Postponed game gives brief respite for Fedora, reeling Tar Heels

UNC’s 0-2 start, including Saturday’s 41-19 loss to ECU, has the seventh‑year coach on the hot seat

Coach Larry Fedora and the Tar Heels will get a much-needed week off after the school canceled Saturday’s home game against UCF due to Hurricane Florence. (Karl B. DeBlaker / AP Photo)

CHAPEL HILL — It’s hard to imagine a team needing a week off more than Larry Fedora and UNC.

While an approaching hurricane is hardly a reason to heave a sigh of relief, the reeling Tar Heels can definitely make use of an extra week to right the ship.

After traveling to the West Coast for an opening weekend loss to Cal, the Heels went to Greenville to face an East Carolina team that was coming off of back-to-back 3-9 seasons.

A home loss to FCS foe NC A&T appeared to be the final nail in the coffin of third-year coach Scottie Montgomery, who was likely facing a must-win season after promising a postseason appearance at the close of last year.

Montgomery may have gotten the break he needed, and by leaving the hot seat, turned up the temperature on Fedora. The Pirates blew out Carolina, 41-19, sending the Heels home in search of answers.

“Nobody’s happy with it,” Fedora said afterward. “Everybody’s disappointed, as they should be. These guys work hard and put a lot into it, and we didn’t get the job done. Again, that’s on me.”

Angry Carolina fans demanded Fedora’s head following the loss, and it’s likely that the UNC administration is at least reading through his contract, trying to calculate what type of buyout they’d need to pay.

Consider: The Heels are just 4-14 in their last 18 games, and that includes wins over FCS opponents The Citadel and Western Carolina. They’ve lost four straight to in-state rivals Duke and NC State, with two of those games ending in double-digit margins of defeat.

The ECU loss was the eighth time in the last 14 games that UNC has lost by double digits and fourth time it has lost by more than 20 points. Carolina hasn’t beaten an FCS team at home since Nov. 5, 2016, also the last time it beat a team that ended the year with a winning record.

It’s not just the losses that cause fans to throw up their hands in frustration, but the way the team has fallen to defeat. The Heels, at their worst, appear disorganized and undisciplined. Only two teams have more penalties and penalty yards through two games than Carolina. One — Arkansas State — is coached by former Fedora assistant Blake Anderson. The other — Maryland — currently has an interim coach.

Aside from the on-field struggles, the Heels have had a rough offseason, and much of it can be traced to Fedora. Thirteen players had to serve a combined 42 games of suspension at the start of the season after they sold their special edition Air Jordan sneakers — one of the perks of the team’s high-profile endorsement deal with the school’s most-famous alumnus — some for several thousand dollars.

Fedora also raised eyebrows with his comments at ACC Media Day about how football is under attack, and the sport — and America — may not survive. He went on to add that he was skeptical about the sport’s connection to head injuries and CTE.

Finally, the Heels have struggled on the recruiting trail, losing several high-profile in-state prospects to NC State and coach Dave Doeren, a fact that doesn’t sit well with many Tar Heel fans and boosters.

A fast start to the season would have gone a long way toward reducing pressure on Fedora. Instead, things could not have gone much worse. Now the Heels face a stretch of games, even with the matchup against ranked foe Central Florida wiped out by the storm, where it’s tough to find a likely candidate for a win.

The new home opener will be against ACC foe Pitt on Sept. 22. That game is followed by back-to-back ranked opponents in Miami on the road and a home encounter with Virginia Tech. The Heels then have back-to-back road trips to Syracuse and Virginia.

“I hate the fact that we’re 0-2 right now, but it is what it is. You can’t dismiss it,” Fedora said. “You’ve got to fight, scratch and claw to overcome it. You go through the obstacle, not around it.”

Fedora clearly isn’t ducking from the challenge.

“This is not the first bit of adversity that I’ve ever faced as a football coach,” he said. “You lean on the lessons that you learn from the past. Hopefully, you’ve learned from the mistakes and you rally your team around what we need to do. And that is basically circle the wagons, believe in each other, believe in what we’re doing and not worry about anything else and stay focused on your job and do your job.”

It’s a job that appears to be getting bigger, and less stable, by the week.