CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Rewind four years and the North Carolina football program was on the brink of chaos.
Butch Davis had been fired four months earlier and interim head coach Everett Withers was on the way out after the Tar Heels lost four of their final six regular season games. Bubba Cunningham, in his second month as UNC’s athletic director, was tasked with hiring a football coach under a NCAA cloud that had already prompted the school into self-imposing two years of probation and three years of scholarship sanctions.
UNC quarterback Marquise Williams is one of five fifth-year seniors – joining middle linebacker Jeff Schoettmer, right guard Landon Turner, free safety Sam Smiley and tailback Romar Morris - that arrived in Chapel Hill in the days before Davis was fired prior to the start of training camp.
“You come in and everything is just going south,” Williams said on Monday. “At first, it’s like, ‘man, is this program ever going to be anything special?’ There was so much adversity that we went through.”
UNC announced Larry Fedora as its head coach in December 2011, and on Saturday, his 8th-ranked Tar Heels will play No. 1 Clemson for the ACC Championship at Bank of America Stadium.
It’s been an improbable four years, a stretch of time that included an unexpected bowl ban in 2012, as well as inconsistencies and criticism. Yet, 11 months removed from a 6-7 season, the program’s first losing record in seven years, Fedora has UNC one win away from not only its first ACC title since 1980, but also within reach of a College Football Playoff berth.
“It’s a tribute to the staff that I have, and it just reaffirms that the plan that we have for growing this program into a perennial contender is the right plan,” Fedora said on Sunday. “I think our staff has totally bought into that. Our kids have bought into it. So it just really reaffirms what we're doing and that we are doing the right things and that we are making progress despite some huge obstacles that have been thrown at us in these first four years.”
On Monday, Fedora told reporters that his comprehensive plan would “take hours” to detail, due to its massive scope involving academics, nutrition and strength and conditioning, among others.
“Really, it was establishing a vision of where we wanted to go,” Fedora said, “and then putting a plan into place to do that. It’s making sure that we have great people on our staff, not only football-wise, but the support staff and everything, that understand the vision and understand that it’s all about the kids. And that everything that we do is doing it in a first-class manner for these players and putting them in a position where they can be successful.”
The plan has changed over the years due to various setbacks and obstacles, which have been more abundant than Fedora expected upon taking the job. Despite those necessary adjustments, the vision never changed.
That vision is now on display in the form of an 11-1 (8-0 ACC) record, a Coastal Division championship, and an opportunity to cement the best football season at UNC since 1980, if not longer.
The NCAA investigation into academic irregularities, now in its fifth year, has yet to be resolved, although the end is potentially in sight. Cunningham has maintained his belief that the inquiry will be wrapped by spring 2016. UNC is back to a full allotment of scholarships and its probationary period is complete, thereby leveling the playing field once again.
“You know, I think the future is extremely bright,” Fedora said, “and you know, I can't say that every day has been fun getting to this point, but it's all been worth it.”