CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- The tweet went out shortly before Duke and North Carolina tipped off Wednesday night at the Dean Dome.
"Dang i should've to the UNC game tonight smh," wrote Corey Cooper, a wide receiver at Raleigh's Millbrook High. For those who don't speak Twitter, here's a translation. "Dang, I should have gone to the UNC game tonight. Shaking my head."
Cooper didn't write this because he missed the Austin Rivers buzzer-beater that dominated SportsCenter Wednesday night. He sent the tweet before the game. He wrote it because he had missed a chance to hang with some of the best Class of 2013 football prospects at the hottest game in the state. That's precisely what new North Carolina football coach Larry Fedora intended when he hatched the idea for an in-state-only junior day in conjunction with the Duke game. Wednesday, more than 20 of the state's best players met Fedora's staff and toured Kenan Stadium and North Carolina's new academic support facility before watching the Tar Heels and Blue Devils face off on the court.
Fedora, who parachuted into 2012 recruiting for North Carolina in late December after coaching his former team, Southern Miss, in its bowl game, made the junior day a priority after studying the recruits the state of North Carolina has produced. What do linebacker Brandon Spikes, defensive end Melvin Ingram, receiver Jarrett Boykin and quarterback Danny O'Brien have in common? All were excellent North Carolina high school players who chose an out-of-state university. "Out of what everybody ranked as the top 10 kids, nine left the state," Fedora said of the Class of 2012. "That's going to be our No. 1 objective. We've got to close the borders of the state."
To do that, Fedora and his staff will have to overcome a tradition of mediocrity and the fallout from a scandal brought on by the previous staff and several former players. To meet their goal, Fedora and his coaches will have to work hard and work smart. Fortunately for Fedora, he learned to do both a long time ago.
Herb Fedora, a former Navy barber who produced a healthy percentage of the flat tops in College Station, Texas, made sure his boys knew how to work hard. When Larry was 13, he began spending the brutal Texas summers working for a bricklayer. This remained Fedora's summer routine until after he graduated from Austin College in Sherman, Texas. As he worked on his master's degree one summer, Fedora instinctually sought out manual labor. He asked Austin's athletic director if he could join the crew building the new track at the school.
On his first day at the new job, Fedora approached the foreman. The foreman called him "College boy" and pointed toward a pair of men hollowing a ditch with pickaxes. Get in behind them, the foreman said, and start digging. Fedora dug all day. The next morning, he returned, grabbed a pickax and began digging again. After about a half hour, the foreman called Fedora to him. "College boy, you ever driven one of those?" the foreman asked, pointing at a road grader. Fedora thought back to a day earlier. Didn't the man who drove the road grader appear to be strung out on something? If that guy could drive it, how hard could it be? Yes I have, Fedora fibbed. "I got up there, and that thing had about eight levers," Fedora said. "I just started moving them all. I figured it out, and I didn't get off that thing all summer." He had come to work hard, but Fedora wound up working smart.
Fedora will need all the lessons he learned on job sites and during stints as an offensive coordinator at Middle Tennessee State, Florida and Oklahoma State and during his four years as the head coach at Southern Miss to help bring North Carolina's football program to a level that befits the school's overachieving athletic department. The Tar Heels haven't won an ACC title since 1980, and football remains little more than a diversion until basketball season starts. Fedora aims to change that.
So did predecessor Butch Davis. As NFL scouts will attest, Davis brought in a wealth of athletes, but those athletes never played particularly well together. The 2010 team had the talent to win the ACC, but the scandal engulfed the squad and left many of the best players on the sideline. Washington Redskins coach Mike Shanahan might have put it best when he described all the recent defensive talent North Carolina has pumped out during an interview at the Senior Bowl last month. "It's amazing one guy could get that many great players into an organization, but that's another story," Shanahan told The Idaho Statesman. "We won't get into that."
Fedora had to get into that. Before he could take the job, he had to have some idea of what lay ahead. North Carolina's NCAA Notice of Allegations accused the program of nine major violations of NCAA bylaws. School officials have admitted to those violations -- even though one co-defendant claims the charges against him aren't true -- and self-imposed penalties. Fedora will have three fewer scholarships a year for the next three years, and that's a best-case scenario. The NCAA's Committee on Infractions, which heard North Carolina's case Oct. 28, has yet to rule and could impose further penalties.
Fedora isn't worried about a surprise, though. He said North Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham explained the NCAA situation in December during a one-on-one meeting in New York a few hours after Fedora met with North Carolina's search committee. "Bubba started hitting me with everything that could possibly happen," Fedora said. "That's when I really walked away and said everything is going to be fine." Cunningham had the same questions as Fedora a few months earlier. The scandal wiped out the football staff and cost athletic director Dick Baddour his job. Cunningham didn't start work until November, and his first pressing assignment was finding a coach.
While Cunningham quickly assuaged Fedora's NCAA concerns, Cunningham had concerns of his own. Fedora was in the mix for several other jobs, and Cunningham assumed the College Station native would want to coach at Texas A&M. Fedora didn't feel the same way -- he said his research led him to believe North Carolina was the better job -- but Cunningham needed convincing. "Maybe I couldn't take yes for an answer," Cunningham said with a laugh. "Because I asked him multiple times."
When Fedora got the job, he quickly went to work defending against negative recruiting spawned by the scandal. While Cunningham had explained to Fedora what should happen in the case, coaches from other schools filled the heads of North Carolina recruits with all manner of gloom and doom. Fedora drained dozens of his precious sugar-free Red Bulls as he worked the phones attempting to calm prospects' fears. "The unknown enabled them to say whatever they wanted to say," Fedora said. "So we had to put out a lot of fires with the kids. Not only that, you're doing that at the same time you're trying to build a relationship with a kid. So a kid doesn't know whether to trust you or not because your relationship is so new."
Assistant head coach Vic Koenning boarded a plane bound for Tobacco Road after he helped Illinois win the Emerald Bowl. When Koenning hit the ground in North Carolina, he also turned into a recruiting firefighter. What made Koenning maddest? He said many of the blazes were started by members of the staff that got North Carolina into this mess in the first place. "You'd like to be able to control the situation by not being in that situation," Koenning said. "But there was nothing we can do about it, so we've got to just take it. What's disappointing is that the guys who were a part of that were some of the worst offenders."
Fedora believes he got the message across to most recruits, but he is sure he lost some. "It's unfortunate for them," Fedora said. "They wound up a school that was their second choice because of something that was fabricated."
Fedora hopes his spread offense and the 4-2-5 defense run by Koenning and Dan Disch will allow the Tar Heels to win enough games to make all their recruiting targets forget the scandal. Because Fedora had such a late start, he has spent most of his time recruiting. Monday was the first day the staff had any significant time to break down North Carolina's current roster. Fedora inherited a solid quarterback in Bryn Renner and a potential star in tailback Giovanni Bernard, but he knows his roster has holes. "It is what it is," Fedora said. "You've got five receivers to work with this spring, and you're trying to run a spread offense. You can sit there and cry about it, or you can say, 'OK, how do we make this work?'"
This summer, Fedora will once again re-read the dogeared copy of Sun Tzu's The Art of War that he bought in 1991. He'll try again to convert the ancient Chinese military leader's concepts to the football field. The most important: Attack undefended locations -- a strategy Fedora considers the guiding principle for the spread offense.
Fedora also will try to defend North Carolina's borders against raiders from Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Clemson. If the best North Carolina players become Tar Heels, the coaches believe North Carolina can be as successful in football as it is in basketball and most of its other sports. Though football hasn't had success, it does not lack for support. North Carolina's scholarship endowment is second only to Stanford's. The Tar Heels have money and quality facilities. What they lack is tradition.
But Cunningham believes the athletic department is on par with Florida, Ohio State, Michigan and the rest of the handful of schools that have reached the highest levels in both of the NCAA's revenue sports. "We're one of those places," Cunningham said. Whether that's true or not will depend on Fedora. "What is that little bit of difference that moves you from good to great?" Cunningham said. "Whatever that is, we're going to try to find it together."
Fedora's junior day at the Dean Dome netted two commitments for the class of 2013 and generated a buzz in the state. His next step is to mold a team capable of compiling double-digit wins on a regular basis. Sounds like hard work, but Fedora has never been afraid to work smart and hard.
"I don't ever feel like anybody is going to outwork me," Fedora said. "I'm willing to do any job, no matter how small, to make sure the job gets done."