Baby Blue Steps

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – No one said it was going to be easy. When Butch Davis took the North Carolina job a little over a year ago, he inherited a program that has posted a 39.4 winning percentage since 1999. Those types of numbers are not remedied overnight, because a foundation has to first be built to serve as a springboard.

The first words out of the first-year UNC head coach's mouth at his Monday press conference were congratulations to Karen Shelton's field hockey team for winning the national championship this weekend. Davis is a man with an insatiable thirst for success in everything that he does, and that extends to the people surrounding him, whether it be professionally or personally.

"It's one of the things that was a little bit of an enticement when I decided to come to Carolina was their commitment to be good in everything," Davis said. "I laughingly talked about how the Oakland Raiders coined the phrase ‘commitment to excellence' back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and I think that UNC probably ought to file an injunction and sue for the rights – that this ought to be the place that is committed to excellence."

As much as North Carolina football fans want double-digit wins on the football field each fall, the steps to reach that rare pinnacle extend beyond the Kenan Football Center. UNC consistently finishes in the top-10 nationally of the Sears Directors' Cup rankings, a system that gives point value to each school's individual athletic programs. That success speaks volumes to the University's approach to student-athletes, and Davis is wise to include those other campus sports in his plans for an Kenan Stadium upgrade.

He indicated on Monday that he sees the expansion as two-fold – renovating the stadium and its facilites, while also providing an academic support building for all of the University's student-athletes.

"We've got so many athletes that are here – not only walk-ons, but scholarship players in 28 sports," Davis said. "They need a place that structurally and physically can meet their needs as far as tutoring, academic support, study halls, classrooms and all of those kinds of things, and that's something we truly, desperately need."

That may sound merely as an attempt to establish support in the academic and athletic departments for an estimated nine-figure project, but Davis also acknowledged the importance of facility upgrades in the true lifeblood of any collegiate football program – recruiting.

With Wake Forest, N.C. State, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Clemson and Tennessee all recently completing or beginning renovations to their stadiums, North Carolina cannot afford to fall behind in the arms race world of luring athletes to your program.

But none of the community support, modern buildings and glitzy devices matter much if you don't deliver those precious victories on Saturdays in the fall. With a new program, however, those victories sometimes emerge from behind the scoreboard, not on it.

Following North Carolina's 37-10 debacle against South Florida in Tampa back in September, Davis admonished his inexperienced roster in the locker room and demanded more accountability in taking possession of their program. Not his program, not the administration's program, but their program.

Breaking tendencies is a difficult thing to do, but the players took their coach's words to heart. They began spending more time in the film room and staying late after practice to work on the nuances of the game.

"Their play has improved so much, and that's because of the way that they have practiced and the way that they have prepared," senior defensive tackle Kentwan Balmer said. "They've definitely bought into it, and that's a step in the right direction, because we have great talent and we have great coaches on this staff. It's kind of emotional to watch – that growth in those players and being so close with the coaching staff. It's great to watch, and fun to be a part of."

Virginia head coach Al Groh said last year that he was playing the 2006 season with his 2007 players. The Cavs finished 5-7 last fall, but are currently sitting at 9-2 with a solid shot at an ACC Championship Game appearance, needing a win against rival Virginia Tech on Saturday.

Davis adheres to the standard "one game at a time" approach, but he admitted preparations for next season are moving closer to the forefront.

"I've already been in the process of trying to write up reviews in eight or 10 different areas – their academics, how they're doing [with] community relations, football-wise and all of that stuff – and [we'll] try to have a one-on-one meeting with each guy and say, ‘This is what you need to focus on in the next six months before the start of next season,'" Davis said.

The players' attitudes have changed for the better during the last four months, despite winning only three games this fall. But players like Hakeem Nicks and Greg Little just exude so much confidence that you almost forget about the win-loss record when talking to them.

A reporter pointed out to Little on Monday that North Carolina has had a player rush for 100 yards at least once every season since 1966, and that Saturday was this team's last chance to continue that streak.

"I've been known to perform well when I'm backed down into a corner," Little responded. "That's what I like – a challenge. So maybe I'll rush for 200 [yards], who knows."

Things are different around the Kenan Football Center these days. The negative vibes are gone, and determination has replaced wishful thinking in moving this program forward. Each day brings new challenges and this squad is focused on using this season's discontent as motivation for the coming offseason.

This weekend's rivalry game against Duke will serve as a salute to the ten seniors in the program, as well as a stepping stone to more victories in the future.

"The importance is to finish as positively as you can – end on a good note [and] win the game," Davis said.

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