With improved team building, leadership and chemistry, North Carolina has surged to the top of the ACC
When North Carolina coach Larry Fedora gathered his team for its first meeting in early January, he had each of his players write down what they viewed as the Tar Heels' biggest problem. There were plenty to choose from after last season's disappointing 6-7 record, Fedora's first losing campaign as a head coach.
"It was really difficult," Fedora tells The Inside Read of last season. "I've got high expectations and we didn't even come close to them. I feel like I failed the team because that's my responsibility as a head coach. I didn't get it done."
But what Fedora's players thought the team's problems were felt like a gut punch to the fourth-year North Carolina coach. They were written on a whiteboard for everyone in the room to view and discuss. Two of the most cited issues were leadership and trust, revelations that stunned Fedora.
"It hurt," Fedora says. "Every bit of it that I didn't realize hurt because that meant I did a poor job of not knowing those things."
During that meeting, Fedora vowed to his team that those problems would be fixed and they wouldn't repeat this season. He began focusing relentlessly on team-building and improving chemistry.
To be in better tune with his team, he implemented a players leadership council that he meets with a couple of times a month. Fedora also used materials and techniques with his players from noted team-building speaker and author Jon Gordon.
That has resulted in players like redshirt senior starting quarterback Marquise Williams stepping up as leaders and taking more ownership in the program. It's all not only improved North Carolina's culture, but also translated to more success on the field this season for No. 23 Tar Heels (8-1, 5-0 ACC) .
They can clinch the ACC Coastal Division title Saturday with a victory at home against Miami (6-3, 3-2) coupled with a loss by Pittsburgh (6-3, 4-1), which is at Duke (6-3, 3-2). UNC has won eight straight games since a season-opening 17-13 loss to South Carolina.
"We haven't played our best yet," Fedora says. "That's what's exciting as a staff and as a team. We can be much better."
It's been an impressive turnaround this season for the 53-year-old Fedora, who's become a hot candidate for coaching jobs in recent weeks. "The biggest change is the confidence these guys have in themselves and each other," he says. "The biggest difference in this team is just our chemistry."
It's shown the most defensively under first-year coordinator Gene Chizik, whose unit is surrendering just 18.6 points per game, 21st-best in the nation. That's an astounding 20.4 points less than a year ago when North Carolina was one of the nation's worst in that category.
"I'm extremely proud of what those guys have accomplished on that side of the ball," Fedora says. "They've set a new standard and they work every week to try to achieve that standard. They've done a great job of that. They've been holding each other accountable and they've just really come together as a defense. They have a lot of confidence in themselves and in the staff. It's been a good combination."
Offensive coordinator and play-caller Seth Littrell, who Fedora says is "a rising star," has also continued to impress. The Tar Heels are ranked 12th in the nation in scoring (40.1 points per game), which has started to generate buzz for potential head-coaching jobs for the 37-year-old. He was previously an assistant in high-powered offenses at Indiana, Arizona and Texas Tech.
"He does a great job," Fedora says of Littrell. "For a play-caller, you've got to have a very good feel for your quarterback and I think he does. He has a good understanding of what we need to do with (Marquise) and how to make this offense go."
Last season, the dual-threat Williams set 18 school records and this year he's on pace to top many of those numbers. He's thrown for 2,117 yards with 15 touchdowns and seven interceptions as well as rushed for 558 yards and six touchdowns on 84 carries this season. But it's Williams' leadership that's improved the most and been so important, according to Fedora.
"He does a tremendous job of leading," Fedora says. "He understands the role. He really feels comfortable with what we're doing with him offensively and what our expectations are. He knows all he needs to do is distribute the ball where it needs to go and move the chains. He's really doing a good job of that and not trying to play outside of the offense."
Yet for all of North Carolina's success this season, Fedora admits that he did a "poor job" leading his team last season and that it "still haunts" him.
"I remember every bit of it," Fedora says. "I use it to learn from and to make sure we don't have the same issues with this team. There are things that we talk about that happened. We draw back on those lessons and we've used them. I'm going to turn it into a positive some way. I think that's one of the reasons we're having success this year is because of what we learned from last year."
And as much as that team meeting hurt in January, Fedora is grateful for his players' honesty.
"We aired it out," Fedora says. "It was like a family. We talked about our problems. We owned them and I owned them as the head coach. They were my responsibilities. Then we said let's make sure this doesn't happen again."
These days, the biggest issues Fedora hears from his players are those like whether they can have a different dinner roll with their meals.
"We just don't have those," Fedora says of his team's issues last season. "There's a true caring and love for each other on this football team."
Kenni Burns making most of his time away from the sidelines
This season has been busy for former Wyoming wide receivers coach Kenni Burns. He's spent a bulk of it visiting coaching friends at more than 50 high schools in Illinois, particularly in the Chicago area at powerhouses such as Mount Carmel, St. Ria and St. Patrick.
"Anybody who gave me an invitation to come and watch practice," Burns tells The Inside Read with a laugh, "I took them up on it."
A Springfield, Ill., native, the 31-year-old Burns had been an assistant at Wyoming for a season until he resigned in June. He declined to go into specifics, but says he didn't violate any NCAA rules.
"It's been good," Burns says of his coaching hiatus. "It's all been very educational for me."
Prior to Wyoming, Burns was wide receivers coach at North Dakota State, where he won FCS national championships in each of his last three seasons. He was a tight ends coach under at Southern Illinois from 2008-09 and got his start in coaching overseeing running backs at Millersville (Pa.) University in 2007.
"I really take pride in developing guys," Burns says. "Each kid's different. You've got to be really meticulous in how you're studying and learning kids to figure out how to make them progress."
Besides high school coaching friends, Burns has also made trips to see several college coaching friends this season. They've included Boston College coach Steve Addazio, who was an assistant for Burns' first two seasons as a running back at Indiana, where he played from 2003-06. Burns also went and saw Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck. They first met as assistants while recruiting in Illinois.
"It's great to see a different way of doing things," Burns says of his visits. "It's just different ways to get the same things accomplished."
Burns also used this season to become better versed in the spread offense after nearly a decade working in pro-style offenses. While visiting Boston College, he spent time with offensive line coach Justin Frye, his former roommate at Indiana, to better understand the position group's intricacies.
Burns' anxious to put his new knowledge and relationships to work in a new assistant job this next season. He's already attracted interest for such gigs at Power 5 schools after last year being in the mix for Missouri State's head-coaching job that went to former Missouri defensive coordinator Dave Steckel.
"When I get back at it," Burns says, "I know I'll be a better coach."
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