Luke DeCock

Fedora dug his own hole at UNC, then couldn’t win his way out of it

Frustration was a main theme of Fedora’s press conference after loss to NC State

Watch clips of UNC football coach Larry Fedora's postgame press conference after the Tar Heels' overtime loss to rival NC State Saturday, Sept. 24, 2018. Fedora was fired the following day.
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Watch clips of UNC football coach Larry Fedora's postgame press conference after the Tar Heels' overtime loss to rival NC State Saturday, Sept. 24, 2018. Fedora was fired the following day.

Got up to get a drink and just missed a coach getting fired.

Larry Fedora certainly upped the tempo at UNC, right down to his firing Sunday morning less than 19 hours after the final play of a 2-9 season. In the space of three years — a mere 2 1/2, really — the Tar Heels went from the top of the Coastal Division to the bottom and Fedora was out of a job, pocketing a juicy $12 million for his troubles.

There was actually a reasonable case to be made, strictly on the field, for bringing Fedora back if he hadn’t spent the past few years digging his own professional grave. But the indiscretions piled up, one after another, until he hit rock bottom with the brawl at the end of Saturday’s overtime loss to N.C. State and his subsequent denial it ever happened.

It all added up, one shovelful after another.

The ShoeNC scandal, a dumb violation of an equally dumb rule but utterly unacceptable given the circumstances Fedora inherited.

Dig, dig.

The CTE trutherism and reactionary conflation of football and patriotism, as well Fedora’s subsequent refusal to back down when given a chance to clarify his remarks, on a national stage at ACC football media days.

Dig, dig.

The defensive breakdowns and questionable play-calling that contributed to seven losses this season by a total of 46 points, even as the Tar Heels’ effort was never in question, both issues stemming from the failure to adequately replace coordinators Seth Littrell and Gene Chizik after their departures.

Dig, dig.

The complete abdication of in-state recruiting.

Dig, dig.

And all the incremental sour notes along the way, from bringing aboard disgraced former Illinois coach Tim Beckman as a volunteer assistant (for a few hours, anyway) to the petty squabbles and stubborn willfulness that by the end left Fedora with few friends among the university administration, fans, Rams Club and media alike. Fedora remains athletic director Bubba Cunningham’s first and only big hire at North Carolina, and even that couldn’t save him.

Dig, dig.

Fedora might as well have been holding a shovel at his press conference when he insisted there wasn’t a fight after N.C State’s winning touchdown Saturday in a game UNC led in the fourth quarter. The punches were thrown in plain view of everyone left in the (mostly empty) stadium. Fedora trying to pretend it didn’t happen – “there was no fight, to my knowledge” – was a fitting final act to his tenure.

Dig, dug.

The idea of trying to sell another season of digging even if accompanied by winning made it worth writing him an eight-digit check to disappear (perhaps rising to as much as $16 million if his staff has to be paid off) just so UNC could start fresh, with someone without any of that baggage.

For all that, Fedora did some amazing things at North Carolina. He steered the program through the NCAA sanctions Butch Davis left behind and came out the other side with a division title. (Two, according to the T-shirts and rings Fedora had made after the postseason-banned 2012 season.) And if he’d kept winning like that, none of the other stuff would have mattered, sad as that may be.

And then it all slipped away. Midway through the 2016 season, the Tar Heels were 7-2, in the top 25 and potentially headed for a second straight ACC title game before losing 28-27 to Duke in Durham, the only Duke team in the past seven years not to go to a bowl game. Since that night, they are 2-16 in the ACC, losing three straight to both Duke and N.C. State and beating only one Power 5 team, period: Pittsburgh, twice.

Meanwhile, in that same period of time, Fedora simultaneously squandered whatever goodwill he had built up in Chapel Hill to that point.

“I wanted the opportunity to fix this,” Fedora said in a statement released by the university later Sunday, and if given the chance he probably would have been able to do that, given the players returning and the presumed improvement at quarterback. The Tar Heels have the potential to win eight games no matter who they hire. But was anyone going to buy a ticket to watch Fedora try?

Fedora ran out of opportunities entirely of his own doing. When the time came when he needed some sympathy, he had made himself entirely unsympathetic to everyone left who mattered.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock
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