It was as if they’d been asked to answer an obscure piece of trivia, or to recite a law of science they’d learned decades ago in a high school classroom. Larry Fedora, the North Carolina football coach, and Dave Doeren, his counterpart at N.C. State, sat stumped.
“Dang, that’s hard now,” Fedora said, before pausing for several seconds.
Moments later it was Doeren’s turn.
“Oh, man,” he said.
Toward the end of their appearance on Monday at the National Football Foundation’s annual Pigskin Preview, Doeren and Fedora had both been asked to say something nice about the other’s school and program. Not a difficult request, it seemed, and yet they might have found it easier to talk physics.
“You know what,” Fedora said after a while. “Dave’s a good guy, he’s got a wonderful family. And I wish him all the luck in the world.
“What do you say? I respect the job he does and … all the politically correct things that you’re supposed to say.”
The banquet room at the Embassy Suites, full as it is every year for this event, erupted in laughter. Doeren didn’t miss a beat.
“They’ve got a hell of a basketball team,” he said, finally thinking of an appropriate way to compliment UNC.
The moment was one of several lighter ones at the Pigskin Preview, which for 14 years has provided as something of an unofficial local kickoff of the college football season. In addition to Doeren and Fedora, Duke coach David Cutcliffe, N.C. Central coach Jerry Mack and East Carolina coach Scottie Montgomery, the only newcomer in the group, also attended.
There was some football talk, at times, mixed in with the jokes. The biggest news, if it could be described as such? Cutcliffe remains hopeful that Thomas Sirk, who tore his left Achilles tendon in February, will be able to start the season at quarterback.
“It doesn’t surprise me but it surprises me,” Cutcliffe said. “He’s an incredibly gifted worker, a great athlete, so every day so far – knock on wood – it’s been headed in the right direction.”
Cutcliffe said he’s approaching the season “planning on Thomas Sirk being ready to go.”
The quarterback situation at UNC is clear enough: Mitch Trubisky, who arrived among the most heralded prospects in the Tar Heels’ 2013 recruiting class, finally has his chance to be the starter after waiting his turn for three seasons – two of them behind the departed Marquise Williams.
At N.C. State, meanwhile, the quarterback position is the greatest unknown entering the preseason. Jalan McClendon and Jakobi Meyers competed for the starting role throughout the spring. Since then, the Wolfpack has added Ryan Finley, a graduate transfer from Boise State.
Doeren on Monday, as he has before, described the quarterback competition as “wide open.” He said it was a “good problem” to have – three candidates who will likely make Doeren’s decision difficult during the next month and a half before the season begins.
“I’m comfortable doing what I have to do to win,” Doeren said when asked if he’d be comfortable using multiple quarterbacks. “I don’t know what the formula will be yet.”
Cutcliffe, Doeren and Fedora were the most established, experienced coaches at the Pigskin Preview. Jerry Mack is entering his third year at N.C. Central, where he guided the Eagles to an 8-3 finish – and 7-1 in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference – a season ago. The expectations are higher now, he said.
“We have changed the culture some, and changed the expectations a lot,” Mack said. “In year three, the expectation is to win a championship.”
At ECU, Montgomery is replacing the popular Ruffin McNeill, whose firing was met with surprise and disappointment by many ECU fans. Montgomery, a former Duke receiver who also coached at Duke and was the offensive coordinator there in 2014 and ’15, is a first-year head coach.
He sat next to Cutcliffe, his old boss, during the festivities on Monday. Cutcliffe spoke of the difficulty he’ll have in filling Montgomery’s void. Montgomery spoke of the challenge ahead of him.
“We have a tremendous chip on our shoulder,” he said. “We have a lot to prove. I have a lot to prove.”
It will be proving time, for all five head coaches, soon enough. The summer ends earlier for them than it does for most, and Fedora said that as soon as he hears fireworks on July 4 he begins thinking about the season ahead.