Even with the best of luck – no injuries, a favorable bounce here and there, an official’s judgment call going one way instead of another – North Carolina would have faced its share of challenges this season. The Tar Heels lost their best players from the 2016 season, and those departures left their offense decimated, especially.
UNC faced so many questions in August, throughout its preseason practices, that a 6-6 regular-season finish might have been considered a “good” season, all things considered. A .500 finish, depending on how it happened, might have helped set a foundation for next season. As it is, though, just about everything about the Tar Heels is now in question.
After eight games, their season is essentially a lost cause. They have lost more than a dozen players, several would-be starters among them, for the season due to injury. Many of those who are still healthy enough to play aren’t fully healthy. The offensive line has been porous. The quarterback play has been poor. The defense has improved but not without inept stretches of its own.
For the first time since 2006, the Tar Heels (1-7, 0-5 ACC) have lost seven of their first eight games. That was John Bunting’s final season as head coach. And for the first time since 2007, the Tar Heels will finish the regular season with more defeats than victories. That was Butch Davis’ first season. There will be no head coaching change after this season. That much is certain, at least.
For one, Larry Fedora, in his sixth season as UNC’s head coach, is two years removed from leading the Tar Heels to one of their best seasons in school history. UNC in 2015 finished the regular season 11-1, and won all eight of its regular-season ACC games. The Tar Heels then were an especially fun team to watch, one that often over-matched the competition while setting a bevy of offensive records.
Second, Fedora and UNC agreed not long ago to a lengthy contract extension that binds the parties together until January 2023 (or January 2024, if UNC wins an ACC championship between now and then). Even if the university’s leadership wanted to part ways with Fedora – which it doesn’t, by all indications – it’s unlikely that would happen any time soon given the amount Fedora would be owed.
The terms of his contract dictate that should he be fired without cause (and not winning enough games would fit that description) then he’d be owed the salary he would have received had he not been fired. After this season, then, it would cost UNC $16.65 million to part ways with Fedora, and after next season it would cost $14.43 million.
And so Fedora’s job is secure for the next two seasons, at least, lest UNC is willing to pay approximately $15 million while also paying another head coach a considerable sum. Though Fedora’s job is not in jeopardy, this season has put into peril his relationship with those who ultimately do have lot of say about his future – the run-of-the-mill, everyday-Joe UNC fan.
Reasonable people can understand that it likely would have been a rebuilding season, even in the best-case scenario. Reasonable people can also understand that the Tar Heels’ injury woes have left them in an especially precarious position. Still, UNC’s performance this season has, at times, tested the limits of even the most reasonable.
UNC, for instance, is among the most penalized teams in the country. And despite Fedora’s claims to the contrary, his team seemed to give in, and give up, during the second quarter of a 59-7 defeat at Virginia Tech last Saturday. Fedora and his staff have been forced to rely on younger, more inexperienced players – but they don’t seem to be improving. And so skepticism has risen.
How, then, would Fedora address those who are starting to panic? By nature, fans can be a fickle bunch. Two years ago, some UNC fans might have been ready to compare Fedora with Nick Saban. Now some of those same people might be ready to call for a change. And so how would Fedora react? What would he tell those whose patience is running thin?
“I wouldn’t know how to answer that other than that I can tell the fans that I wish we were playing better,” he said earlier this week. “And I wish we were winning football games. And nobody wants it more than these players and these coaches, I assure you.
“But I can’t really worry about people that are fickle. And if they really truly understand the game of football and they really, truly love this program, they’ll understand what’s going on.”
What’s “going on” is that UNC is in the midst of its worst season in a decade. And what’s “going on,” too, is that the Tar Heels are dealing with an unprecedented streak of injuries. This season would have been challenging enough even in the best of circumstances. It’s difficult to imagine worse circumstances, though Fedora is hoping UNC’s most ardent supporters will understand.
Fedora, meanwhile, doesn’t plan on changing anything. He believes in his philosophy. He believes in his ability to coach.
“I don’t question what we’re doing, how we’re going about doing it,” he said. “... I’m not shaky about my philosophy. I’m not questioning whether I can coach. I’m not questioning whether our coaches can coach. I’m not questioning those kind of things.
“I know what we’re doing and the way we’re doing things, it’s proven. You’ve got to put your nose down, your head down, and you keep grinding and you keep doing it, and you keep doing it, and eventually good things are going to happen.”
They’ve happened before for Fedora, plenty of times. Now the question is how soon they can happen again, and what the wait will be like in the meantime.
Miami at UNC
When: Noon, Saturday
Where: Kenan Stadium, Chapel Hill