Surviving the Gauntlet

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – As if five weeks on the job wasn't enough of a challenge for Larry Fedora, the NCAA's delayed infractions report that has yet to arrive at North Carolina provided another obstacle for the coaching staff to hurdle in securing a Top-40 recruiting class that ranks in the top half of the ACC.

Fedora Press Conference
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Transition recruiting classes are never an easy task in college football. Fedora added a layer of difficulty to the equation by electing to finish out his tenure at Southern Miss by guiding that program to a school-record 12 wins in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl on Christmas Eve, but the most taxing variable ended up being the lack of a NCAA ruling.

A NCAA spokesperson told Inside Carolina last summer that the standard guideline for the Committee on Infractions to deliver its final report is 8-to-12 weeks. According to sources, North Carolina was told to expect a response by Jan. 20, which marked the end of that 12-week period.

But that day came and went without any news. UNC's coaching staff was forced to navigate Signing Day without any resolution in hand, which opened the door for plenty of speculation from opposing coaching staffs.

"The toughest thing is the unknown, because as you're talking to kids, other schools are obviously talking about what's going on with the NCAA situation," Fedora told reporters during his Signing Day press conference on Wednesday. "And so the unknown was the hardest thing to defend because basically they could make up anything they wanted. If you're an 18-year-old kid or a 17-year-old kid, you don't know what to believe, especially when you've just met this group of coaches and you don't really truly have a relationship with them. So for us, it was just be as honest as we could, tell them what we know and then let a kid make his own decision."

Fedora indicated that the negative recruiting didn't force him to change his approach, but added that it was "just another thing that we had to deal with that I've never had to deal with before."

North Carolina lost three commitments during the month of January – quarterback Patton Robinette to Vanderbilt, and offensive lineman Bryce Kennedy and defensive end Desmond Owino to N.C. State – and participated in numerous battles to retain commitments and sway new recruits to sign with the program.

One recruiter told a prospect that UNC would continue to run its traditional pro-style offense despite what Fedora had said publicly about installing a spread.

Fedora declined to name the schools that were negatively recruiting against UNC, but confirmed that he was well aware of what those recruiters were telling prospects.

"Once you get that relationship with that kid, he starts telling you, ‘Guess what they said this time,'" Fedora said. "So a lot of it is comical, to be honest with you, what they will tell a kid."

He added that he was not surprised at the level of negative recruiting that his staff encountered.

"When you are who you are, you've got a bull's-eye on your back," Fedora said.

Inside Carolina recruiting analyst Don Callahan pointed to the lack of a NCAA response as being a major detriment to North Carolina's ability to recruit the 2012 class.

"Obviously, it's had a negative effect because it's provided opposing coaching staffs with ammunition for negative recruiting," Callahan said. "If North Carolina had some kind of ruling, they would be able to say, ‘This is what's going to happen.' But because they don't have a ruling, opposing coaching staffs are able to say anything and really allow imaginations to run wild. There's really no limit to what they could say.

"North Carolina has no true defense for it because opposing coaches cite a situation like Ohio State, who thought they were going to get one thing and then got hit a lot worse, so that has worked against the UNC staff."

The difference is that Ohio State had no reason to be surprised about its NCAA verdict that included a bowl ban.

The NCAA has issued 25 bowl bans over the past 20 years. Twenty-two of those cases included a school being tagged with a lack of institutional control, while the other three cases – Alabama in '02, Mississippi State in '04 and Ohio State in '11 – dealt with repeat NCAA violators and major recruiting violations that led to a significant competitive advantage being gained.

There is no precedent to suggest that UNC will receive a bowl ban and therefore sources around the program feel confident that the NCAA ruling will fall in line with the school's self-imposed penalties from September.

North Carolina was able to overcome the NCAA uncertainty with various recruits, such as wide receiver Quinshad Davis (Gaffney, S.C.), for example. The 6-foot-4, 185-pounder publicly expressed concern about the lingering cloud over the Kenan Football Center, but ultimately chose the Tar Heels over Wake Forest and Tennessee on Wednesday.

Fedora credits wide receivers coach Gunter Brewer with that recruiting victory in building a strong relationship in short order.

"I told [Davis] what I knew and was honest with him," Fedora said. "I told him, ‘We won't know for sure until it comes out, but we think everything is going to be fine.' So we were as honest as we could possibly be."

Wake Forest being UNC's main competition for Davis also helped the recruitment process.

"The difference between the Davis situation and some other situations is that when I've talked to recruits and high school coaches, Wake Forest isn't a school that's been brought up as one that negatively recruits," Callahan said. "So UNC didn't have to deal with it as much in his case."

The Tar Heel coaching staff closed its first recruiting class in solid fashion, but it's difficult to look past the fact that the state of North Carolina's top-10 prospects all left for out-of-state programs. In-state standouts such as defensive end Jonathan Bullard (Florida) and defensive tackle Carlos Watkins (Clemson) told IC over the summer that the potential for NCAA sanctions damaged UNC's chances with them.

Once the NCAA delivers its ruling, Fedora and his staff can finally put this issue to rest and begin solving the puzzle of why North Carolina's in-state talent is so quick to get out of town.

"My job is to put a product on the field that kids in the state get excited about," Fedora said. "Where a kid realizes, ‘Hey, I can reach every dream and goal I have right here on that field, so there's no reason for me to leave, there's no reason for me to go very far.'"

But for now, North Carolina's coaching staff will look forward to welcoming a solid first recruiting class when the summer months arrive.

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