EL PASO, Texas – Football programs are built on tomorrow. The promise of a new day. It’s the reason why Signing Day is considered a national holiday of sorts for many: regardless of the current reality of their college team, championships and bragging rights are only a recruiting class (or two) away.
In the frenzied world of college football, a sport in which head coaches sign five year contracts because fan bases and athletic department budgets require immediate returns on investment, there is little margin of error in constructing a positive trajectory, real or imaginary, to placate those demands while building a program that will endure for years instead of quickly peaking into a one-year wonder.
In the early years of program building, miscues and inconsistencies can be explained away rather easily. The coaching staff doesn't have a full stable of its own players yet, chemistry takes time to build, there’s an inherent learning curve in place, etc. However, as the seasons pass and expectations are not met in certain years, observers take a critical scalpel to the program, dissecting each and every part - scheme, coaching, recruiting - to find new explanations for previous offerings that no longer apply.
Mack Brown's tenure started in Chapel Hill with back-to-back 1-10 seasons in 1988-89. All he had to sell was tomorrow, and he sold it better than most anyone. His tomorrow came to fruition in the form of back-to-back top-10 national rankings before he left for Texas.
When Butch Davis arrived in 2007, he would often dismiss criticism of his conservative pro-style offense by telling skeptics that once his own players were in the program, that same boring offense would become explosive and high-scoring by sheer talent alone. That tomorrow never came.
Larry Fedora walked into a NCAA firestorm at UNC in December 2011 and navigated the minefield as well as could be expected. While there was growing concern following a double-digit loss to Rutgers in the 2014 Quick Lane Bowl to cap UNC’s first losing season in seven years, the roster was stocked with underclassmen not only playing, but starting and making plays.
Locker room issues and a detached defensive coaching staff were promptly addressed following Fedora’s lone losing season as a head coach, and his Tar Heels responded with one of the top seasons in school in 2015, complete with an ACC Coastal Division title and an appearance in the ACC Championship Game.
The 2016 team was expected to keep on rolling due to a wealth of returning starters and a defense finally settled under Gene Chizik’s tutelage. Junior quarterback Mitch Trubisky lived up to his preseason hype and more, eventually setting single-season school records for total offense (4,056) and touchdown passes (30) and receiving a first-round draft grade from the NFL draft advisory committee.
And yet the Tar Heels stumbled in their opener against an average Georgia team, failed to handle adversity in the hurricane loss to Virginia Tech and coughed up rivalry upsets to Duke and N.C. State before concluding their season with a 25-23 loss to Stanford in the Sun Bowl on Friday.
The preseason favorite to win the Coastal and compete for the ACC Championship finished with an 8-5 record and three straight losses to FBS opponents to close the season.
The 2017 season has long been considered a rebuilding year due to the loss of 16 seniors and their 333 combined career starts, and that doesn’t factor in the early exit of junior defensive tackle Nazair Jones (22 starts) and the possibility of losing Trubisky to the NFL. That mass exodus of personnel, along with the shine of Fedora’s offensive scheme losing some of its luster, has the fan base stumbling into the offseason searching for hope in the program’s tomorrow.
More than 125 years of Tar Heel football has some concerned the 2015 season was an outlier, it’s 11-3 record reliant on a soft schedule and luck in staying healthy. Program building, however, is not an exercise in linear progression. There are simply too many variables in play.
Following the loss to Rutgers at Ford Field two years ago, the scoreboard was a little matter compared to the postgame interview fallout detailing locker room division and a lack of faith in certain coaches. Fedora addressed the situation by replacing his defensive coaching staff and allowing the players to air their grievances. It was a sign of growth in the aftermath of a losing season.
That foundation, according to senior wide receiver Ryan Switzer, has only solidified in the years since.
“It’s not effort and attitude like it used to be,” Switzer said. “It’s been night and day since my sophomore year. I think all of these guys can attest to that. As long as [Fedora] is here and these coaches, this program is going to go in the right direction and continue to recruit guys with great character and great ability.”
And so while UNC’s loss to Stanford concluded a disappointing 2016 season, it doesn’t necessarily provide a glimpse of tomorrow. That’s for Fedora, his coaching staff and his players to decide.
“We just didn’t get it done,” Fedora said. “The significance [of the loss] is hopefully it will gnaw in our gut until we get back out on the field in early September and they guys that are back will use that as motivation every day. Whether it be winter workouts, or Blue Dawn, or summer workouts, or fall camp, whatever it is. I hope they can still feel this feeling they have in their gut right now and I hope they never forget it. It makes you a better person, it really does.
“You can lay down and cry about it, or you can get up and bust your ass and be a better football player because of it.”
The promises of tomorrow no longer carry the weight they once did. Five years has a way of stripping down the nonsense and providing a clear perspective of substance over style. For Fedora, now comes the hard part of living up to the expectations he created with his prior success.null