Andy: Bunting will survive 2003

Third-year North Carolina football coach John Bunting will seemingly be in Chapel Hill for a fourth season, but he has heard the pleas of a distraught -- although at times, fickle -- fan base.

2003 was an awful season. The previous comment doesn't even do justice to Carolina's 2-10 record that was topped off with an embarrassing season-ending submission to Duke, of which its members left the field ringing "The Victory Bell" well before the scoreboard clock read all zeros.

With that monstrosity having been spilled all over the hallowed Kenan Stadium turf, still, is the fans' faith in Bunting really gone?

In addition, the blown homers against Syracuse and Arizona State raised the corporate stock of antacid manufacturers to new highs following these games.

While Bunting's competency as a head coach is still in question, his knack for recruiting may forever trump his sideline shortcomings. Off the field, he makes sound decisions, including in the hiring of assistants. And although the similarities stop right there, the same could be said for former UNC coach Mack Brown.

Bunting and his assistant coaches leave astounding impressions on recruiting prospects, their families, and their communities. Surely the North Carolina name and nostalgia follows them wherever they go, but it's usually Bunting's unflappable sincerity that closes the deal.

There were approximately 100 Division I college head and assistant coaches on hand at Hargrave Academy's football combine on Monday. Bunting, Browning and Lawing, were received remarkably well by their professional peers and the players, this despite UNC's 5-19 record over the past two seasons.

Major college programs were represented well, but none had more interest than the Tar Heels' coaches that were in town to re-acquaint with their four commitments for 2004 and size up three prospects,' linebacker Antonio Reynolds, tight end Anthony Hill and wide receiver Armand Cauthen.

Bunting has heard the call of the fans, and he has been visibly hurt by the lack of compassion they've shown for one of their own. Forget what you may have heard, the UNC Athletics staff closely monitors every modicum of text and graphic material that surfaces on the Internet; something that has made for a new millennium style of headache for collegiate sports administrators.

But coaches still run the program, regardless of the voice Carolina Fan now has via a dial up or high-speed connection.

And with all the criticism swirling, Bunting has fearlessly stiffened his upper lip, rolled up his sleeves and gone to work.

Let's break it down.

The Tar Heels' all-time most prolific quarterback will be behind another all-conference candidate at center, and an experienced offensive line to boot. Carolina has up and coming depth to burn at wide receiver, defensive line, linebacker and running back. There is also an underclassmen surplus of talent coming in on the defensive front – clearly the most obvious area of need – by way of up to or more than four prospects currently prepping at Hargrave.

Since the Tar Heels' fortunes began to sour following the 2001 Peach Bowl championship season, Bunting has asserted UNC will not be able to compete at the high level fans demand until he can get mostly fourth- and fifth-year seniors in the regular lineup.

The cupboard was bare, after all.

But only the most optimistic of supporters believe Carolina's defense will emerge from the depths of the numerical rankings in just one year. It's not conceivable, is it?

We're not talking about just laying claim to the worst ranking in the ACC; the Tar Heels finished with one of, if not the worst, statistical total defensive rankings in the nation.

The move has been made to hire a new defensive coordinator, an important step in the recovery of the Carolina defense. It will take a skilled coach to undertake the challenge of rebuilding a defense that at one time would perennially stock the NFL with talent.

While the sting is still felt amongst fans, Bunting has survived the first few weeks following the Duke loss. The 2003 season is now officially "last season," and the workouts have already started for 2004.

Continuing to call for a regime change is, at this point, counterproductive.

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