Extra Points: Past, Present, Future
By Lee Pace
Five weeks of spring practice 2013 were wrapped into a neat little bow on Saturday as the ghosts of Tar Heel football past, the present of a team coming off an 8-4 season and the avant garde future as portrayed by three talented freshmen and a wardrobe of spiffy new uniforms collided on another of those idyllic April afternoons in Chapel Hill.
Carolina football: 652 wins over eternity, 503 losses and 54 ties, a 54 percent winning percentage punctuated by explosions into the elite in college football followed by regressions back into the rank-and-file. Larry Fedora is the latest coach assigned the task of building and sustaining some football competency and consistency, and every indication through 16 months is that the high-motor Texan has the goods in terms of vision, leadership, sales, teaching and discipline skills to do exactly that.
"There's going to come a time when you're going to be really proud of this football program," Fedora told a couple hundred former Tar Heel lettermen at a Friday evening banquet. "We're going to get it back to where it was and maybe where it's never been before."
Earlier in the day, Fedora was kibitzing with former Tar Heels before their annual spring golf outing. Often the old grads might introduce and identify themselves by their era, and one greeting from a player from the Jim Tatum days of the late-1950s prompted Fedora to tell of his first hours on the job in December 2011, when he was running the gauntlet of fans and well-wishers at his introductory press conference in the Blue Zone. Among "Welcome to Chapel Hill" and "Go Heels!" and "Go get 'em Coach!" adulations came one fellow who blurted out, "Don't let a tick bite you."
"I kind of did a double-take," Fedora said, scrunching his face to mimic his reaction at the time. "I thought, 'What was that all about?' Later I heard the story about Jim Tatum."
That, of course, was the sad tale of Tatum's tragic death to Rocky Mountain spotted fever in July of 1959 after being bitten by a tick in the wilds of Canada. Tatum had won one national championship at Maryland and had every intention of doing so again at his alma mater, leaving bereaved fans ever since to anoint any shoddy official's flag, fumbled snap or busted coverage to the "curse of the tick."
Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning looked amongst the assembled lettermen Friday night to see if All-ACC linebacker Buddy Curry might be in attendance. Koenning was a linebacker at Kansas State in 1978 when a new head coach arrived in Manhattan in the person of Jim Dickey, who in 1977 was defensive coordinator of a Tar Heel defense that yielded a miniscule 238 yards and 7.4 points a game as the Tar Heels were ACC champions with an 8-3-1 record.
"We watched cut-ups that Coach Dickey had brought from North Carolina," Koenning says. "I was a linebacker so I watched Buddy Curry for hours and hours. He was quite a player. He made an impression on me."
Ron West, one of two new assistant coaches on the defensive staff, knows of those juggernaut defenses of old because, as a Clemson offensive lineman in 1977 and '78, he smashed faces with the likes of Rod Broadway and Dee Hardison as Carolina and Clemson fought to a 13-13 tie in Kenan Stadium in 1977 and Clemson edged the Heels in Death Valley by four the next year.
"Those were some of the most physical games I can remember," says West, now the Tar Heels' linebackers coach. "Broadway and Hardison fired off the line like you wouldn't believe. They were a smart, physical, well-coached football team."
Scattered throughout Kenan Stadium Saturday afternoon amid the sunny skies and yellow haze of a nasty pollen infusion were two dozen members of the incoming Tar Heel freshmen classes of 1964, '65 and '66, players who bridged the regimes of coaches Jim Hickey and Bill Dooley and ruefully remembered spring scrimmages in 1967 that lasted from noon until late in the afternoon.
"Later, I went into the service and went to boot camp," says Gayle Bomar, a letterman from 1966-68. "It was a picnic compared to that first spring practice."
Two former stalwart centers were in attendance as well, Jeff Saturday being introduced in the second half of the game after his long career with the Indianapolis Colts, and Jason Brown, also retired after stellar work with Baltimore and St. Louis, was spied on the fourth floor of Kenan Football Center talking stance and hand-action with line coach Chris Kapilovic. Gio Bernard and Jonathan Cooper attended the Lettermen's Dinner Friday night, and Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham recognized Bernard and the highlight reel running on the televisions in the room of Bernard's epic punt return vs. NC State last fall.
"That clip is awesome," Cunningham said to raucous applause. "We can't play that enough."
And at the end of the day, newly minted "ex-Tar Heels" Quinton Coples (now with the New York Jets) and Kevin Reddick (soon to be drafted into the league) were chiding one another in a back hallway in Kenan Football Center.
"I never lost to Duke," said Coples, whose 2009-11 teams were 3-0 versus the Blue Devils.
"Yeah, and you never beat State," retorted Reddick, whose 2012 senior season included Carolina's first loss in a decade to Duke and first win in six years over N.C. State.
Also provoking interesting conservation was the introduction of five new uniform prototypes the Tar Heels will wear in 2013, various combinations of Carolina blue, white and black. The new numerals are displayed in a high-tech font that Fedora sought out in looking for something that "looked fast," and the blue and white helmet versions are colored with metallic paint chips that lend them a glittery look. The facemasks are black and the center helmet stripes are wider than the navy stripes in earlier designs.
The uniforms, designed and manufactured by Nike, might not appeal to the old school among us, but the intentions are, one, to outfit the participants in a violent game in a more menacing outfit and, two, appeal to the tastes of current and future Tar Heels who have been weaned on the frisky wardrobes of the Oregon Ducks. Recall that Dick Crum ordered navy blue jerseys as far back as the mid-1980s to give the Tar Heels a more foreboding aura but was overruled by higher-ups; the jerseys were used for practice only when Mack Brown arrived at Carolina. How times and tastes change.
"I can't wait to wear the black," says safety Tre Boston. "You should have seen the room explode when they first brought the new unis in. I love them."
"I was amped up when I first saw them," added defensive end Kareem Martin. "I'm looking forward to our first game in them."
The Tar Heels will don their white jerseys in August when they travel to Columbia to open the 2013 season against South Carolina, and many of the cast of characters who were instrumental in last year's tie atop the ACC Coastal Division standings are still around and even better than before-QB Bryn Renner, running backs A.J. Blue and Romar Morris, receiver Quinshad Davis among them on offense and Boston, Martin, Tim Jackson and cornerbacks Jabari Price and Tim Scott the leaders on defense. Offensive standouts James Hurst and Eric Ebron were limited because of injuries but will be primed come August to be key parts of the Carolina offense.
The most interesting element of Saturday's intra-squad outing was watching the second-team offense with freshmen Mitch Trubisky at quarterback, Khris Francis at running back and Jordan Fieulleteau at wideout. Each entered school in January and has proven better than expected-Trubisky with his savvy, Francis with his speed and Fieulleteau with his hands. That's not to ignore the presence of the fourth January enrollee, offensive tackle R.J. Prince, but it's far more difficult to make an early impact on the O-line than anywhere else.
Francis rushed for 101 yards and Fieulleteau caught eight passes against the first-team defense. Trubisky's numbers weren't remarkable-seven-of-14 passing for 88 yards-but he showed the arm, athleticism and sharp mental acuity that helped him bolt up the depth chart to second team over five weeks of spring practice. Trubisky made one first-quarter read, set and throw that prompted offensive coordinator Blake Anderson to chirp from the coaches' box, "Holy cow, did you see that?"
"We got the right guys, for sure," Anderson understated afterward with a smile. "Mitch and Khris will look even better if they've got the first team around them. They were thrown in with the twos and threes and still did a lot of good things."
Fedora was able to quote the precise number of days remaining until the season opener, 138, leaving plenty of time to wonder how Carolina will survive without nine years of Barths handling the kicking duties, how well a pair of freshman middle linebackers can evolve and can't the Heels find some obscure clause to get Jonathan Cooper back for a fifth season? Meantime, there are plenty of good vibes spread through all eras of Tar Heel football if you can just survive the hay fever.
Lee Pace (Carolina 1979), has written "Extra Points" since 1990 and is the sideline reporter for the Tar Heel Sports Network.