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The hat fits: Upbeat Fedora has UNC back on the right track

by | CBSSports.com College Football Recruiting Blogger
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Fedora went 34-19 at Southern Miss, where his teams were often the underdog. (US Presswire)  
Fedora went 34-19 at Southern Miss, where his teams were often the underdog. (US Presswire)  

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- As you make your way off Interstate 40 and away from the hubbub of everyday life onto the idyllic, reserved campus of North Carolina, it's not an easy task to find signs of football in an area most consider a hoops hotbed. Kenan Memorial Stadium, which the football team has called home since 1927, is nestled among the pine trees and -- despite undergoing several renovations lately -- maintains its place under the tree line as a scenic surprise to visitors and locals alike.

If one is looking for a representation of the future of the Tar Heels football program, you won't find it in the recently completed 'Blue Zone' at the end of the stadium, nor the images of past accomplishments that decorate the lobby of the program's offices. Rather, the clearest sign of what lies ahead for UNC football is in the tightly-clenched hand of new coach Larry Fedora: a Red Bull can.

"I've got in trouble in the past by saying this, but I don't know another way to say it, there's not a game we step out on the field that we don't expect to win," Fedora quickly says between sips. "When people ask how many you think you're going to win, I don't know any other way to look at it than when we step out on the field and put that Carolina blue on, we're going to expect to win."

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While it may sound cliche, Fedora's eyes say he believes it more than most probably will. The 49-year-old has moved around the South over the years, refining his up-tempo offense to the point that he can back up his statement. His 34-19 career record masks the fact that he's won more than a share of games in which he was the underdog. With his first spring ball with the Tar Heels completed and several months to prepare for his first head coaching gig at a BCS school, Fedora has been tweaking things the only way he knows how in order to right a wayward program that has moved anything but forward the past decade.

"We basically had three objectives coming out of spring: first being when we came out of our 15 practices that kids would have an understanding of our base in all three phases," he said. "The second objective was for them to learn how to practice the 'Carolina Way,' with a lot of energy and passion and enthusiasm everyday you go out there.

"We don't have the work capacity at this point to be able to practice at the tempo we want to. But they understand what it will take to be there. The third objective was to identify our playmakers that will show up every week, and I think we were able to do that."

Everyone in blue and white seemingly has their own definition of the Carolina Way, a phrase made most popular by the book of the same name written by legendary basketball coach Dean Smith. While Fedora's uses derivatives of excitement to describe it, most associate the phrase with the word reserved given the detached culture that has been a way of life at the school and the athletic department for several decades.

"The Carolina Way is the phrase you hear a lot but it goes both ways," says athletic director Bubba Cunningham. "One, it's a very positive thing because we do things very, very well. But, other people use it as an excuse of not changing."

Following a mediocre 28-23 stretch under Butch Davis that came complete with a messy NCAA infractions case -- only the school's second major case in 51 years -- and an academic scandal, the powers at be running the university seemed to recognize that a course correction had to be made. Enter Cunningham, the school's first athletic director without ties to the university in 36 years, and Fedora, both of whom were hired last year to infuse some much-needed new blood into cozy Chapel Hill.

"I think they felt that they wanted to go outside because they'd been insular for a long time," said Cunningham. "I think there is a balance between fresh ideas and the tradition of the place and that's what I'm trying to do right now, balance the core principles that are not going to change with where can we make some changes and, hopefully, improvements."

"It's been interesting," Fedora said. "For football, I came in to create a culture. I'm going to change what it has been in the past because it hasn't been successful at the level we want it to be. I expect the program to take on a little bit different personality in the way we do things in the new Carolina Way."

The good ol' boy network isn't emphasized quite as much as social networks are with the two newcomers in charge. Though Cunningham doesn't want to be swayed by message boards and the like, he's trying to gauge the pulse of the fan base much more than his predecessor Dick Baddour by jumping on Twitter from time to time. Alumni like Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, ACC commissioner John Swofford and ESPN president John Skipper have all reached out to provide advice as well.

"There are so many things that are right here -- there's a lot more right than wrong -- but we can get better," Cunningham said. "Just because we haven't done it a certain way or don't normally do it one way, doesn't mean we're not going to change it going forward."

In that vein, he hired Fedora from Southern Miss just two days after the coach upset previous undefeated Houston to win the Conference USA title. It took just a few hours of conversation in a hotel room in New York City, but the pair clicked and has been on the same page ever since as they transform the program's way of thinking.

"He wanted me to be very aware of what I was getting into and what was going on in the program at the time," Fedora said. "Once he did that, I was still very comfortable and was excited about the opportunity to do something that hasn't been done in a long time here."

In March, the football program was cited for multiple NCAA violations and was hit with a one-year bowl ban and loss of 15 scholarships, among other penalties, by the Committee on Infractions. Fedora, for the most part, moves past the hurdle standing in his way to success as quickly as one of his flankers running a route.

"You feel disappointed initially but from that point on, it's like, 'OK, this is what it is,'" he said. "We could finally move forward. Guys got to say what they want to say and vented and then after that it was time to put a plan together and say, 'Let's go and not look backwards.' That's what we'll do and well turn it into a positive."

On that front, the school has hired an outside firm to advise it on compliance issues and is in the midst of a new strategic plan complete with a long-term facilities master plan. Cunningham has looked to schedule more primetime games to increase exposure for the football team, including the possibility of playing on Thursday nights and a return to the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in Atlanta against a marquee opponent.

Through press junkets, golf outings and alumni meetings across the region, Fedora is doing his part to advance the notion that just because the season will end against Maryland in late November, it doesn't mean the team can't have success playing one fewer game than most. The Tar Heels return 14 starters this season, including quarterback Bryn Renner and tailback Giovani Bernard. It's a team that has played off their new coach's upbeat attitude this spring after a season of malaise under interim coach Everett Withers.

Both Cunningham and Fedora are also completely aware that because of tradition and success, the basketball team occupies the top spot on the totem pole of UNC athletics, but speak effusively about the two programs playing off each other to further the department as a whole.

"I really don't know why both sports can't coexist," said Fedora. "I haven't gotten the sense that you have to be No. 2 to basketball here and I haven't gotten that feeling from Coach [Roy] Williams.

"I also don't hide behind the fact that basketball created the national brand, I embrace it. Everybody in the country recognizes Carolina blue and that's a great thing that opens doors. It doesn't matter what sport opened those doors, let's take advantage of it."

"We've been good at everything," says Cunningham, "why can't you be good at football?"

A basketball school taking football seriously? It's a question that was asked when Davis was hired several years ago, and the end result was the number of NCAA investigators on campus significantly outnumbering the number of bowl game trophies. But the air is filled with optimism nevertheless, as a new 'Carolina Way' guides the school and, notably, the football team forward.

"Coaches talk about jobs, and North Carolina has always been a place that coaches say is a sleeping giant," said Fedora. "It has all the ingredients: you have a world class education, great faculties, great fan support, great financial support, you're in an unbelievable town and you're surrounded by great athletes. All the ingredients are here, but it just hasn't been done.

"I told the kids, whatever you want to be, it starts today."

Some encouraging signs of life for the football program around Chapel Hill nowadays.

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