Lessons in Adversity

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – It took nine months after Larry Fedora's hire for his current squad to encounter true adversity on the football field. Despite the lingering effects of the Wake Forest loss to the fan base, it was a necessary evil in furthering coach-player bonds and forming an identity.

Fedora doesn't fear adversity. If anything, the first-year UNC head coach welcomes it. Relationships are easy to form and maintain when life is easy; when losing a scrimmage in practice is the closest thing to real defeat during the offseason and when demolishing an overmatched opponent by 62 points allows for high fives and fist bumps around campus.

The harsh sting of that first loss, however, tests the bonds of those relationships formed by player and coach. How will the coaches react? How will the players respond? Is the trust developed during Blue Dawn workouts and training camp legitimate or wavering?

There were plenty of strategic question marks emerging from the loss in Winston-Salem, but how those problems were addressed and handled was arguably of greater importance for the long-term stability of the Fedora era.

According to senior left guard Jonathan Cooper, Fedora immediately cut the tension during the team's film review on Sunday morning with a positive outlook and these words:

"Do you know what happened great this morning? The sun came up and we're still alive, so we'll be just fine. The world hasn't ended because we lost. Just work hard."

Don't mistake that approach for coddling. Fedora and his position coaches are constructively critical and demanding of their players. Following a typical Sunday film review sessions, the players go through a corrective practice to provide a physical context for the errors detailed on tape.

"It was our first taste of adversity with this team, so we're going to learn from everything we did on Saturday and try to improve," said UNC quarterback Bryn Renner. "… Losing games isn't fun, but we have to swallow it then kind of just move on. I think the biggest thing we can do is bounce back and compete even harder to win the next game."

The Tar Heels missed 24 defensive assignments and committed a healthy amount of errors offensively in their first loss of the season. The perfect scenario for this coaching staff would have been a large pool of teaching opportunities paired with a victory, but instead the learning curve proved too sharp.

"Nobody likes to lose," offensive coordinator Blake Anderson said. "We all know that we're in this for the long haul; that this is not an easy transition. You would love for it to go smoothly and quickly, but it just doesn't to do it right. So I think as much as these guys want to win every game – and we want to be in every game and have a chance to win every game – they also understand that this is a process."

Now the Tar Heels are tasked with needing a difficult victory at No. 19 Louisville on Saturday to avoid a 1-2 start when less than a week ago, most observers thought that maybe UNC had mastered this new offense and defense before anyone thought was possible.

"Nobody expected this to be easy, but some people have the mindset that we've got this new offense and new coach as a fix-all, so they expect greatness from the beginning," Cooper said.

The players now know what to expect from the coaching staff following a difficult loss. No matter what Fedora told his roster in the nine months leading up to the Wake Forest game, the actual experience of losing and corresponding fallout was critical in the learning process.

The coaches also have a better understanding of how the players react under pressure and following adversity. Fedora told reporters on Wednesday that his roster's response had been good.

"Obviously Sunday night everybody was down, but I think we put that one to bed and I think they've bounced back," Fedora said. "We had a good practice [on Tuesday] and [Wednesday] was good and we'll see what [Thursday] is like."

Learning from adversity is a critical ingredient in solidifying a program's foundation, which includes an ability to let go of the past and focus on the present. Or as Fedora put it earlier this week: "You can't let one loss beat you twice."

The Tar Heels will encounter another round of adversity at Papa John's Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

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