After battling to the bitter end versus East Carolina, Arizona State and Clemson, there was reason to believe the Tar Heels were close to a much-anticipated ascension. With nothing left to prove this season except to build promise for the next, Carolina's slip in College Park Saturday clearly left its head coach befuddled. His attempt to lighten the post-game press conference with humor missed for the first time, and instead of clutching the podium and leaning forward to field questions from the UNC press pool, he eased back against the curtain for support.
The stoic Bunting was by no means wobbly, but this game left him scratching his head. And one can only wonder if he still treasures his position with the fervor that he once did, or if he ever expected the program's status to reach this low of a low with himself at the helm.
Prior to the 2001 season, four ACC coaches began their tenures, with three returning to their respective alma maters. A quick check of their progress to this point has Bunting clearly bringing up the rear.
The outwardly docile administrative tandem of UNC President James Moeser and Athletics Director Dick Baddour proved this spring that they are capable of making a drastic coaching change.
The parallels between Bunting and former UNC basketball coach Matt Doherty are uncanny, while at the same time polarized by Bunting's age, accolades and experience. While Doherty's coaching future is currently in jeopardy following a position he was in hindsight not nearly ready to undertake, Bunting could easily retire on the laurels of a successful NFL career both playing and coaching. And of course, he could easily return to the professional coaching ranks if his professed dream of leading UNC football back were to die.
Throughout the 2003 season, the consensus belief has been that Bunting had at least through 2004 to right the ship. But the severity and completeness of which the Tar Heels fell to the Terps Saturday may have severely shortened the fuse Moeser and Baddour have to work with.
Throw in a recent USA Today article suggesting Washington Redskins head coach and former Durham resident Steve Spurrier could be a candidate for the UNC position, and the budding situation smacks of a pre-emptive transition.
While UNC fans mourned Doherty's perceived exile, Bunting's would be even more tragic. But as with Roy Williams, a proven name injected such as Spurrier's could quickly salve the wounds of Bunting's departure.
If Williams is able to revive the proud Carolina basketball program, he will owe a wealth of gratitude to Doherty's final two recruiting classes. Just as a replacement for Bunting would benefit greatly from his Top 15 recruiting class of 2003 and its subsequent crop of re-signees in 2004.
But recruiting alone didn't save Doherty, and it may not save Bunting either. Yet working in Bunting's favor could be a wider tolerance for football mediocrity. While having Carolina football in the Top 10 is desirable, with basketball it is required.
The sad reality is that as nostalgic as having an alumnus lead the UNC football program back, the fan base and school trustees' clamor for wins will usually trump family loyalty.
The last thing Bunting needed was another embarrassing blowout as he continues to try and turn the program around. Just how much rope he still has…well only Baddour and Moeser know. However, if and when the axe falls, the deal will have likely been done beforehand with Carolina fans being the last to know.