Just Passing Through

Jon Tenuta has moved on to Georgia Tech as defensive coordinator, and head coach John Bunting has some staff decisions to make.

This past week defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta left the University of North Carolina to take a similar position at Georgia Tech.

From the outset, let it be noted that Jon Tenuta is a good football coach. It will not be easy to find a defensive coordinator with the same ability to do what Tenuta does best - coach defense. Georgia Tech has hired themselves a solid defensive coordinator.

Tenuta came to Chapel Hill after Ohio State head man John Cooper was ousted in Columbus. Though it is easy to say so now, North Carolina was always destined to be a way station for Tenuta. It never seemed that Chapel Hill was the right fit for the taciturn Tenuta, though he excelled there as a defensive coordinator.

The one year that he coached at North Carolina, the Tar Heels finished first in the Atlantic Coast Conference in total defense, pass defense, and passing efficiency defense. Tenuta had some excellent talent on the defensive side of the ball to work with, but he utilized that talent well and got results on the field.

Tenuta, however, is not blessed with tremendous interpersonal skills. He would often answer questions from the media with one word answers. His favorites seemed to be, "So?," "Okay?," and "Yeah?".

Mike Singletary of the Chicago Bears was famous for his non-blinking wide-eyed stare on the field. Tenuta seemingly has that same disconcerting look in his eyes in his every waking moment. He smiles so infrequently that head coach John Bunting gave him the nickname of "Smiley."

None of the above prevented Tenuta from developing and executing a solid defensive game plan when the Tar Heels took the field. His charges liked his defensive schemes and always seemed well-prepared. His personality glitches would have been easier to deal with had not Tenuta possessed another downside as an assistant coach -- He was just passing through.

Tenuta has been interviewed for head coaching jobs on several occasions during his career. He received a look when George Welch retired at Tenuta's alma mater, Virginia. He also received some interest from Vanderbilt this year.

It is rumored that Tenuta also had some aspirations to coach in the National Football League, where an affable personality is not a job prerequisite.

Few believed that Tenuta would become a fixture on the North Carolina football staff, even at the time he was hired. Not to put too fine a point on it, at the time he was hired, Tenuta needed a job and Bunting needed a good defensive coordinator. No one ever expected Tenuta to "bleed light blue," but his lack of commitment to the Tar Heel football program might have developed into a serious problem for Coach Bunting.

Bringing together a competent coaching staff from an "x's and o's" standpoint may be one of the head coach's easiest tasks. Numerous objective measurements exist to demonstrate the competence of a coach in area of expertise. The defensive statistics cited above are one such measurement.

It is more difficult to put together a staff that can fulfill other critical responsibilities, such as recruiting, and share common goals towards building a program. Those intangibles are harder to evaluate except in the unforgiving realm of personal experience.

When Bunting arrived in Chapel Hill, he noted immediately that the talent at North Carolina needed to improve, particularly in certain areas, if the Tar Heels were to compete at a high level in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Part of that equation is to have assistant football coaches who can also excel in that role.

Did Tenuta bring the same focus to this task as he did his "x's and o's" responsibilities? Could he be an effective salesman for the University of North Carolina when his own commitment to the Tar Heels appeared so shaky? It is difficult to sell the idea to recruits that Chapel Hill is the place they want to be when it is not clear that the salesman believes that himself.

Jon Tenuta has a forceful personality, but so does John Bunting. In hindsight it seems inevitable that those personalities would someday meet in a confrontation that could only have one result. Coach Bunting views the head coaching job at North Carolina as the final stop in his coaching career, and is committed to building the football program at North Carolina, not his resume.

In his official remarks on Tenuta's departure, Coach Bunting said, "I am going to find a defensive coordinator who is committed to excellence on and off the field, and someone who is committed to being at Carolina and understands what makes Chapel Hill so special."

It is difficult to resist the temptation to read between those lines the idea that Bunting believed Jon Tenuta may not have possessed some of those desirable characteristics.

The outcome, however, does not require guesswork - Jon Tenuta is no longer the defensive coordinator at North Carolina. Filling that position is perhaps the most critical decision Bunting will have to make in the off-season.

One name that has surfaced as a possible replacement for Tenuta is current UNC linebacker and special teams coach Dave Huxtable. Huxtable has previous experience as a defensive coordinator, having filled that position at Georgia Tech and at Western Kentucky.

Bunting could then add a defensive back coach to the staff. One possible name for that position is Tommie Thigpen, who coached cornerbacks at Bowling Green University last season. Thigpen is no stranger to North Carolina fans. He was a three-time All-ACC linebacker at North Carolina, and was an All-American as a senior. He served as a graduate assistant at North Carolina in 1998 and 1999, assisting with the secondary.

The staff realignment could result in a staff that is better well-rounded in terms of balancing coaching and recruiting ability -- and in being, "committed to being at Carolina."

Staff changes are becoming routine in college football, where -- as in the rest of the United States -- mobility has replaced stability as the standard career path. As unsettling as they may be to players and fans, they are a part of the college landscape today.

They are also inevitable when it is clear that an assistant is "just passing through."


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