Skepticism reigned over North Carolina Athletic Director Dick Baddour's selection of John Bunting to head up Tar Heel football in December 2000. Bunting was chosen to lead UNC back to the elite with little college experience. Baddour's unpleasant search added to the uncertainty.
Much like when Roy Williams snubbed the Heels' basketball program, Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer turned down the UNC football position after some published reports said he had accepted the position. Beamer used Carolina's interest to get a more lucrative deal (for his assistants) in Blacksburg. Despite the famed national stature of the nation's oldest public university, nobody seemed interested in becoming Carl Torbush's successor.
Out of nowhere, Bunting's name popped up. Many believed Baddour's interest in the former UNC football star to be more out of courtesy than desire. However, Baddour flew to New Orleans, where Bunting was a coach with the Saints, to sign Bunting.
Baddour played Bunting's hiring as the ideal choice to strengthen the Carolina football family. Former coaches and colleagues were paraded in front of the media to eschew (would you rather use "echo") support for the former alum and new head coach. Still, the skeptics remained less than enchanted with the hiring of a football coach with very little collegiate experience to lead North Carolina back into football prominence.
INJECTING TOUGHNESS TO REVIVE A SLEEPING GIANT
Bunting was heavily scrutinized right out of the gate. However, he didn't take hold of the Tar Heel reins with a slight of hand; instead he grabbed hold with solid determination and energy.
He went to work by assembling a respectable staff and injected life into the moribund program by openly stating the program needed to "get tough." More importantly, Bunting looked to the players he inherited for leadership in directing UNC football into the future.
Rah-rah college coaches come and go. They enter into a job with huge expectations only to end up as a footnote to that school's mediocre past. Bunting was still at that stage. For all of his emotional energy, he couldn't erase the fact that UNC had limped to a lethargic 6-5 finish the year before against a mediocre slate.
Perhaps his most crucial scores - which silenced the swell of skeptics – were first keeping Julius Peppers in school and later the announcement that both Peppers and Ronald Curry would forgo college basketball in favor of dedicating themselves to football. This was a major turning point, for it realized the players bought into Bunting's plan.
Bunting followed with the announcement that UNC would open the season against the defending national champion Oklahoma Sooners. Many analysts thought it was an act of suicide. But as Bunting pointed out, in order to be the best, you have to play the best.
UNC's season could have been over before it began. Bunting's decision to play Oklahoma appeared to be a mistake as the Sooners destroyed the Tar Heels, 41-27. Carolina then dropped their next two games (to Maryland, 23-7, and Mack Brown's Texas Longhorns, 44-14). Hindsight is 20/20, and from this vantage it's clear that UNC's first three games came against Top Ten material.
With the college football season pushed back a week following the terrorist attacks, Bunting regrouped his wounded troops. With Florida State next on the docket, no doubt the Heels would start the season 0-4. Too bad UNC wouldn't listen!
In what was Carolina's best performance of the season, the Tar Heels attacked and pestered the young Seminoles in a 41-9 rout, and Carolina football had found its groove. Paced by an attacking defense that willed the opposition to air it out, UNC followed a shutdown of FSU's offense by stifling North Carolina State and their all-star quarterback Philip Rivers, 17-9.
Wins over East Carolina (24-21), Virginia (30-24) and Clemson (38-3) followed the NCSU victory. Remarkably, after a disastrous 0-3 start, the 5-3 Tar Heels were now in a position to win the ACC title.
TRUTH LIES SOMEWHERE IN BETWEEN
UNC football was again slapped with reality, this time on a Thursday evening in Atlanta. Whereas the running game skyrocketed in victories over Virginia and Clemson, a swarming Georgia Tech defense stuffed Carolina's rushers. In turn, Tech's ground attack pounded the wounded UNC defense en route to a 28-21 win.
Despite two conference losses, Carolina still had hopes for the ACC title. However, those hopes were quickly vanquished by an unlikely Wake Forest 31-30 comeback victory that left the Tar Heels dazed and confused, and on the verge of missing bowl eligibility. And suddenly the month and a half of cheers turned quickly to jeers.
Bunting rallied his troops with wins over Duke (52-17) and Southern Methodist (19-10) to cement a Peach Bowl invitation. On New Year's Eve in Atlanta's Georgia Dome, Carolina played one of its best games of the year in downing Auburn, 16-10.
Still, just how good was Bunting's first Chapel Hill edition?
Impressive was the mindset of North Carolina. Despite a horrific start, Bunting and his players never gave up and enjoyed reaping the benefits of hard work. At the same time, however, UNC clearly showed deficiencies. When it came to facing the nation's big boys, Carolina's rushing attack was anemic. Truth is, UNC was exactly what their record stated it to be - a better than average college football team at 8-5.
THE MORE THINGS CHANGE, THE MORE THEY STAY THE SAME Defense paced the success for North Carolina in 2001. Much of that defense, however, is off to the Sunday league, leaving Bunting with tremendous voids to fill - eight new starters to be exact!
A school with a lengthy tailback tradition, the desire for a form of the West Coast offense means it may be a long time coming before another 1,000-yard rusher hits the Kenan Stadium turf.
After one season, what kind of grade does Bunting deserve?
He did inject much desperately needed life and energy to the program. Still, the more things change, the more they stay the same. With Darian Durant's departure and subsequent return, Carolina will again be saddled with the function of finding a consistent leader to line up under center. What's more, Durant's departure may signal that not all players have bought into Bunting's plan. Or does it, hence his return? Or was he simply an isolated case, unrelated to anything Bunting, but more so everything Durant?
This is not July 2001. Peppers, Curry, Ryan Sims and David Thornton are no longer around to chisel out an atmosphere of dedication and leadership. Adam Metts has expired his eligibility and can no longer talk for a humble group of anonymous, underachieving linemen. It leaves little doubt that Bunting will be taking applications for leaders for the 2002 season.
Apply from within.
Brad Dopke has been covering college football for over six years, beginning with The College Game online and print magazine and as a syndicated free-lance writer/analyst. He is also editor/publisher of the college football site Dopke.com. He has also been a regular guest on numerous radio shows nationwide and has worked closely with Division I and Division II schools on various issues such as gender equity, operational costs and scheduling.