Friday, July 29, 2011

North Carolina has a coach (nominally, anyway)

North Carolina did pretty much the only thing it could do on Thursday, naming defensive coordinator Everett Withers the interim coach and get-us-through-the-storm guy.

As I said Wednesday, the options are pretty limited when you fire your coach a week before the start of training camp with potentially massive sanctions approaching. Gus Malzahn isn't gonna ditch Auburn in July to take over at a mid-level school facing a bowl ban and scholarship losses. So the job (at least for now) belongs to Withers, a 48-year-old with three years of coordinator experience at UNC to go along with a year at Texas under Mack Brown and six years with the Tennessee Titans under Jeff Fisher. Moving up in the world while working for guys like Mack Brown, Jeff Fisher and Butch Davis isn't meaningless -- Withers is a well-respected defensive coach who's put up good numbers at North Carolina and done a remarkable job of bringing in and developing high-end talent.

So that's all well and good ... but his chances of keeping the job on a long-term basis are literally zero. When athletic director Dick Baddour became part of the collateral damage on Thursday and announced his "resignation" effective next summer, he said:
"The Chancellor and I have had conversations about staying beyond that date to help stabilize the program, however as someone who has hired coaches, I know that it is even more imperative that my successor be able to name the next coach."
In other words, "Congratulations on being the new coach until we hire somebody better."

It didn't occur to me until today how similar Withers' situation is to Luke Fickell's: Both are likeable guys who aren't ready to be head coaches at major programs but will be anyway because a school in the midst of epic controversy had no other choice. Neither school wants to settle for Loyal Assistant X as the face of the program and will be throwing big bucks around in the offseason to try to lure somebody with the experience and/or name recognition to compete at the appropriate level. Meanwhile, Fickell and Withers will be SOL until they earn another shot somewhere else in the relatively distant future.

And in fairness to North Carolina, the administration's quest to wash its hands of the entire Butch Davis era is a logical one. It'd be kinda contradictory to say that it was impossible to "restore confidence in the football program" under Davis but then promote his top assistant and say, "But this guy ... this is the guy."

The only positive for Withers is that the pressure will be minimal; it makes no difference whether he wins five games or nine. And in a thoroughly mediocre ACC, nine wins really isn't out of the question. Other than at Georgia Tech (September 24) at Virginia Tech (November 17) and maybe at Clemson (October 22), UNC should probably be favored in every game on the schedule.

They won't be winning the division title or anything (barring a disaster in Blacksburg), but they'll be respectable. And as far as Withers goes, maintaining whatever semblance of on-field momentum remains at UNC is a reasonable goal that would help a lot in enticing somebody with a slightly more impressive resume to take over as The Real Coach.


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