CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Larry Fedora was there. He saw the tears firsthand. He heard the sobs. He felt the despair.
The North Carolina football coach was in Houston this past Monday for the Tar Heels’ national championship basketball game against Villanova. So he leaped out of his seat when Marcus Paige jarred his acrobatic 3-point shot to tie the game with 4.6 seconds remaining. And he dropped his head in disbelief when Kris Jenkins swished his buzzer-beating, game-winner that lifted the Wildcats to victory moments later.
Any notion that there is some kind of disconnect between North Carolina’s powerhouse basketball program and its football outfit is quickly disproved by the close relationship between Fedora and legendary coach Roy Williams. They’re tight.
In fact, Fedora was on hand for pretty much every significant basketball game UNC played this season. So when the title game was over, the football coach followed the Tar Heels into their locker room, just as he had after all those monumental wins.
UGA opens up the 2016 football season against North Carolina on Sept. 3.
“There was nothing for me to say,” Fedora said when asked what was his message to the team. “That was a gut-wrechning end of a season. There’s really nothing you can say that’s going to make those kids feel better at that time. You know, I was just there because I wanted them to know that I support them. I wasn’t just coming there to be in that locker room when we won. So I wanted them to know I was there afterwards and to support Coach Williams.”
And it goes beyond the relationship of the two coaches.
North Carolina has a reputation for being a basketball school. In many ways, it is. That’s just natural when your trophy case includes five national title monuments.
But while the football has never won a national championship — or nary an ACC title since 1980 — there is no resentment between the two programs. In fact, the football team put together a wish-’em-luck, hype video on the eve of the title game. And many of Fedora’s players were among the 3,000 or so fans who greeted the basketball team when they returned to the Dean Smith Center earlier this week.
But, for now at least, they’re keeping their distance.
“I’ve seen a couple of them, but I haven’t reached out to any of them yet,” quarterback Mitch Trubisky said. “One of my good buddies who used to play football is on the team. I know they’re heartbroken, but they don’t have anything to feel bad about. We’re all proud of them. They definitely had a great tournament. That’s what happens sometimes. Winners lose sometimes in the big games.”
Nazair Jones, a 6-5, 295-pound junior defensive end, is still trying to get over the loss himself.
“Losing on a buzzer-beater like that is heartbreaking,” Jones said following the Tar Heels football practice Thursday night. “I wasn’t a great basketball player but I played and I know that feeling. I talked to Theo (Pinson) today in class and just told him they did a great job and had a great run and they don’t have anything to hang their heads about. They’re not satisfied, but everybody’s proud of them and how they got there.”
For now, North Carolina’s football team can only dream about having the type of success that the basketball program has had. The Tar Heels’ 11 wins last season tied the 1997 team for the most in school history. Despite a long and storied history, the program has never captured a national championship.
Like Georgia, North Carolina’s glory years in football came under a guy named Dooley. Bill Dooley, Vince’s younger brother, led them to back-to-back ACC titles in 1971 and ’72. The Tar Heels went 11-1 season in ’72, a run that included only an early-season loss on the road at Ohio State (29-14).
But even after beating Texas Tech in the Sun Bowl, North Carolina’s final AP ranking was No. 12.
The same sort of thing happened last year. Even though the Tar Heels won 11 in a row, critics point back to the season-opening 17-13 loss to South Carolina in the season opener in Charlotte and the back-to-back defeats to Clemson (45-37) and Baylor (49-38) to end the season.
It seems they’re the Rodney Dangerfields of ACC football. They can’t get any respect.
“People on the outside are going to say what they’re going to say,” Jones said. “We could be undefeated and somebody will say, ‘well, you’re still not relevant.’ We see that on Twitter all the time. But what other people say doesn’t matter because we’re the ones strapping it up every Saturday and playing the games.
“This school has a great basketball legacy and that’s never going to change,” Jones said. “But we’re not just a great basketball school. We’re a great school, period. We win national championships in field hockey and lacrosse and soccer and everything. We have a great athletic program all-around.”
And soon, they believe, football will be feeling the love.