The last game Larry Fedora ever coached in Chapel Hill played out like a microcosm of this doomed season. The Tar Heels came out with a passion and energy that belies their miserable and long-lost year, went toe-to-toe with one of the better teams in the ACC, saw its spectacular playmakers make some spectacular plays, and appeared poised to eke out a win as the game wound down, only to lose in the waning moments.
Once more, the Tar Heels were close in the end. Once more, close wasn’t good enough. And with an unceremonious finish and an ugly fistfight after State scored the game-winning touchdown, Carolina’s arduous season came to a welcome close.
It was a season that saw them almost put it all together so many times, one that was within ten plays or less of the Heels finishing 8–3 rather than 2–9, one that was close to being an exultant redemption story in the face of the suspensions, injuries, and the disaster that was last season.
But coming close won’t get you far in football, and come Sunday morning, the rumbled wishes of so many Carolina fans nationwide were granted as Bubba Cunningham’s athletic department announced that Fedora’s seven-year tenure in Chapel Hill was over.
It was a run that started with excitement when Fedora came to Chapel Hill from a successful stint at Southern Mississippi in 2012. Staring NCAA sanctions in the face, Fedora injected some much-needed vigor into the maligned program, promising a high-powered, “blink and you’ll miss it” offense, and a heretofore unseen ferocity on defense. He was young and high-energy, with a rare blend of a new-school football mind with an old-soul, Texas-football attitude.
Success came fast. Within three years, Fedora’s Heels matched Carolina’s all-time record with eleven wins and played their way into the ACC Championship game after going 8–0 in conference play. The following season, Fedora had some success with new quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, winning eight games and finishing second in the ACC’s Coastal Division.
And then, due to some combination of blind loyalty to his coordinators and strength and conditioning coaches who weren’t producing results, losing out on elite in-state high school talent to rival (and often other in-state) schools, and myriad questionable football decisions, Fedora’s Tar Heels began a two-season tailspin, one in which they seemed to forget how to win games despite having the requisite attitude and desire to compete in the always-great ACC.
The offense that Fedora so highly touted on his arrival became jerky, uneven, and rhythmless, despite having lots of game-breaking talent. The defense was too often unable to get off the field on third down. The team as a unit, along with their fans, had their hearts broken on what started to seem like a weekly basis. Despite all that, Carolina was so close, so often.
But coming close won’t get you far in football.
If Fedora’s firing was not a surprise, the news of his replacement certainly qualifies as one. Today the Tar Heels made official the rehiring of sixty-seven-year old Mack Brown, who was previously the coach at UNC between 1988 and 1997. Brown had great success during his first stint in Chapel Hill and later won a National Championship at the University of Texas. A figure of legendary high character in a field not always noted for it, Brown is a Hall of Fame coach who at least ensures that the Tar Heels will run an ethical and easy-to-root-for program. How much success the coach will experience is a topic for a different day.
For now, we bid farewell to Larry Fedora, still unsure of what exactly he was for Chapel Hill. His tenure was sometimes great, sometimes awful, sometimes head-scratching—like when he claimed there was no connection between football and CTE and that the downfall of football would lead to a downfall of America. He gave Carolina football its highest highs but also provided some all-time lows. He elicited excitement at first only to give way to cliche, and he became a dusty relic seemingly overnight.
Whatever he was, it’s over now.
Echoing what Bubba Cunningham said last week when asked why Carolina wouldn’t reschedule the Hurricane Florence-canceled game against UCF, it seems that everyone, save Larry Fedora perhaps, was about ready for this one to end.
The Score: UNC 28–State 34
The Hero: Bubba Cunningham, for choosing to not reschedule the UCF game
The Goat: Larry Fedora
The Stat: Carolina’s six last-minute (and often last-second) losses against Virginia Tech, Syracuse, Virginia, Georgia Tech, Duke, and State were lost by an average of 6.5 points.
The Record: 2–9