November 3, 2003
CHAPEL HILL In the aftermath of North Carolina's ugly 59-21 loss at Maryland, which dropped the Tar Heels to 1-8, there was a surge in national and local speculation about the immediate future of third-year coach John Bunting. Here's the one very important factor those reports all missed, ignored or failed to understand: As long as the athletic director's chair at Carolina is inhabited by Dick Baddour, who hired Bunting in December 2000, the coach has a zero percent chance of being fired at the end of this season. Zero. Even if he finishes 1-11 on the heels of last year's 3-9. Even if he loses to, gasp, Duke. There is growing unrest among some powerful Rams Club members about Bunting and especially Baddour, but it would take an extraordinary power play for heads to roll any time soon. Baddour clearly has the full support of UNC chancellor James Moeser, who grew closer to his AD during the tumultuous days of Matt Doherty and ACC expansion, and Bunting clearly has the full backing of Baddour. The coach also retains very strong support from a large network of former UNC players, many influential boosters and a surprisingly large percentage of the football program's fan base. Interestingly, UNC's Board of Trustees has passed up several opportunities to extend Baddour's contract beyond its current expiration date in June 2004, even though such an extension has been talked about in the most important Carolina circles for months. Nevertheless, Baddour will remain in charge until at least next summer, and coaching decisions usually are made in December or January, and almost always before spring practice in March. Undoubtedly, despite his many important pockets of support, Bunting's honeymoon period in Chapel Hill is over. Prominent columnist Caulton Tudor of the Raleigh (N.C.) News & Observer recently wrote that the coach should be fired if the Tar Heels don't win a few more games and show significant improvement during the remainder of the 2003 season. Many message-board posters and sports-talk callers, even those on some passionately pro-UNC shows, also have called for a change at the top. Bunting himself has been a rock of stability through UNC's struggles. Several veteran players said the coach hurts more than anyone else when the team loses, but that he hasn't wavered in his positive, forget-yesterday, keep-fighting attitude through the defeats. When given opportunities to deflect blame onto his assistants or players, Bunting a man whose bold (especially player-related) comments have gotten him into trouble at times generally has redirected the focus back onto himself. Always well-liked by the media, he's also continued to be accessible, cooperative, humorous and upbeat, and he's even wisely developed a thicker skin when it comes to outside criticism. It will be an absolute shock, then, if Bunting isn't back at UNC in 2004. Baddour purposely has given the impression that the coach has plenty of time to get the Tar Heels turned around Bunting's contract was extended through January 2008 soon after his 8-5 debut in 2001 but the embattled AD may not be able to guarantee anything beyond next season. Up Next: The Huxtable Decision Atop the Everest-sized mountain of horrendous decisions made by former UNC coach Carl Torbush during the three years he spent running a top-10 program into the ground was his mind-numbingly inappropriate selection of Steve Marshall as offensive coordinator. That single hire choosing a Texas A&M-style, pound-the-ball, we're-bigger-than-you philosophy for a team completely devoid of NFL-style, top-notch blockers up front virtually guaranteed a disastrous end to an already ill-fated era whose after-effects continue to plague the Heels. Similarly, after three years of Bunting, anyone giving the coach an unemotional, fair-minded critique would have to place his hiring of Dave Huxtable as defensive coordinator in an undesirable category unto itself. In his two seasons after being elevated from linebackers coach, Huxtable has overseen two of the worst defenses in the history of UNC football. Through the Maryland game, the Heels were giving up almost 40 points per game this fall, which ranks as one of the worst performances in ACC history. Everyone agrees that Torbush thanks to a low-talent, high-attrition recruiting class in 2000, plus a mediocre Torbush-Bunting transition class in 2001 left UNC with many holes to fill, but there is absolutely no way the Tar Heels' utter and complete collapse on defense can be attributed entirely, or even primarily, to a lack of talent. Carolina fans need look only to the other side of the ball on their own team to see that some tasty dishes often can be created out of less-than-perfect ingredients. Nobody will be nominating 63-year-old offensive coordinator Gary Tranquill for any awards any time soon, but for his three seasons at UNC the Heels have looked organized, embraced a system, displayed individual player improvement, moved the ball and put up enough points to win most games. Tranquill has produced those results without a dominating offensive line, without an NFL-caliber tailback and (until this fall) without a quarterback who had the benefit of several years under his tutelage. Defensively, UNC is simply a poorly coached football team. Lack of talent is a factor, certainly, but there's just no way around the fact that plenty of other teams in major college football are far more competitive with similarly mediocre raw material. The Tar Heels' game plans don't confuse anyone, except perhaps themselves at times. In too many cases, their strength and/or foot speed don't match the positions the coaches have told them to play. Very few players tackle well. The defensive backs have the worst technique in the league. Nobody has played with confidence, even before things turned ugly. Maryland, a team that scored 13 points against Northern Illinois and just three against Georgia Tech (just nine days before the UNC game) earlier this season, scored 39 in the second quarter against UNC. And keep this in mind: In the Florida State (37-0), N.C. State (47-34), Virginia (38-13) and Maryland (59-21) games, the opponents switched their top priority from scoring points to eating up clock long before the final whistle. In other words, the defensive numbers could have been worse, much worse in some cases. If Bunting is underestimating the importance of having big-time coordinators at his side, that fact will prove to be the No. 1 reason for his downfall in Chapel Hill. Absolutely nothing in Huxtable's background suggested he would be a great choice to take over UNC's defense, yet Bunting called him clearly the best option after interviewing four candidates for the coordinator's job two years ago. When Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen needed coordinators upon taking over the Terps three years ago, he hired genius-like former Division I-A head coaches Charlie Taaffe and Gary Blackney. N.C. State coach Chuck Amato once lured former BYU guru Norm Chow, now in the top 10 with Southern Cal, to Raleigh. Tommy Bowden had Rich Rodriguez by his side for his initial, successful splash at Clemson, and Rodriguez now is running his own program at West Virginia while the Tigers struggle in his absence. If assistant coaches were eligible for the ACC coach of the year award, Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta (formerly of UNC) would win the honor in a runaway this fall. Bunting replaced Tenuta with Huxtable, whose resume is so overloaded with mediocrity that it makes one wonder who the other candidates were in 2002. In Huxtable's six seasons (1992-97) at Georgia Tech, the Yellow Jackets made only one bowl appearance. He was a part of Bill Lewis' horrendous three-year reign in Atlanta, including a 1-10 campaign in 1994, but was the only Lewis holdover retained by new Tech coach George O'Leary. Huxtable became the Yellow Jackets' defensive coordinator in 1996 and 1997, when the team ranked 98th (out of 112) in the nation in total defense. Immediately after O'Leary replaced Huxtable with Randy Edsall, an NFL assistant who is now the head coach at Connecticut, the Jackets tied for an ACC title (1998) and made four straight bowl trips. Huxtable spent 1998 (linebackers) and 1999 (defensive line) at East Carolina, a school with an overwhelming presence at UNC under Bunting, then worked for one unsuccessful (3-8) year as the linebackers and special teams coach at Oklahoma State before the entire OSU staff was terminated. The idea that O'Leary, an outstanding defensive mind who is now a very successful coordinator for the NFL's Minnesota Vikings, felt the need to replace Huxtable still looms large in Chapel Hill six years later. So should O'Leary's words in 1998, when he described Edsall's impact on the Yellow Jackets. Randy has them playing fast, and they're making plays against our own offense, which I'm using as a barometer, O'Leary said in 1998. Where Randy has made a big difference is the confidence level and the technique of some of the players that we needed to work with. He's created an air of confidence for a defense that played on the back of their heels (under Huxtable) last season. Bunting's decision may be easy logically but extremely painful emotionally. He demands hard work, loyalty to UNC and a passion for football, and Huxtable has delivered on those three counts with flying colors. Bunting has developed a family atmosphere at Carolina, and his obvious goal is to hire and retain quality coaches who (unlike Tenuta) really enjoy Chapel Hill, believe in UNC football and don't always have one eye on their next jobs. Again, Huxtable meets the description. Nevertheless, it's clear to almost everyone that Huxtable is not the right guy to lead UNC's defense in 2004. Whether or not Bunting agrees with that statement, and what he decides to do about it, likely will go a long way toward determining his long-term future at his alma mater, including whether or not he has one.