North Carolina

A decade later, John Bunting finds peace in his post-football life

John Bunting on living in a cave

Video: John Bunting talks about the stress of being a head football coach during a interview at his home in Hampstead, NC, on April 27, 2016
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Video: John Bunting talks about the stress of being a head football coach during a interview at his home in Hampstead, NC, on April 27, 2016

Outside the 3,600-square-foot house John Bunting and his wife had built after he lost the only coaching job he ever really wanted, a breeze rustles the boats in the marina. The Intracoastal Waterway is quiet on a Wednesday afternoon.

Inside, Bunting is walking up the stairs, past framed pictures of a lifetime in football – there he is at North Carolina, and with the Philadelphia Eagles; there’s when he snapped his arm landing on Calvin Hill – when it comes out: his philosophy on life.

“It’s a good life for me, have no complaints,” he says while Bella, his energetic Weimaraner, follows him. “I have no regrets. That’s one thing I don’t want to have over the rest of my life.

“See, I’m a ‘20/20, 20/20’ guy. I use that all the time.”

It sounds like a vision metaphor is coming, maybe something about hindsight or lessons of the past. Bunting spent 11 years as an NFL linebacker and 14 more climbing the coaching ranks.

Then came six seasons as head coach at UNC, his alma mater, where he coached his final five games in 2006 after he’d already been fired. The 20/20 thing, though, has nothing to do with sight.

“First 20 years,” Bunting says, “you’re trying to figure out who the (heck) you are.”

The next 20, he goes on, you’re trying to prove who you are. The next 20 after that, you’re trying to “grind out” who you are.

“And the last 20 years, you just want to have (freaking) fun.”

He says it as if he’s standing in a locker room, punctuating each line with a touch of profane color. He sounds like what he always was: a football player, or coach, with the requisite vocabulary.

“Now I want to lay that on the Greater Wilmington Sports Hall of Fame,” Bunting says, laughing, but he’s pretty sure he can’t say it exactly how he just did.

Video: John Bunting talks about the stress of being a head football coach during a interview at his home in Hampstead, NC, on April 27, 2016

Bunting is nearly 66 and he has been thinking about these kinds of things, reflecting. He’s being inducted on Sunday into the Greater Wilmington Sports Hall of Fame. He’s expecting more than 90 people to come.

They will include some of his teammates, players he coached and men who coached him. Don McCauley, Bunting’s UNC teammate, will be there. Dick Vermeil, who coached Bunting when he played with the Eagles, is coming. So is Bill Dooley, Bunting’s coach at UNC.

Bunting will give a speech. Nothing too long. He needs to get it right, though, and so he’s been thinking about everything he wants to share: stories about Dooley and Vermeil. Ones about his wife, Dawn. Their anniversary is coming up. Twenty-five years.

Bunting and his wife were married on a sandbar off North Topsail Beach. For both, it was their second marriage. Bunting likes showing off a picture. They’re both in white: Dawn in a dress, Bunting in shorts. The preacher who married them died hours after the ceremony from a heart attack.

“We felt like either we killed him,” Bunting says, “or it was the last thing he was meant to do on this Earth.”

Building a life in football

Bunting and his bride – that’s what he often calls Dawn – never imagined that life would bring them back to the coast, across the water from where they were married 25 years ago. But here they are.

This, Bunting says, is Dawn’s “dream house” and they both wanted it this way, with the living room on the top floor, large windows looking out at Topsail Beach in the distance. The big bar in the middle was Bunting’s idea. A large outdoor deck is a few steps away.

“We just like sitting out here and looking at the water,” Dawn says. “The water does something to you.”

They bought the land, on the edge of the waterway, in 2002, Bunting’s second season at UNC. At the time, there was no end in sight to Bunting’s career.

He’d followed his 20/20, 20/20 philosophy. His first 20 years he knew he wanted a life in football. He came to UNC in 1968 and played for Dooley – a “hard ass,” Bunting says – and built a foundation.

Then Bunting spent the next 20 years proving himself. He arrived in the NFL in 1972 as a 10th round draft pick and improbably spent 11 seasons in the league, all of them with the Eagles.

It took seven years for him to experience a winning season. Two years later, in 1980, Vermeil led the Eagles to the Super Bowl.

The “grind out” phase arrived after Bunting hit his 40s. By 1990 he was a first-time head coach at Glassboro State, a Division III school in New Jersey.

Dawn worked there, too, coaching softball and women’s basketball. They met in a staff meeting. Bunting liked how Dawn was “going off” on a faculty athletics representative and later Bunting asked someone about that woman who’d just made a scene.

“She’s crazy,” Bunting says he was told, and a year and a half later they were married, with Bunting continuing to grind: from Glassboro State to NFL jobs coaching linebackers in Kansas City, St. Louis and New Orleans.

And then to UNC, where Bunting became head coach in 2001. This was it, he thought. His destination.

I don’t think I’ll ever get over it completely. And that’s just being honest. But I’m very happy with the coach they have now. I wasn’t very happy with the previous coach. And I won’t say another word about it.

Former UNC football coach John Bunting

Bunting was born in Maine – he goes back every year to the lake-side cabin his uncle and grandfather built – and grew up outside Washington, D.C. But he’s a North Carolina guy. He made his home here. His time at UNC, as a player and coach, helped make him the man he is.

“If I had to do it all over again, would I have done things a little bit differently?” he asks while eating a sandwich he made with sprouted rye bread, because Dawn makes him eat right. “I probably would have hired a different staff. Not that I’m blaming them. But when you come from the NFL, that’s the big problem. You’re not familiar with the college game and the college coaches.”

Scars still healing

In some ways, Bunting was doomed from the start as UNC’s coach. He thought he had one defensive coordinator hired but the candidate left him hanging. Then he hired Jon Tenuta – “a hard ass,” Bunting says, using one of his favorite descriptions. But Tenuta left after one season.

Building a defensive staff proved difficult. Eventually, so did recruiting a quarterback.

On the wall leading to his garage are framed pictures of Bunting’s quarterbacks at UNC: Darian Durant, Ronald Curry, Matt Baker.

“I probably wouldn’t be in this house if I had a fourth quarterback,” Bunting says, delivering the line with a comedian’s timing.

Nearby, there’s another picture of UNC blocking a punt at Virginia Tech in 2004.

“See where the ball is? “ Bunting asks. “And look at the kid behind him. See, there’s one guy that knows how to block – you stretch it out. There’s a guy has no … clue what he’s doing.”

Nearly 10 years after his final game at UNC, Bunting still coaches – only now it’s usually while he’s standing in front of picture, or watching a game on TV. Sometimes it’s impossible for him not to yearn for what once was.

Yet the game left Bunting with his share of scars. There are those from old injuries and the double knee replacement surgery he had in 2007. Others, mental and emotional, are still healing.

Bunting vividly remembers the meetings with Dick Baddour, the former UNC athletic director, before and after a 23-0 Thursday night loss at Virginia in October 2006. After his team “pretty much just (went) in our pants,” Bunting says, he knew.

Video: John Bunting talks about his love of his alma mater, and loosing his job as head coach at North Carolina during a interview at his home in Hampstead, N.C. on April 27, 2016

In the second of those meetings Bunting learned he was done as UNC’s coach. He remained for the final five games of that season, the last of which was a 45-44 victory at Duke. Then, after six seasons and a 27-45 record, it was over.

“I don’t think I’ll ever get over it completely,” Bunting says. “And that’s just being honest. But I’m very happy with the coach they have now. I wasn’t very happy with the previous coach. And I won’t say another word about it.”

Bunting keeps his word. He doesn’t go any further about his successor, Butch Davis.

UNC felt like home - until it didn’t

In his playing days, Bunting, a linebacker, helped lead UNC to the 1971 ACC championship. He lived in Ehringhaus Dorm, the length of few football fields away from Kenan Stadium, and became a team captain and a father, too, when his first wife gave birth to their daughter.

As head coach, he led UNC to two of its most memorable victories – a 41-9 win against Florida State in 2001 and a 31-28 victory against Miami in 2004. Bunting’s passion for UNC always shined.

Dawn shared it. She missed one practice in six seasons and started a women’s football luncheon on Fridays before home games. For so long UNC had been home. Then it wasn’t.

For years after Bunting lost his job he felt exiled. Unwelcome.

“When you don’t feel welcome, how do you feel?” Dawn asks. “All the time he put in there as a player and as a coach, and then you’re not welcomed back?”

She doesn’t want to talk about it much and neither does Bunting. It’s old pain and things are different now, anyway. Bunting and Larry Fedora, preparing for his fifth season as UNC’s head coach, are friends.

When Fedora arrived at UNC in 2012 he called Bunting and told him stop by anytime. Bunting thought it was a line.

“First couple of times, ah, he’s just saying that, you know,” Bunting says. “But the more I actually call him or text message with him, he’ll get back.”

After leaving UNC, Bunting did radio and TV work. He returned once to UNC and the whole thing was awkward.

Now it’s not. Bunting attended UNC’s pro day in March. He and Fedora spent a while talking.

“John Bunting’s a hell of a football coach and a hell of a person,” Fedora says. “And no matter what his record was, and I don’t even know, he’s still a tremendous person and he’s a Tar Heel.”

Bunting watches UNC games “occasionally,” he says. For a long time he didn’t.

John Bunting’s a hell of a football coach and a hell of a person. And no matter what his record was, and I don’t even know, he’s still a tremendous person and he’s a Tar Heel.

UNC football coach Larry Fedora

He knew he’d never coach in college again. He had no desire. He spent 2007, the year after his dismissal, rehabbing his knees, recovering mentally and dabbling in broadcasting. In 2008, he spent 13 games with the Chiefs, coaching their linebackers.

That experience, Bunting says, “were the most miserable 13 weeks” of his life.

They provided Bunting with clarity: No more coaching. He keeps a reminder of his misery on a wall near the door to his garage: A framed sequence of Terrell Davis, the Denver Broncos’ running back, beating the Chiefs defense for a touchdown.

Bunting’s linebackers are out of position. After that play, Bunting says he was eviscerated by another assistant coach in an expletive-laced tirade. Who needed that? Dawn and his house and a better life on the coast were all waiting.

Bunting has done some individual training – he worked with UNC linebackers Jeff Schoettmer and Shakeel Rashad after last season – but he has no desire to coach. Eventually he departed with most of his old notebooks and playbooks.

What’s left he keeps in a small stack in his garage. Notes on goal line passes sit on top.

“I might want to take a look at that some day,” Bunting says. “I don’t know.”

Nearby is a black trash bag filled with about 30 footballs. One from UNC’s 2004 loss against Boston College in the Continental Tire Bowl is on top, collecting dust and losing air.

These are balls that didn’t make the cut. Others, mostly from his NFL years, are inside a memorabilia room covered in pictures. There’s Bunting with Merle Haggard. There he is on a fourth down stop from long ago.

There’s Bunting with Dean Smith, Bill Guthridge and Roy Williams during a charity tournament at Finley Golf Course in Chapel Hill. It’s near a framed magazine cover with O.J. Simpson on it.

“You guys didn’t know I made the cover of Sports Illustrated,” Bunting says, referencing his hand – which is covered in tape with Bunting’s No. 95 written on it – wrapped around Simpson’s waist on the Oct. 29, 1973 cover of SI.

Parts of the house are like a museum, a shrine to his old life – one that left him with bad knees, crooked fingers and, for a while, a broken heart. He came to the North Carolina coast to mend, to get his mind right and to rebuild.

Happy surrounded by loved ones

Bunting has served on the board of Greater Wilmington Sports Hall of Fame since 2008. His local involvement, and how much he’s made the area his home, is part of the reason why he’s being inducted on Sunday.

Video: John Bunting talks about working to stay healthy during a interview at his home in Hampstead, N.C., on April 27, 2016

His daughter is 46 now. His son just turned 43. His granddaughter is about to turn 8 and his dad is 96. After decades in locker rooms he’s happiest now in living rooms, surrounded by loved ones.

“I think happy is almost an understatement,” Bunting says.

It’s the kind of life he never had before when he was playing and coaching. Now he plays golf regularly and three times a week goes to swim class, sometimes with his dad.

Bunting had his parents move nearby when he came here, though his mom died a couple of years ago. The swimming, meanwhile, helps his neck and spine, and that’s important, especially to Dawn.

I think happy is almost an understatement.

John Bunting

Bunting stays loosely involved with football. A while back someone called him about a job grading NFL film. He’s thinking about it. Some days his most pressing task is walking Bella.

She’s due to go out when Bunting’s phone rings to the melody of “Bad to the Bone.” It’s Steve Zabel, an old Eagles teammate.

Bunting was just telling the story about how Zabel teased him the huddle after he broke his arm on Calvin Hill. Now Zabel wants to know if Bunting has seen an old picture of them from years ago.

“I send you Pink Floyd lyrics all the time,” Bunting says. “You should at least send me a picture of that picture.”

The call ends with Bunting telling his teammate that he loves him.

“We always say we love each other now,” Bunting says, “because we don’t know if we’ll see each other again.”

Bunting has lost a couple of teammates. Others, he says, “are on the verge.” Bunting knows he’s lucky. He had three concussions, that he knows of, yet his mind is sharp. Dawn keeps on him about his health.

“I want to enjoy the last 20,” Bunting says.

That’s what his philosophy calls for. This is supposed to be the fun part.

It’s time for Bella’s walk. They make their way past the boats – Bunting’s 21-footer is in the slip closest to his house – and down the block. It’s almost 5 o’clock and perhaps that’s Bunting’s favorite time.

His routine is always the same: He’ll make himself a martini with two olives. He’ll sit in his chair by the window. If there are boats on the Intracoastal Waterway, he’ll watch them glide by, and if there aren’t, he’ll take in the view, the waterway down in front with the beach in the distance.

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