CHAPEL HILL — Shortly after he was hired as North Carolina’s athletic director in November 2011, Bubba Cunningham began a search to hire a new football coach.
The first person he called was Mack Brown.
“I said Mack, I’m looking for a head coach. Do you have any advice or guidance,” Cunningham said. “We talked a lot about Larry.”
Larry, of course, is Larry Fedora, the man Cunningham fired on Sunday, 24 hours after the Tar Heels completed their second straight nine-loss season with an overtime defeat at the hands of NC State.
It was a tough enough task for Cunningham, who said Fedora “did a remarkable job in a very difficult period of time” and still considers him a friend. Things could have gotten even more awkward when less than 48 hours later, the UNC AD turned around and hired Brown as Fedora’s replacement.
But that didn’t happen, Cunningham said, because of the poise and professionalism of his now former coach.
“The same way he coaches his team in dealing with adversity, dealing with bad news, he took it with incredible respect and dignity,” Cunningham said. “He was a learning experience for me on how to handle tough situations. I have the utmost respect for him and admiration for his family.”
Fedora took over just as the Tar Heels were hit with NCAA sanctions for violations committed during the tenure of former coach Butch Davis.
Despite a one-year postseason ban and the loss of 15 scholarships over a three-year period, Fedora led UNC to a share of the ACC Coastal Division title in his first year. Four bowl games and an official Coastal title followed before things went sour over the past two years.
Brown said he followed the fortunes of the Tar Heels from a distance through his duties as an ESPN analyst and actually had conversations with Fedora during visits to practice as recently as this fall. He said that while he isn’t familiar with many of the players on the team’s roster, he has “a pretty good idea of who we are.”
Like Cunningham, the new UNC coach had high praise for his predecessor and the way he was able to keep his team playing hard despite its struggles. He added that unlike many situations in which changes in leadership are made, “there will not be one negative word said about Larry Fedora or his staff in front of any of these players.”
Brown also said that if Fedora’s son Dillon wants to remain on the staff, he’d “love to have him.” Dillon Fedora has served as a special teams quality control assistant after joining his father’s staff as a volunteer assistant in 2017.
Although Brown has yet to talk to Larry Fedora because of the speed with which his hiring took place, he said he plans to do so as soon as he can arrange it.
“I want to make sure that everybody understands the great respect that we have for Larry,” Brown said. “Changing coaches is very difficult. It affects a lot of families, not just Larry’s and we will reach out and make sure we handle all those situations the best we can.”
Although Brown said he had yet to make any decisions about the makeup of his staff, he left open the possibility that at least some of Fedora’s former assistants might be retained.
“I’ve got some (coaches) in mind,” Brown said. “But I really haven’t gotten to a point where I’ve gotten permission to call them and see if they would be interested.”
Brown was 69-46-1 during his first stint at UNC from 1988-97. His new deal is for five years at a base salary of $750,000, supplemental compensation of $2 million a year.
As praiseworthy as he was for the job Fedora did during his seven seasons in Chapel Hill, Brown acknowledged that the Tar Heels program is in need of a “fix.” And he said that he’s the man best equipped to handle the job, just as he was once before.
“We know this place,” he said. “And we know you can be successful in football here.”