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Shocking Miami Win Saved Season, Coach

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

  November 1, 2004

CHAPEL HILL — In the history of North Carolina football, which dates to 1888, the Tar Heels had played 32 games against teams ranked in the top four nationally prior to facing No. 4 Miami on Oct. 30. Their record in those games was an ugly 0-31-1. Among the Carolina coaches on the losing end of those contests were program icons Carl Snavely, Jim Tatum, Bill Dooley, Dick Crum and Mack Brown.

North Carolina 31, Miami 28.

A 1-31-1 all-time record against such high-profile opponents certainly is nothing special. But embattled fourth-year Carolina coach John Bunting finally added a second positive contribution (along with the Tar Heels' shocking 41-9 demolition of No. 6 Florida State during the coach's 8-5 debut in 2001) to the program's "never been done before" category. Previously, that had been reserved for most points allowed, most yards allowed, largest margins of defeat and other undesirables.

"This is absolutely a big win," Bunting said. "I've been around a bunch of them. I'm just so happy for the kids and for this staff. I've had a lot of big wins. This one was nice, but I am really happy for these kids. … I'm also really happy for our fans and these people who have been supporting us these last couple of weeks."

Prior to UNC's stunning victory over the Hurricanes, which began with an outstanding homecoming audience and ended with a crowded post-game celebration on the Kenan Stadium turf, Bunting was planted firmly on the hot seat. Many of the coach's previously optimistic supporters had begun to express doubts about his ability to build a successful program. Meanwhile, a North Carolina newspaper had reported that oft-criticized athletic director Dick Baddour — whose future, by all accounts, is tied to Bunting — was in the process of being re-assigned to another position at the university.

Led by UNC chancellor James Moeser, a former Nebraska administrator who gradually has been forced into a hands-on approach to athletics in Chapel Hill because of the craziness that has surrounded Baddour, Bunting and former basketball coach Matt Doherty, university officials deemed "significant improvement" the measuring stick for Bunting in 2004. This after performances of 3-9 in 2002 and 2-10 in 2003, with the latter campaign further disgraced by the worst defense (505.2 yards, 38.8 points per game) in school history.

The "significant improvement" tag, uttered repeatedly by Moeser, Baddour and even Bunting this year, was a purposely murky phrase created to pacify the anti-Bunting activists while leaving plenty of wiggle room for the decision-makers. In various interviews, though, the parties involved sometimes ventured into more specifics. Baddour listed an improved defense, more competitive scores and more consistent effort, while consistently declining to mention a "magic number" of required victories in 2004. Bunting himself strongly hinted a few times that anything less than a 5-6 record would fall short of "significant improvement" in his eyes, regardless of any surrounding circumstances.

Through seven games, prior to Miami's visit to Chapel Hill, "significant improvement" proved hard to find. The Tar Heels were 3-4, but they needed a second-half comeback to beat Division I-AA William & Mary (49-38), and they required the benefit of a close, last-minute call (probably correct, as it turned out) to edge rival N.C. State (30-24). The convincing 34-13 victory over Georgia Tech was a highlight, but the Yellow Jackets — like the Wolfpack — weren't even assured of bowl eligibility entering November. Meanwhile, the
defensive disgraces and non-competitive final scores in the loss column continued: Virginia
(56-24), Louisville (34-0), Florida State (38-16), Utah (46-16).

"I understand we've set a new team record (by allowing 669 yards of total offense)," Bunting said after the Utah game, "and that's very embarrassing."

Just two weeks later, the feelings surrounding the UNC football program were dramatically different. During an open week, the Carolina coaching staff had created an outstanding game plan for Miami. After some time to heal, a team still missing numerous key contributors — injured tailback Ronnie McGill, injured tailback Jacque Lewis, injured tackle Skip Seagraves, suspended receiver Adarius Bowman, suspended linebacker Fred Sparkman, suspended defensive tackle Isaiah Thomas, etc. — executed that plan perfectly.

"Everybody in our program is 100 percent behind John Bunting," senior center Jason Brown said. "That is our coach, and we love him to death. sWe're going to win out our season. And our coaching staff is going to be around here a very long time."

Bunting Positive Amidst Craziness

Prior to the Miami game, behind the scenes, Bunting's support base had continued to crumble, and his friends said he understood that fact very well. Nevertheless, he maintained a mostly positive rapport with the media, always smiling and frequently joking, even after the Utah game. He looked like a man who still enjoyed his job, and working at his beloved alma mater, despite the massive criticism and speculation about his future.

"This is where I want to be, and this is where I plan to be," Bunting said before the Miami game. "I'm in this job because I love working with kids and I love working at this great university. I could still be in the NFL right now, in a very good job, but I came here because it's a special place — to me and to a lot of other people. I can't say I love everything about being a college coach, but I love being the head coach here. There's not another job (in major college football) that I've ever wanted or will ever want."

Meanwhile, Bunting continued to say extremely positive things about his players, especially his seniors, and he continued to recruit as if he will be Carolina's head coach for a very long time. Numerous UNC targets have said Bunting himself places most of the staff's phone calls to them, a task assigned at most schools to assistants. That's consistent with reports from some of the coach's friends, who often have marveled at his willingness to interrupt his vacations and social events with various recruiting-related tasks.

By most estimates, a majority of Carolina fans were ready to cut Bunting loose after the Virginia debacle early this season, if not last fall. One Board of Trustees member began counting votes against the coach in mid-October. Two others, previously staunch supporters of Bunting, said they were beginning to wonder about him for the first time. Numerous high-profile boosters voted with their wallets, cutting off their financial contributions months ago, although many in that group still save their most passionate criticism for Baddour and would love Bunting to do well.

Even on UNC's radio broadcasts, normally a safe zone for the home team, the pre-Miami malaise surrounding the Tar Heels had blossomed. On an almost weekly basis, frustration and doubt became more and more obvious in the voices of veteran play-by-play man Woody Durham and color commentator Mick Mixon. As Carolina employees, they almost always stopped short of direct criticism toward UNC coaches and players, but the unmistakable wonder in their words — usually surrounding the Heels' woeful defense — represented the negative feelings that surrounded the program. Privately, even athletic department officials spoke of their concern for Bunting's future in Chapel Hill.

The Miami victory, of course, pleased all but the most resolute Bunting bashers. At the very least, most were willing to take a wait-and-see approach heading into the Tar Heels' last three regular-season games, against Virginia Tech (home), Wake Forest and Duke. With two victories in those three games, which were considered winnable even before the Miami upset, the Heels would be bowl-bound. That certainly would cement the coach's job status.

As for the newspaper report on Baddour's immediate future, either the Jamestown (N.C.) News has better sources than the dozens of media outlets (including this one) that have a far better track record of covering important UNC athletics issues, or the small, little-known newspaper fell victim to a coordinated media blitz initiated by some financially powerful and passionately anti-Baddour boosters. Several other reporters had been contacted by individuals (presumably the same) claiming knowledge of similar information, but those writers didn't move forward with articles because multiple high-ranking UNC sources (beyond the usual spin doctors) flatly denied any pending change in Baddour's status.

While it's absolutely true that significant Baddour-must-go sentiment exists among UNC fans, boosters and employees, and even with some high-ranking decision-makers, neither Moeser nor a majority of the Board of Trustees (the two entities that have such power) has indicated a willingness to overturn the three-year contract extension (through June 2007) they approved for the AD just eight months ago.