In late February, North Carolina coach Larry Fedora had an idea about what could be in store for his Tar Heels, even if nobody was listening just yet.
“I don’t know what everybody on the outside world is going to think,” Fedora said at the time. “I know inside, we believe we have the ability to win the Coastal Division and that’s going to be our goal for this upcoming year.”
Look at North Carolina now, living up to the expectation Fedora had for his team. The No. 10 Tar Heels head into Saturday's ACC championship game against No. 1 Clemson with an outside shot at making the College Football Playoff with an upset victory. Fedora and his players have credited an air-it-out session in January for helping foster team camaraderie and chemistry. That meeting brought many grievances to light, grievances Fedora expected to hear. But one took Fedora completely by surprise.
Several players got up and said they felt nobody on the coaching staff believed in them.
“That bothered me a lot because that’s me. That’s my job,” Fedora said recently. “I’ve never felt that any player didn’t think I believed in them, so when you say the staff, you’re talking about me. I had to look at the way that I was approaching things and what I was doing, and I needed to do a better job.”
Fedora could have easily brushed off the criticism. But he did something with it. He let down his guard a little bit, and let players into his life. He shared more about his family, his background, his upbringing. He decided to eat meals with players, and learn a little more about them, too. He even let loose in the locker room, hitting the dab after clinching the Coastal.
— Charles Brunson (@cbrunsonjr_) November 21, 2015
"He’s got a little technique flaw, but we’re going to work on it," linebacker Jeff Schoettmer said with a laugh.
Dancing in a 6-7 locker room a season ago would not have happened. But after hearing what his players said during the meeting, Fedora asked receiver Ryan Switzer what he should do.
“I told him, ‘Look at the relationship we have, where I can just come in and talk,” Switzer said. “If you can get the other 100 or so guys on the team to feel that way, they’ll run through a brick wall for you. That’s how I am. I would do anything for you because I know you care about me. I know how much you want to see me succeed and I know you feel that way about everybody, but if you showed them that, there would be no limit to what they would do for you and how they would play. And he’s certainly done that. He and the other coaches have done a 360 in terms of how they’ve made these 19-to-22-year-old kids feel. That’s been a very big, monumental step for our team and our program.”
UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham has seen a change in the locker room culture, but not necessarily in Fedora. To Cunningham, Fedora has remained as steady through this season as he was when his team was hit with scholarship losses, a postseason ban and other NCAA sanctions as a result of a scandal involving academic fraud and impermissible agent benefits. Fedora walked into a mess. For his first several years at North Carolina, the Tar Heels did not have their full allotment of 85 scholarships available, yet he never made excuses.
He did, however, have Coastal Division championship rings made for his 2012 team because it would have gone to the ACC title game had the program been eligible. Fedora took heat from outsiders, but he was simply looking for a permissible way to reward his players.
“We put up a billboard in Charlotte and got a few calls about that, too” Cunningham said. “It is nice to get one that is non-controversial.”
Though Fedora believed his team could win the Coastal, Cunningham admits the Tar Heels might be ahead of schedule, simply because the NCAA cloud that has hovered over the program has not completely dissipated. North Carolina is awaiting word from the NCAA on any additional punishment after reopening a wide-ranging academic-fraud scandal that went beyond the football team. Cunningham hopes to know something by spring 2016.
“He’s never ever said anything about what he doesn’t have or when something bad happened,” Cunningham said. “He just says, ‘I’m dealing with what I have,' and he deals with it very positively. I would always expect somebody in a dark hour, dark moment to say something negative. He never does.”
Certainly this is the most fun Fedora has had since he arrived in Chapel Hill in 2012. And much of that is because he was willing to better himself, in order to better his team.