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Bunting Changing Football Culture?

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

September 16, 2002

CHAPEL HILL - Attitude is a very important thing to John Bunting. If you give him enough time, he'll mention it in every conversation he has about North Carolina football.

He talked about it when he took the job. He talked about it before, during and after last year's surprise 8-5 season. He spoke of it this fall after a devastating 27-21 loss to Miami-Ohio, after an exciting 30-22 win at Syracuse, and again after a 52-21 slaughter at the hands of top-five Texas.

“I think that (cutting a 24-0 Texas lead to 31-21) is the makeup of our team,” Bunting said. “Once again, we are trying to change the culture of our team with our football program. I just think we need to continue to get better.”

That includes in the attitude department. Bunting mentions academics more often than most college football coaches, and he said a high school prospect's attitude toward the classroom is a significant factor in his staff's evaluation process on the recruiting trail. He expects his players to be excited about making a serious commitment in the weight room, and he has watched more than a few look for the exit door after getting to know UNC conditioning guru Jeff Connors. He has a number of sayings - “Are You Consumed By Football?” is one favorite - that reflect his firm belief that talent alone isn't enough to build a quality college football program.

“That's a very difficult part of the recruiting process and a very important part of the recruiting process - trying to look inside a young man's head or a young man's heart,” Bunting said. “Is football something he plays just for fun, or does he really have a passion for it? Does he just enjoy the winning and the attention, or does he really love to compete? Is he serious about getting an education? Will he take pride in being a part of this team and this university, and treat those things with the proper respect? How will he respond to adversity? Will he run and hide, or will he keep working?”

It's no secret that Bunting believes Carl Torbush's staff did a terrible job in this regard. Bunting inherited plenty of personnel problems from Torbush, especially on the defensive front, but it doesn't seem to bother the coach that this prospect failed to live up to his billing or that prospect is still contributing only on special teams in his fourth year in the program. He completely understood the mediocre talent level on the roster he inherited, and he rarely complains about it. What bothers him much more, those close to him insist, are high attrition rates and players with bad attitudes.

UNC's Class of 1998, gift-wrapped for Torbush by recruiting genius Mack Brown before his December 1997 departure for Texas, fell short of its top-10 expectations but was far from terrible. Of the 19 players who enrolled that fall, 12 became at least part-time starters at some point in their careers. In the recruiting world, that kind of (63 percent) contribution rate is actually pretty good. Wideout Bosley Allen, quarterback Ronald Curry, tight end Zach Hilton, center Adam Metts, defensive end Julius Peppers and defensive tackle Ryan Sims all played big roles in Bunting's successful debut last fall, and several others from the 1998 class also helped. Among the contributors, only Allen (dismissed this spring) ever represented an attitude problem.

Torbush's Two Classes Left Holes

When Torbush was on his own, on the field and the recruiting trail, things really fell apart. Nine of the 23 signees in 1999 already have left the program, but the real problem rests with the Class of 2000. About two months after leading the Tar Heels to a 3-8 disaster on the field in the fall of 1999, Torbush landed the lowest-rated UNC recruiting class (not a single top-25 ranking) in almost a decade. Two and a half years later, the recruiting analysts' skepticism seems well-justified.

Of the 18 prospects UNC signed in 2000, exactly four can be called success stories almost three years later: quarterback Darian Durant, fullback Madison Hedgecock, tackle Skip Seagraves and tailback Andre' Williams. Even among those four, Durant (he of the infamous spring transfer and return) clearly broke Bunting's preferred character mold and Williams (the Heels' leading rusher last season) recently dropped to third string. There's still time for some others to come along, but one signee never arrived and five more already have left the team. That's 33 percent - gone, unavailable - right off the top.

“I want this team to have a gusto for playing this great sport of football, and a willingness to do things the right way, the Carolina way,” Bunting said. “Some of these guys had it long before we got here. Some did not.”

Remember punter Blake Ferguson? He left school during preseason camp last fall, drawing the public wrath of Bunting, who questioned his willingness to compete. The other missing persons from the 2000 signing class are tailback Jason Crawford (failed to qualify), linebacker Kitwana Jones (dismissed by Bunting), quarterback Aaron Leak (dismissed by Bunting), defensive back JoVon Lewis (dismissed by Bunting) and defensive tackle Isaac Montgomery (transferred to Virginia Tech). Jones, Leak and Lewis were disciplinary problems. Montgomery said he liked Bunting but clashed with the “NFL mentality” of some staff members.

Crawford was one of many examples of the Torbush staff landing the wrong prep All-Americans. Called a head case by several recruiters three years ago, he failed to qualify in 2000, then reneged on a commitment to UNC the following February and signed with Maryland. (He's now driving the staff crazy in College Park.) Torbush's All-American tailback in 1999 was Daniel Davis, an extraordinary talent who ultimately was dismissed from UNC after a ridiculous series of academic, disciplinary and legal problems. (He's now at problem-child magnet Kansas State.) The other Torbush prep All-Americans from 1999/2000 who have since left the program were Leak, offensive lineman Riko Feemster (injured/left team), wideout Jamal Jones (dismissed by Bunting) and offensive lineman David Stevenson (dismissed by Bunting). Stevenson, in particular, was an example of a player who consistently resisted the new staff in a variety of ways.

Recruit Paints Unpleasant Picture

Everyone understands that a prospect can't help his team if he's suspended, dismissed, behind bars or otherwise ineligible, but UNC's football staff got a recent reminder of how a program's bad apples can hurt the team while still on the active roster.

Offensive lineman Tripp Carroll, a prep All-American from Charlotte who recently transferred to a Florida high school to play for his father, committed to Virginia Tech in early September after listing the Tar Heels as one of his favorites (even a co-favorite at times) for much of the past year. In various interviews, he had spoken very highly of Bunting, new offensive line coach Hal Hunter, Chapel Hill, the school's football facilities and the overall direction of the program.

Then, in a September interview with football recruiting writer Mike Farrell, Carroll said this about UNC: “I visited North Carolina, and I didn't really like the players at all. They have attitudes, and I can't stand that stuff. It was a Friday night I think, or something like that, and I had to meet Coach Bunting at around 8 a.m. the next morning. All these players were trying to convince me to stay out and drink. I don't drink or smoke, and I just wanted to go to bed. They didn't seem to be very together, either. The quarterback there, Durant, was talking about how much he didn't like it, and there was a wideout who only talked about transferring. Man, I didn't like it at all.”

Carroll appears to represent everything Bunting would want in a recruit. He's a good citizen, an outstanding student and a coach's son. He's from Charlotte, an important part of the program's recruiting territory. He plays on the offensive line, one of the Tar Heels' greatest areas of need. He had a genuine interest in UNC, liked the coaching staff and enjoyed Chapel Hill. But, thanks in part to a few disgruntled players, he'll sign with Virginia Tech.

Perhaps Carroll met the pre-transfer Durant and the pre-dismissal Allen, and Bunting won't have these kinds of things to worry about anymore. Perhaps Carroll would have ended up playing for the Hokies anyway. Perhaps not. If the coach is smart, he already has addressed the issue. If he hasn't, he's asking for trouble.

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