The following story appeared originally in GoHeels Season Preview, a comprehensive glossy publication mailed to Rams Club members earlier this month.
By Lee Pace
Some of the biggest victories in Tar Heel football history have come, interestingly enough, in year number two of a head coach's tenure in Chapel Hill.
Jim Tatum was in his second year leading the football program at his alma mater in 1957 when Carolina upset No. 6 ranked Navy, 13-7, in Kenan Stadium in early October. The Tar Heels did not throw one pass, as quarterback David Reed elected to run the ball instead of throwing on eight called option plays. "This victory was worth a million dollars to our kids because it gives them the confidence they've lacked," Tatum said.
Jim Hickey replaced Tatum following Tatum's tragic death in the summer of 1959, and Hickey's second Carolina edition in 1960 featured the Tar Heels' first-ever win over national power Notre Dame. The Tar Heels prevailed 12-7 in Kenan Stadium over a team that included future NFL stars Nick Buoniconti and Daryle Lamonica. Some 40,000 jammed into Kenan Stadium (this was before the upper decks were added), and thousands stormed the field and ripped down the goalposts afterward.
Bill Dooley was in the depths of his rebuilding campaign in 1968, and though Carolina would win only three games in Dooley's second year at Carolina, one was a 22-7 stunner in Chapel Hill against seventh-ranked Florida. Hurricane Gladys dumped sheets of rain on the area and buffeted stretches of the coast near Wilmington with winds up to 100 mph. Don Hartig kicked three field goals, including one a school-record of 47 yards, and Florida fumbled a wet football eight times.
Dick Crum stumbled out of the gate in 1978 to a 5-6 record despite inheriting a talent-laden roster from Dooley, who had moved to Virginia Tech. By 1979, the briars of a difficult transition between contrasting styles of schemes, personalities and operations had been smoothed away and the Tar Heels were a well-oiled machine for the opening two games in Kenan Stadium. They pounded South Carolina 28-0 in the opener and then dominated Jackie Sherrill's Pitt Panthers 17-7 in week two; Pitt would not lose another game that year and the Tar Heels would finish 8-3-1 and beat Michigan in the Gator Bowl.
And Butch Davis bounced back from a 4-8 opening season in 2007 with an 8-5 ledger in 2008 that included the Tar Heels' first win out of the state of North Carolina in six years (that memorable 42-12 pounding of Rutgers on a Thursday-night ESPN game) and scintillating wins in Davis's old stomping grounds of Miami and at home against Notre Dame.
"In the second year of your program, you should start to see some things happen," Davis said after the Rutgers win. "We're not strangers any longer. The coaches know the players, the players know the coaches. There's a feeling-out period with any new coaching staff, an adjustment period. We're through that. Now we see how far we can go."
Today the Tar Heels are on the cusp of another head coach's second tour of the ACC under the interlocking NC banner. Larry Fedora's first Carolina squad posted an 8-4 mark in 2012 and tied for first atop the Coastal Division standings. The highlights included an offense that cranked out 41 points a game, memorable home victories over Virginia Tech and NC State and an aggressive swagger that permeated the special teams. The major liabilities were a roster with just over a dozen seniors and a square peg/round hole conundrum on defense; a new defensive scheme based around a third safety and a linebacker/DE hybrid found itself totally bereft of a suitable inventory of players at those very positions.
"Eight-and-four is not the bar," Fedora says. "As a staff, I promise you we were not satisfied. Going forward, winning eight games is not something we're going to be excited about. But under the circumstances, we were really proud of what those seniors and that team accomplished."
In year two, coaches don't need players' names taped to their helmets. Players know the playbook and are better able to sniff their way to the ball or their route assignment or blocking target than having to think through every step. It's now second nature for an O-lineman to race downfield chasing the ball and a potential defender if the play stays alive. Players have shed girth around their midsections on both sides of the ball, the better to stay fresh amid the frenetic pace of both practices and games.
"One year into this, guys understand what is expected of them," Fedora says. "Spring ball was much more effective than last year, we accomplished a lot more. The guys understand the system, they understand the demands these coaches are going to make of them. Last year, they heard us say we'd go hard, we'd go fast, we'd be physical, we'd play smart. But they didn't grasp exactly what all of that meant. Today they have a firm grasp on the culture we're trying to instill."
Carolina's prospects in 2013 will revolve around depth, particularly on defense. Do the Tar Heels have enough good players to withstand the grind of a 12-game regular season? NCAA mandated scholarship restrictions and attrition from the 2009 signing class continue to haunt the program. Carolina plans to sign 19 freshmen this year and after that will be allowed to have 85 players on scholarship for the 2014 season. Only seniors Bryn Renner, A.J. Blue, David Collins and Terry Shankle remain from the 2009 class as fifth-year seniors.
"We have a void on our team in terms of senior leadership," Fedora says. "A lot of kids who signed never showed up, and some who did come have been hurt. I have heard that (receiver) Reggie Wilkins is a good player; but he's not taken a snap since I've been here. I have heard that (linebacker) Darius Lipford is a good player; but he's not been on the field either.
"We've got to have a lot of young kids step up and we need help from walk-ons. We've got good depth at tailback and tight end. I like those positions. Everywhere else, we need help."
So what are the Tar Heels' chances of landing a haymaker upset in Fedora's second season a la Navy in 1957 or Florida in 1968?
Certainly the opener in Columbia in late August is a juicy target. No one save the Tar Heels themselves give them a whisker of a chance against the Gamecocks and their freakish defensive end, Jadeveon Clowney. The setup is tailor-made for Fedora's aggressive, feisty personality, one that his team will more surely absorb in year two of his program. And Carolina's Thursday night home tilt against Miami in mid-October will be played before a lathered and wired audience on national television. Victories in both would be perfect additions to that interesting list of second-year shockers.
Chapel Hill writer Lee Pace (firstname.lastname@example.org) is now in his 24th year writing "Extra Points" and 10th reporting from the sidelines for the Tar Heel Sports Network. His unique look at Tar Heel football will appear weekly throughout the fall.