CHAPEL HILL — In the immediate aftermath of Saturday’s overtime loss to NC State, North Carolina safety J.K. Britt was asked what it would take for the Tar Heels to turn things around after two straight nine-loss seasons.
“I’m not sure what the change needs to be,” Britt said. “But something has to change for us to get to where we want to be.”
Sunday, less than 24 hours after yet another heartbreaking setback, UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham decided what that change would be by firing coach Larry Fedora after seven up-and-down seasons.
“We appreciate all that Larry Fedora has done for us over the last seven years – coming to Carolina in the midst of an NCAA case and bringing stability to our football program when we most needed it,” Cunningham said in a statement announcing the move. “Despite injuries, despite setbacks and hardships, Larry never made excuses. He focused his teams on overcoming adversity, and I deeply respect the way he persevered and led our program each day with integrity through some tough times.
“This was not an easy decision because of the deep affinity I have for Larry. It simply is time to take our football program in a new direction.”
Fedora, 56, was informed of his dismissal after a late morning meeting with Cunningham. He is due a buyout of $12 million for the four remaining years of his contract..
He finishes his tenure at UNC with a 45-43 overall record (28-28 in the ACC). It’s a mark that includes four bowl appearances and one official Coastal Division championship despite being saddled by NCAA sanctions that included a one-year postseason ban and the loss of 15 scholarships over his first three seasons.
But the Tar Heels have fallen off dramatically during the past two years. After following up their division title with an 8-2 start in 2016, they’ve gone just 6-21 with only two of those victories coming against Power 5 opponents.
There have been extenuating circumstances. A year ago, it was a rash of injuries that cost the team 77 starts among 34 scholarship players. This season was sidetracked before it ever started by the suspension of 13 players for their role the sale of school-issued athletic shoes.
Despite the disruptions, UNC’s downfall in 2018 was its inability to win close games.
It lost twice in overtime (to NC State and Syracuse) and once in the final minute of regulation (to Virginia Tech) after leading in all three games. Two other setbacks came by a single score.
While Fedora took responsibility for those shortcomings when asked about them Saturday, he hedged his bets by also throwing a little shade at his players.
“It’s my responsibility to put them in a position to win,” he said. “I’ve got to find a way to do a better job of that. We’ve got to put the right guys on the field at the right time to make the plays that are presented before them. We’re not asking them to do anything superhuman. Just make the routine plays. When we do that, we’ll be a really good football team.”
In a statement issued after his dismissal was announced, Fedora said he regrets not getting the opportunity to lead such a turnaround.
Although the now-former coach was defiant to the end, responding to a question about his future at his final postgame press conference by saying “I’m planning on being here,” his firing is anything but a surprise.
In addition to his team’s lack of success on the field, highlighted by persistent defensive shortcomings, Fedora’s tenure at UNC was marred by numerous off-the-field issues.
Among them were a significant dropoff in recruiting, especially among in-state prospects, his controversial preseason comments denying the effects of football-related concussions on CTE, and a general lack of discipline that led to the Shoegate suspensions.
But even as he was losing the support of UNC’s administration, Fedora never lost the faith of his players, who continued to play hard for him until the final play Saturday.
“You never saw us lay down and quit not once in any game,” Britt said. “Every guy came out to practice every day each week, battled their ass off and we did the same in games. It’s the program. That’s what we believe in here,” Britt said. “You just have a bunch of guys here that have self-pride and team pride. We’re going to play for each other.”
Cunningham did not specify details about the search to find a new coach. Among those already being mentioned as candidates are Appalachian State coach Scott Satterfield and retired former UNC and Texas coach Mack Brown.
“It’s not how anybody wants it to turn out,” senior linebacker Cole Holcomb said. “But that’s life.”