Now That They’ve Cleaned House, We Wonder: How Isn’t UNC Football Better?
With the start of preseason camp approaching, UNC football is in flux. They finally fired Butch Davis, so they're without a (permanent) coach - Everett Withers, who previously served as defensive coordinator, got the job on an interim basis. And the man who hired Davis will be different from the one who brought him in, because athletic director Dick Baddour stepped down. Getting rid of Davis was probably necessary (though it happened way, way late), due to the sheer scope of potential improprieties surrounding the program. And really, it's not as if his firing interrupts that much on-field success.
Davis coached four years at Carolina. His first season, he went 4-8, and he followed that up with three 8-5 campaigns in a row. Not bad, but not dazzling - especially for the guy who laid the groundwork for one of the all-time college football juggernauts at Miami. But to us, the most amazing thing isn't that Davis failed to come close to duplicating his Miami success - it's that those back-to-back-to-back 8-5s represented the greatest success North Carolina football had known in a decade.
Check the records: Davis' predecessor, John Bunting, Davis' predecessor, went 8-5 his first year. In five more seasons, he never finished above .500. Before Bunting was Carl Torbush, whose tenure produced similarly diminishing returns. Not since Mack Brown's 1996 and 1997 teams (Torbush coached the bowl game in '97 after Brown bolted for Texas) produced back-to-back top 10 finishes has UNC football been anywhere near the nation's elite.
This shouldn't be. North Carolina's a fine ACC school, a major state school, with all the resources in the world, and by all accounts a gorgeous campus. And there's some football history at the school, too (Lawrence Taylor, anyone?). As for a recruiting base: check out Rivals' list of the top 250 high school prospects for the class of 2012. Not all these prospects will pan out, but it's a good bet many of them will. By our count, no fewer than nine of these 250 players are from North Carolina itself, to say nothing of the main other states North Carolina would generally recruit (Virginia, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Florida, among others). The talent base is more than adequate to build a top program.
OK, there is a ton of competition. There are three other ACC schools in North Carolina alone. There are two more in Virginia. There's an ACC and SEC school in South Carolina. And everyone - everyone - recruits Florida. But there's a reason everyone recruits Florida, and why the other states mentioned are so heavily recruited as well, and able to sustain so many major college football programs - there's a ton of talent there, more than enough to sustain multiple top football programs. For all the advantages we mentioned before, North Carolina ought to be one of them.
And yes, UNC's a basketball school. But it was also a basketball school when Brown (pictured) was fielding one of the best football teams in the land. And the same principle, inversely: despite its recent troubles, Ohio State is a football school now and forever. But look at what Thad Matta's doing with that basketball team. Plenty of UNC fans are into football, and if the program can break through at all, interest will spike. If the success then lasts, so will the fans. Basketball will likely always be No. 1 at North Carolina and in North Carolina, but the right person can make football 1A.
We're a bit amazed that Davis wasn't that person. He recruited well, and won some games, but not enough to fulfill the justifiably high expectations that followed his hiring. Sure, he probably would have passed eight wins last season if not for the massive player losses after hints of scandal emerged, but since those player losses - and circumstances surrounding them - are the defining aspect of his UNC tenure, that's a useless hypothetical.
And so the answer to why UNC isn't a better football program is, as is usually the case in such situations, a combination of factors. There were poor head coaching choices by the athletic administration prior to Davis. And when it finally looked like they'd made the home run hire, Davis' own personnel decisions, combined with what appears to be an alarming lack of oversight on everyone's part, were the program's undoing. And for whoever gets the permanent head coaching position at UNC next, it's going to be a slog to climb out of the current off-the-field mess.
But eventually, UNC's going to find the right person (that person will not be on this list) - the school and program both have too much going for them not to strike gold at some point. College football is cyclical enough that North Carolina will be playing for ACC titles and BCS bowls, most likely at some point in the next decade. Even factoring in the current issues surrounding the program, it's only a matter of time before they find someone who can keep them on that conference-title-threat level for a while. And when it happens, we'll mainly be wondering: how did this not happen sooner?
Photos via Getty (Streeter Lecka), UNC's official athletics site
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