Mark: It Takes a Big Man to Admit It ...

With all the transitions that have taken place around Carolina football in recent years, it's hard to keep track of the comings and goings, even if you follow football religiously.

Nevertheless, I remember with crystalline clarity the days that began the transformation of the program from a limping has-been to a contender on the rise.

Those were the days I was wrong. Not misguided. Not mistaken. Just 100% turned-around-backward wrong about the future of Carolina football.

Late in Carl Torbush's final season, I knew, as everyone did, that he was a lame-duck coach. But I found myself in the crowd that believed his inevitable firing to be a terrible mistake. I said loudly to just about anyone who would listen that it sent the wrong message to fire a man after only three years at the helm. I felt he deserved an opportunity to see his recruits develop on the field, to strengthen his staff, and to firm up his own approach to running the program.

The fact of the matter was that I liked Carl Torbush. Though I understand his particular brand of country manners--I don't know what else to call it--rubbed some folks the wrong way, I found him genuine, honorable, self-deprecating, and earnest in his desire to win football games. I also saw respect for him among the players, and thought he was working hard--and successfully--to develop a sense of family around his team.

When Torbush was fired, I was disappointed. When John Bunting was hired, I was shocked. Again, I pronounced to all who would listen that it made no sense to hire an unproven coach with no knowledge of the college recruiting scene. It seemed to me a strictly lateral move--or worse--for the program. And I told people I gave the football team no chance of turning itself around in a five-year window.

Watching the improbable turnaround from last season's 0-3 start to Carolina's Peach Bowl victory, it dawned on me fairly quickly that I had misjudged the situation. But it wasn't until I met John Bunting for the first time earlier this year that I realized I had totally, completely gotten it wrong. The fact of the matter is that if you listen to John Bunting for five minutes, you realize there could not have been a better choice to run Carolina's program at this time.

Three first impressions stand out. First, the man's intensity is unmatched among recent Tar Heel football coaches. With Torbush, you expected he might throw his arm around your shoulder and call you "son" at any given moment. Nice. But with Bunting, you think there is a genuine chance he might roll-tackle you, just for kicks. And that's the kind of fire that motivates players to win football games. Second, in talking to Bunting you can't help but think that his passion for Carolina football runs deeper than anyone else's on the field or in the room. This is a man who loves his university, loves his team and its tradition, and will not stand for anything less from those around him. In a brief interview session earlier this month, he recalled Carolina's football heritage no fewer than twenty times, and when he did it, it came from the gut. This is a guy that makes you want to strap on a Carolina blue helmet and start hitting somebody. If Carl Torbush was a father figure, John Bunting is the boss who built the company himself and will only pass it along into the right hands. Finally, Bunting is a professional. He knows his business and has demanded his assistants and players to pay attention to the details. With his years in the NFL, he knows the business of football at the highest level. And clearly this is part of his relationship to the players. Want to make it to the league, he asks? Practice and play like he did. If I'm an eighteen-year-old kid with dreams of playing in the pros, that's what I'm looking for in a coach. And that bodes well for Carolina's recruiting future.

This year, Bunting faces more than his share of challenges. Cleaning house sometimes leaves the cupboards a little bare, and the Tar Heel defense in particular is likely to feel the effects of that thinness over a grueling schedule. The fact is, fans are likely to see a downturn this season after last year's promising finish. Take a poll, and I bet the majority of the team's supporters expect as much, even if they hope for another round of gritty wins, big upsets, and a bowl victory.

But it sure looks like Bunting has Carolina pointed in a positive direction, and fans seem willing to weather a tough season of ups and downs for the rewards of the future. With the coach suggesting that good days are ahead for the football program, more than 30,000 season ticketholders have indicated that they think he is right.

And I was wrong.

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