October 28, 2002
CHAPEL HILL There are five second- or third-year head coaches in the ACC this season. Chuck Amato (NCSU), Ralph Friedgen (Maryland), Jim Grobe (Wake Forest) and Al Groh (Virginia) all are having solid or excellent seasons. John Bunting is not. Entering November, the most likely scenarios had North Carolina finishing Bunting's second campaign at 3-9 or 2-10, eighth or (with a loss at Duke) even ninth in the ACC. Either mark would represent the Tar Heels' worst record since Mack Brown's back-to-back 1-10 seasons in 1988-89. Even at the low point of the profoundly bad Carl Torbush era, the Heels managed a 3-8 effort in 1999. UNC has a chance to finish the season with both the ACC's worst overall and conference records for only the second time (1989) in the 50-year history of the league.
As usual, the problems begin with the players. UNC's biggest concern remains its defensive front, which is giving up more than 200 yards per game on the ground and ranks near the bottom of the Division I-A statistics in that category. Poor coaching hasn't helped the defensive staff, finally giving in to obviously confused players, dramatically simplified the game plan against Wake Forest but nobody in the ACC has less talent and experience in the front seven than the Tar Heels. It's not even close.
After serious injuries to veteran starters Will Chapman (wrist; will miss last five games), Eric Davis (knee; missed almost entire season) and Issac Mooring (hand; missed four games), the starting front consisted of an inexperienced junior (linebacker Clay Roberson), two sophomores (end Jocques Dumas and tackle Chase Page, a converted offensive lineman), three redshirt freshmen (end Tommy Davis, linebacker Doug Justice and linebacker Jeff Longhany) and one true freshman (undersized tackle Kendall High).
While some of the youngsters show long-term promise, Amato, Friedgen, Grobe and Groh couldn't win with that group right now. It's probably delusional to think otherwise. Amato has had an extra recruiting year and also benefits from an admissions department more receptive to the juco products who fill out the Pack's defensive line. Friedgen inherited a very sturdy foundation from Ron Vanderlinden, including star linebackers E.J. Henderson and Leon Joe. Grobe starts three seniors on the defensive line. Groh has senior linebackers Angelo Crowell and Merrill Robertson on hand.
There's no shortage of talent voids elsewhere on the UNC depth chart, either. In the aftermath of Darian Durant's season-ending thumb injury, suffered against Virginia, Florida transfer C.J. Stephens went through the growing pains expected of someone getting his first starts at the college level. At tailback, undersized sophomore Jacque Lewis got banged up, junior Andre Williams remained sidelined with career-threatening back problems, junior Willie Parker proved ineffective and true freshman Mahlon Carey came out of a redshirt year to start learning the ropes.
Along with the defensive front, quarterback and tailback may be the two worst places in college football to have major problems. UNC is a perfect three-for-three this season, and there are no simple solutions in sight.
Disgusted About Torbush Culture?
Nevertheless, there have been some serious warning signs not attributable to poor personnel. Fans are extremely frustrated and increasingly disinterested. The coaching staff made serious preseason miscalculations about the mental and physical capabilities of their players. There have been a ridiculous number of missed assignments, on the offensive line and especially at linebacker. Several aspects of the defense and special teams appear poorly coached. A general lack of mental and physical toughness pervades the roster. Finally, many players appeared to quit any parallel to the Torbush era, especially that one, is a very bad sign in the latter parts of recent losses to N.C. State, Virginia and Wake Forest.
When asked if he thought the Heels battled in an embarrassing 31-0 loss to the Demon Deacons, Bunting said: I thought our guys played extremely hard ... in the first half. Asked about a growing number of personal foul penalties, often at the worst times, the coach said: I think it is very undisciplined and selfish.
He can't say so publicly, but nobody would be surprised if Bunting silently harbors a genuine dislike for the makeup of this UNC team. He sometimes burns when reminded of the recruiting mistakes of the Torbush era, which was long on bad attitudes and short on players who share Bunting's passions for toughness, work ethic, school pride and football. He even privately wonders whether the state-of-the-art facilities erected during the Brown era inadvertently attracted the wrong kinds of recruits.
In many ways, (Bunting) thinks it's too nice around here, a UNC source said. He feels like he walked into a country-club atmosphere, with too many kids who wanted to chase girls and decorate their lockers and not enough who really love football, who really want to work hard. He was absolutely appalled at the (poor) work ethic and lack of toughness around here (when he arrived).
Bunting long ago removed many of Torbush's locker-room cancers, discipline problems and questionable workers: wideout Bosley Allen, offensive lineman Riko Feemster, punter Blake Ferguson, quarterback Luke Huard, wideout Jamal Jones, linebacker Kitwana Jones, offensive lineman Chris Kocaj, quarterback Aaron Leak, defensive back JoVon Lewis, offensive lineman Bryant Malloy, defensive tackle Isaac Montgomery, offensive lineman David Stevenson, etc. Allen, Jones (both), Montgomery and Stevenson, in particular, had more than enough talent to help this year's team.
Recently asked to name the Tar Heels' leaders during this difficult time, Bunting pondered the question for an extended period. He eventually coughed up senior receiver Sam Aiken, a hard-working good citizen who has blossomed in his two years under the new staff, but someone who leads mainly by example. He mentioned Chapman, a former walk-on who fits the Bunting mold perfectly but now can lead only from the sidelines. It probably was too early in his mind to mention any of his youthful and inexperienced 2001 and 2002 signees, many of whom he holds in very high regard. In the end, the coach seemed to have a hard time uttering the names of any of the other Torbush holdovers.
Were he still in the NFL, Bunting might consider sending even more of Torbush's malcontents to the collegiate equivalent of the waiver wire. He can't, of course. Pro coaches don't have to worry about graduation rates. Bunting does. Pro coaches always have an endless supply of willing learners from the unemployment line, people who will do whatever it takes to work their way into the lineup. Bunting doesn't have that luxury, either.
Instead, he has little choice but to attempt to survive with the players on hand, even if many of those players are terrible fits for what he's trying to establish in Chapel Hill. It won't be easy. This year, nothing is for the Tar Heels.
Saturday Sports Injury Clinic