by Lee Pace
Average is awful. It's pedestrian, middle-of-the-road, same-old, same-old. Exhibit A since the ACC split its football competition into the Atlantic and Coastal Divisions in 2005 has been the University of North Carolina. Despite immense resources, tradition, facilities and academic and social appeal, the Tar Heels' pulse has flat-lined in league play: four wins in eight games in 2005, followed by two, three, four, four, four and three.
Though trying hard under former coaches John Bunting and Butch Davis before being derailed by off-the-field calamity in the Davis regime, the Tar Heels never quite took to the words of noted pastor and author A.W. Tozer: "Refuse to be average. Let your heart soar as high as it will."
The first season under new head coach Larry Fedora ended on a bitingly cold Saturday evening in Kenan Stadium with a 45-38 win over Maryland. The victory gave the Tar Heels a 5-3 record in ACC play and an 8-4 mark overall--each certainly a notch above average. If not for a one-year probationary sentence handed down last March by the NCAA, the Tar Heels would be preparing at this moment to play Florida State in Charlotte on Saturday in the ACC Championship Game.
Maybe now we're getting somewhere.
"To be Coastal Division champs, and that's the way we'll look at it, I'm very proud of this football team," Fedora said Saturday evening.
"To be able to complete that task, it means the world to us," said offensive guard Jonathan Cooper.
"We may not get a ring or be recognized as champions because of what happened off the field," added QB Bryn Renner. "But we know we earned it on the field."
First place. Has a nice ring to it, no? In honor of that designation, following are some things I saw in and around Tar Heel football this season for the first time in nearly four decades of following the program. Individually, they are merely interesting. Collectively, they portend that perhaps average is no longer the status quo.
* I've never seen a head coach doing push-ups on the practice field. But there was Fedora one September afternoon knocking out 10 quick ones in front of the Tar Heel kick-off return specialists. Fedora has a rule of "no walking on the practice field." He supervises Romar Morris, Sean Tapley, T.J. Thorpe and others in their jobs of returning kick-offs, and on this day when the team moved from one drill period to the next, Fedora was the last one to arrive at their gathering point near the goal line.
"That's 10, Coach," Tapley said.
Fedora didn't blink. He quickly assumed the position and knocked out 10 quick ones.
* I've traveled on team flights under every head coach since Bill Dooley in the late 1970s and have never seen players riding in first class. It's always the coaches, the athletic director and the occasional VIP guests invited on the trip who get the wide seats, the leg room and the attentive service in the front of the plane. Fedora puts the seniors up front and the adults sit in the middle of the plane.
* The Tar Heels have never had a team chaplain like they have today in the person of Mitch Mason, a 37-year-old former defensive coach in arena and indoor leagues and a two-time All-American cornerback at Missouri Western State. Team chaplains are more the domain of the Southeastern Conference, and Fedora had one at Southern Mississippi and valued having a chaplain available for his players and assistant coaches who wanted to take advantage of the resource. When he arrived at Chapel Hill, Fedora sought out Johnny Evans, the former N.C. State quarterback and Eastern North Carolina director of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and together they were able to raise funds through FCA to hire Mason and bring him to Chapel Hill from Clemson.
"Never be so anxious about where you're going that you forget to say 'Thank you' for where you've been," PastorMitch7 recently dispatched via Twitter.
* I've certainly never seen as much fuss over uniforms as I have this year. In 12 games, the Tar Heels wore nine different combinations of helmets, jerseys and pants--from all-white for the Virginia Tech and Miami games to chrome helmets and all-navy for the N.C. State game. Traditionalists among us who sniff at Oregon's daffy outfits and salute the longevity and simplicity of the horns on the Texas helmets and the numerals adorning Alabama's headgear have to wave the white flag. We've lost.
Today, it's about the kids. Witness the reaction one Tar Heel assistant coach received recruiting in the Washington, D.C., area last weekend to the chrome helmets the Tar Heels wore the night before in beating Virginia on ESPN: "Coach, we loved those lids!" he heard more than once. Many fans are embracing the changes as well; the team's purchase of the chrome helmets with the heel print emblem was underwritten by Learfield Sports, the university's media rights holder, and then sold off to the public to cover their cost. Demand was swift. I just pray that it doesn't get to the extreme of the goofy shoes Maryland wore on Saturday: white and black on the left side, yellow and black on the right side.
* Certainly no one around Tar Heel football has seen an offense move as quickly and in as many different directions as this unit did. Carolina ran 898 offensive plays, the most since the 1982 offense ran 901. But that 1982 unit with Kelvin Bryant, Tyrone Anthony and Ethan Horton at tailback ran the ball 635 times and passed only 266 times. That's in marked contrast to this team, which ran the ball 457 times and threw it 441 times-nearly perfect balance.
This team's 5,827 total yards was easily a school record, eclipsing the 5,256 mark of 1993 and the 5,112 yards from last year. Eleven players scored offensive touchdowns. The Tar Heels averaged nearly 50 points a game in seven home games. Bryn Renner is the first Carolina quarterback in history to have back-to-back 3,000-yard passing seasons, meaning you can pick your poison in football today with the NFL drop-back style of coordinator John Shoop in 2011 or the spread of Fedora and coordinator Blake Anderson in 2012.
* I've never seen a stiff-arm as lethal as Giovani Bernard's, unbridled athleticism in such an imposing physical package as Eric Ebron, as much passion and will to win as A.J. Blue, as much speed in a 300-pound lineman as Jonathan Cooper, as much of a caterpillar-to-butterfly evolution over two months as that of freshman receiver Quinshad Davis, and as broad a smile as Devon Ramsay had hugging his mother during Senior Day ceremonies Saturday.
Ramsay played for the first time Saturday since injuring his knee in the season opener against James Madison in 2011, this after missing nearly all of 2010 after a bogus NCAA suspension. Despite all his problems, he never whined or complained, his attitude imprinted as an eight-year-old by watching his mother resolute in her fight against a golf-ball size tumor in her brain.
"The strength and the courage she showed has always stuck with me," said Ramsay, who will turn 24 in December and was once chided by a teammate on Facebook as having played with Charlie "Choo Choo" Justice back in the day.
* I've never seen as many key contributions on one side of the ball from walk-ons as I did this year with linebackers Tommy Heffernan and Jeff Schoettmer and safety Pete Mangum. Kudos for their spirit, energy, heart and hard work. There's always room for a quality walk-on, witness the contributions of Anthony Perkins in the late 1990s and David Thornton in the early 2000s. Of course, having to play so many who flew under the recruiters' watchful eyes speaks to a whole different set of issues.
* I've never seen so many different celebratory gestures and hand signals as I did this year. Often you'd see the Tar Heels loosening up before practice giving the "shaka sign," which in the Hawaiian surfer world means "hang loose" and is made by extending the thumb and pinky finger and curling the middle three fingers into the palm. Renner threw a touchdown pass to Bernard at Virginia and launched into a masquerade of pulling a lawn mower cord and cutting grass. Center Russell Bodine took that a step further against Maryland, celebrating Ebron's touchdown reception in the first minute of the game by rushing to the hedgerow behind the Carolina bench and mimicking a quick trimming job. Mangum pummeled Stefon Diggs on a third-quarter kick-off return and bounced off the ground making a sweeping motion with his arms like he was pounding a sledge-hammer. None of the gestures were directed at their opponents and none executed in an unsportsmanlike manner.
They were, simply, signs of kids having fun. It would certainly be a first for many adults to remember that.
"We're football players," Renner said, dismissing the fact that the Tar Heels finished first in the Coastal but couldn't play for the championship. "We're here to play and go to school. I think that's our job. I think our administration does a great job. We just play the games. We have enjoyed the 12 games we were allowed to play."
Lee Pace (email@example.com) has written "Extra Points" since 1990 and has reported from the sidelines for the Tar Heel Sports Network since 2004.