somehow get through. Fedora’s phone buzzed a few minutes before Craig-Myers’ appearance on TV.

Fedora didn’t answer. He wanted to see it live. Then came the announcement: Auburn.

“You’ve got to swing,” Brewer said, and taking swings means missing from time to time, too.

The coaches filed out of Fedora’s office and back to their own to work the phones for next year’s class, and the one after that. Signing day represented the end point of the 2016 class, but recruiting never really stops.

By 11:30 a.m. the work for this class, though, was over. Fedora could take a breath. He did a couple of media interviews and cracked open a Dr Pepper and a bag of beef jerky. He’d managed to go the entire morning without any Red Bull, his drink of choice, and he planned not to have any all day, because he said he knew it’d be a challenge to give it up.

There was a Rams Club event to attend and more media interviews and finally some lunch. All the while, his assistant coaches were making plans for next year’s recruiting class: when it would be OK to accept a commitment from one prospect, or how another’s grades were looking midway through his junior year.

Afternoon

In the afternoon, Kapilovic led a meeting with the offensive coaching staff about UNC’s top in-state recruiting targets in the class of 2017. Position-by-position, they shared thoughts about various high school players.

“Are any of these guys takes right now?” Kapilovic said, asking if a commitment could be accepted.

The question created a debate and a dilemma: If a prospect wanted to commit now and UNC wanted to hold off for a bit, it was possible the player would commit somewhere else. Or if the coaching staff accepted the commitment, that might cause another at the same position to go somewhere else.

To accept a commitment, the coaches had to be sure about a player. With several of the ones they discussed on signing day, it was too early to be too sure.

“OK,” Kapilovic said, “so we’re saying, ‘Go slow’ now.”

The meeting lasted about 45 minutes. Soon it was time for Fedora’s press conference, where Kapilovic and Chizik also appeared to answer questions about how the class came together.

6 p.m.

Not long after that ended, Fedora and his staff prepared for a signing day celebration with fans at the Blue Zone on the other end of Kenan Stadium. That began at 6 p.m., nearly 12 hours after the coaches had started their work day.

They showed highlights of the players who had signed and talked about what each one could bring. Toward the end, Fedora stepped onto a makeshift stage and began a different kind of recruiting pitch, one in which he told the fans how much the program needed their support.

“I got your back,” Fedora said, and in return, he wanted the supporters to have his, and to show it by filling Kenan Stadium. UNC tied a school record with 11 victories last season, and Fedora spoke of “the bump” that provided in recruiting – especially among class of 2017 prospects. Now he was selling his program to an equally important segment: its consumers.

By about 7:30, his pitch was over, and he was soon was in a car headed to dinner at Ruth’s Chris. The end of signing day was cause for celebration.

And yet it was also another recruiting trip. Fedora had invited some of UNC’s most influential boosters, the money people who can help turn into reality visions like an indoor practice facility and staff raises and increased budgets.

Fedora used different phrasing than he had earlier in the day. There was no “what’s up G,” or “hey big man.” He was still recruiting, though, and selling his program, more than 13 hours after he’d arrived ready for one of the busiest days of the year.

Andrew Carter: 919-829-8944, @_andrewcarter

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