Saturday, December 10, 2011

Something about a Carolina-blue hat

Since I foolishly promised myself that I would write something about every major-conference coaching hire this offseason, I will now produce some words about Larry Fedora taking over at North Carolina.

Perception is a funny thing. It really wasn't until Southern Miss kicked the crap out of then-unbeaten Houston in the C-USA title game that people realized (a) Southern Miss is literally three field goals away from being 13-0 this year and (b) Fedora has a track record that's pretty dang similar to (if not better than) Kevin Sumlin's. There's an alternate reality in which Southern Miss gets a couple bounces this year and is playing in a BCS game while Fedora has about a half-dozen major-conference teams fighting over him.

Anyway, Southern Miss finished 11-2 this year. In his three previous seasons, Fedora went 7-6, 7-6 and 8-5. No losing seasons in four years and an 11-2 finish equals "OMG MUST HIRE." But there's one potentially mitigating factor: Southern Miss has been the best program in Conference USA for most of my life. Fedora took over for Jeff Bower, who was head coach for 12 years and didn't have a single losing season before retiring in 2007 with a record of 119-83-1. His last five years: 9-4, 7-5, 7-5, 9-5, 7-6. Fedora's success has to be taken with a grain of salt given what was already in place at Southern Miss, which has been sort of like a C-USA version of '90s Boise State.

There was also a weirdly popular belief after the Houston game that Fedora was some defensive mastermind who totally outcoached Kevin Sumlin and was responsible for Case Keenum's brief suckitude. Negative. Fedora's an offensive guy all the way who wants to spread it out and go at Oregon speed; he just happens to have done a really good job at bringing in effective defensive coordinators. First it was Todd Bradford, who was hired when Fedora took over in '07 and then got the D-coordinator job at Maryland last winter, and then it was Dan Disch, who was co-defensive coordinator at Illinois a couple years ago and made what had been a slightly above-average defense a really good one (by C-USA standards) this year.

Also really good: the offense. That part was definitely Fedora's doing. The numbers: 23rd in rushing, 31st in passing, 13th in total yardage, 14th in scoring. Last year's numbers were almost identical, and the '09 ones were just slightly less impressive. Keep in mind that Fedora came up as O-coordinator at Middle Tennessee, then WRs/RBs coach at Florida, then O-coordinator at Florida (!) under Ron Zook and then O-coordinator at Oklahoma State before Dana Holgorsen. FYI, those Okie State offenses improved from 92nd to 16th to seventh in total yardage; 2004 Florida was 22nd. The guy knows what he's doing on offense. He doesn't go bonkers with the passing game like Holgorsen and Sumlin but does like to throw and definitely likes to do it out of the spread.

Fedora's not the typical "grumble grumble coachspeak toughness fundamentals grumble" guy. He's 49 and made a name for himself by creating good offenses that went at ludicrous speed. His quotes are telling and awesome:
"Instead of waiting to see what might develop, attack constantly, vigorously and viciously. Never let up, never stop, always attack. ...

"You'd better buckle your seat belts and you better hold on," Fedora said, "because it's going to be a wild ride."
Fantastic. I literally cannot imagine Brady Hoke* saying those things. I think there's an inherent game-theory advantage for guys who developed a balls-to-the-wall line of thinking (Chip Kelly, RichRod, et al) through working at places that don't have more talent/money/whatever. It's not a guarantee of success but is definitely a positive.

North Carolina does have some things to work with. Butch Davis pretty obviously had UNC headed toward regular ACC contention before ... ummm ... The Stuff. Butch Davis is also a pretty excellent coach. He took over for the thoroughly mediocre John Bunting and went 28-23 in four years, with the last one looking really promising until The Stuff started and half the team got suspended before the season-opening six-point loss to LSU.

So success is possible. The North Carolina region produces plenty of talent but typically gets mined by Va. Tech and Penn State and Georgia and Florida since those schools have something to offer in terms of football. UNC didn't until Butch Davis started winning; three years later, there were seven NFL-caliber players starting on defense. That's not a coincidence (BTW, the NCAA violations were mostly related to academics, agents and Gary Wichard's shenanigans and not recruiting). Fedora will get some talent and will have some success on offense, which in turn should bring in a little more talent. And there are some options on defense. Everett Withers was D-coordinator under Davis and did a respectable job as interim coach this year to get UNC to 7-5. He's been talked about for the head job at UAB and a few other coordinator jobs (Arkansas, specifically), and I won't be surprised Fedora tries to keep him around. He could also bring in Disch and keep the Southern Miss thing going.

The huge and unavoidable variable: the possibility of boom-goes-UNC penalties. The current damage is pretty insignificant in terms of its impact on Fedora/the future: two years of probation and a reduction of nine scholarships over the next three years (three per year). Meh. But the NCAA still hasn't come back with a final decision and could always pile on with some waaay worse stuff. North Carolina chancellor Holden Thorp actually came out and said he gave Fedora a seven-year deal (instead of five or whatever) because of the probation and the chance of short-term NCAA cratering, which would seriously hinder any on-field progress over the next few years.

If nothing gets tacked on, there's some opportunity for success. The Va. Tech/Florida State/Clemson group at the top of the ACC isn't exactly impenetrable. Davis was close but didn't get to see it through. Because of that, Fedora's starting point is a lot easier than Davis' was, which means he doesn't have to be Butch Davis to get UNC from consistent Peach Bowl participant to consistent divisional contender; he just has to keep doing what he's been doing and hope the NCAA has a little mercy.

*Brady Hoke doesn't talk that way but definitely thinks like a guy who worked his way up from the dregs of the MAC, which makes him the antithesis of Lloyd Carr and results in awesome things like (a) fake field goals to go ahead by 21 against Nebraska and (b) going for it at midfield in the first half against Ohio State on a drive that eventually produced a huge touchdown.


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