May 5, 2003 CHAPEL HILL When there is a small number of seniors in the projected starting lineup for a college football team, it's usually a bad sign. There are exceptions, of course. Sometimes, as with Virginia in recent years, a program's incoming talent is so extraordinary that it inevitably finds its way to the top, pushing aside veteran players along the way. That's not the preferred way to build a successful team if the returnees were good enough, they wouldn't be demoted so easily but if it happens, good things sometimes follow.
Most of the time, though, the absence of seniors in the starting lineup is cause for concern. Usually, it's the result of terrible recruiting from four or five years prior, or a high attrition rate in the program, or both.
Third-year North Carolina coach John Bunting understands. Unlike predecessor Carl Torbush, who was responsible for a so-so UNC recruiting class in 1999 and a horrendous one in 2000, Bunting rarely seems confused by the on-field challenges he faces or the results (good or bad) he leaves behind. He anticipates problems well, although he can't always fix them. After games, he usually knows exactly why his team won or why it lost. Also unlike Torbush, Bunting doesn't often voice a falsely optimistic view of his own team, or even a particular position on his team.
Asked at the end of spring practice about the Tar Heels' defensive front, a disaster area during last year's 3-9 season and a still-shaky key to any progress for the team this fall, Bunting said: I've seen improvement, but I'm still concerned. I'm very concerned with the front seven. They've got to continue to get better. We're not good enough yet.
During offseason speaking engagements, in front of crowds desperate for reasons to hoot and holler, Bunting has sounded similarly conservative themes. He knows how to deliver a punch line, and he always leaves fans smiling, but he very rarely goes overboard when discussing his team.
At every stop, Bunting lists a bowl game as a realistic goal for Carolina this fall, but he speaks of ACC titles only in the longer term. (We won't be satisfied with anything less, he says, in one of his regular jabs at rival N.C. State. We're not going to have any parades for finishing fourth.) He shares his excitement about freshman runner Ronnie McGill, but he reminds everyone that the Heels must block better up front for the identity of the tailback to really matter. He speaks with glee about the incoming recruiting class and the immediate impact the rookies might provide, but he cautions about the uncertain nature of a prospect's jump from high school to college.
Undoubtedly, one reason for the coach's even-keeled approach to discussions of the 2003 season is that he knows he will not enjoy the benefit of a senior-laden team this fall. Virginia was the surprise of 2002, with only a few (linebacker Angelo Crowell, receiver Billy McMullen) senior stars, but the Cavaliers were the exception to the rule.
N.C. State had a bunch of experienced, productive, consistent, reliable seniors last season: linebacker Dantonio Burnette, tight end Sean Berton, safety Terrence Holt, tackle Scott Kooistra, tackle Terrance Martin, receiver Bryan Peterson, end Shawn Price and guard Shane Riggs. Maryland had superstar linebacker E.J. Henderson, plus punter Brooks Barnard, tackle Matt Crawford, end Durrand Roundtree and center Todd Wike. Even Florida State, in another down year by FSU standards, had receiver Talman Gardner, end Alonzo Jackson and four senior offensive linemen. Wake Forest had 10 senior starters.
On the 2003 Tar Heels, only four seniors are locks for the starting lineup: guard Jeb Terry, tight end Bobby Blizzard, safety Dexter Reid and cornerback Michael Waddell. Blizzard, a transfer from Kentucky whose UNC debut came last fall, is the only Bunting signee in the group. Of the four, only Reid is a returning All-ACC player.
So where's everyone else?
From the 23-man Class of 1999, which included Reid, Terry and Waddell, only six others remain on the roster. (Wideout Sam Aiken, cornerback Kevin Knight and linebacker Malcolm Stewart never redshirted and thus exhausted their eligibility in 2002, and several others gave up football but have since graduated.) Fifth-year senior Derrick Johnson is a second-team cornerback and special teams player. Defensive tackle Donti Coats, defensive end Isaac Mooring, tailback Willie Parker, linebacker Clay Roberson and guard Jupiter Wilson have started games in the past, but most have been disappointing to this point.
The 18-man Class of 2000, whose remaining members will be either true seniors or redshirt juniors this fall, has been a disaster. Quarterback Darian Durant has been great at times and error-prone at times, and he's one of the only success stories of the bunch. Skip Seagraves is a solid returning starter at right tackle. Linebacker Clarence Gaddy, defensive end Madison Hedgecock and defensive tackle Jonas Seawright have a chance to start in 2003. All five players are redshirt juniors.
We still have some holes, Bunting said. Guys like Jeb Terry and Dexter Reid are going to have to be leaders for us, because we don't have many seniors around here. These kids are working hard, and we're looking forward to seeing the freshmen, and this team can be a bowl team, but we still have some holes. There's no doubt about it.
Loyalty Angle Hurt Ford Again
Phil Ford, one of the most loyal and beloved players in the history of a Carolina basketball program that counts loyalty among its most sacred principles, can't seem to avoid getting burned by the concept. In fact, it's the one thing that kept him off the UNC bench for the last three years, and it's the one thing that will prevent him from taking a seat next to Roy Williams next season.
When Matt Doherty brought his entire Notre Dame staff to Chapel Hill in 2000, casting aside fellow UNC alums Ford, Dave Hanners and Pat Sullivan in the process, Doherty mentioned loyalty when he announced the decision. In his eyes, the loyalty his assistants showed by joining him for one season with the Fighting Irish out-weighed whatever loyalty he may have felt for Bill Guthridge's aides. At the press conference introducing Doherty, Dean Smith Mr. Loyalty himself compared the setting to a funeral, because Ford and the others were left without jobs.
Ford, always the dutiful soldier, took a position as a fund-raiser for the Rams Club. By all accounts, he's done extremely well. A hesitant public figure who had a cold relationship with the media early in his coaching career, he has become a popular part of UNC radio broadcasts and a knock-'em-dead speaker at booster-club meetings. Meanwhile, he quietly assisted the Heels in recruiting (Raymond Felton, Sean May, etc.) and player relations, even to the point that his own loyalty to Doherty (the man who essentially fired him) kept him from sharing a boatload of damaging information with university administrators for a very long time.
Fast forward to 2003. If the UNC job had gone to Larry Brown, Ford would have been his lead assistant. If a non-family candidate was hired, he would have been insane not to consider Ford for a staff position. When Williams took the job, in large part because of his loyalty to Smith, many assumed Ford would be part of the deal. Not so fast.
The loyalty factor led Williams to invite staff members Steve Robinson, Joe Holladay, Ben Miller, Jerod Haase and C.B. McGrath to join him in Chapel Hill, leaving no room for anyone else (Ford) if everyone came. Robinson and Holladay will be Williams' top assistants, and Williams followed through on a previous promise to Haase by making him the third full-time aide. That left just two administrative positions, one for McGrath and one for either Miller or Ford. An announcement is expected soon.
Ford desperately wants to get back into coaching, and he has standing offers from Louisville and South Carolina. An administrative post wouldn't be ideal for his career, financially or otherwise, but sources said his no kidding loyalty to UNC will keep him in Chapel Hill if Miller stays at Kansas (as expected) and Williams makes an offer. Nobody is aware of any issues, loyalty or otherwise, that might prevent that from happening.