North Carolina had a terrible 2017. The Heels went 3-9 after winning 19 games the two years before, falling swiftly even under the standards of an expected rebuilding year.
2018 was supposed to be better. S&P+ projected the Tar Heels to go 6-6 and get back to bowl eligibility. A bounce back looked like it was in the cards.
It hasn’t worked out that way. The Heels are almost certainly going to miss a bowl again, with S&P+ giving them an 89 percent chance of finishing between 2-9 and 4-7. In all likelihood, their record would be worse if their game against UCF hadn’t gotten canceled.
The Heels suspended a bunch of players for parts of the early season, including a few really key contributors. That hurt, for sure, and now they’re looking at another lost year.
All of this brings up a fair question: Should the school fire Larry Fedora at some point this year? His future might be among the hardest things any athletic director has to decide on this winter.
So let’s help out UNC’s administration.
Pros to firing Fedora in 2018
1. A brief look at UNC’s records suggests a downward spiral.
Whether that spiral will become a plummet into years of mediocrity is unknown. But the line graph of these records is not moving in a positive direction:
- 11-3 in 2015, after years of buildup
- 8-5 in 2016
- 3-9 in 2017
- Anything from 2-9 to 4-7 in 2018
2017 was the program’s worst season since 2006, its last year under the immortal John Bunting. Most Power 5 coaches who lead their programs to their worst record in 11 years and then just about repeat that distinction do not stay in their jobs for long.
2. The Heels’ recruiting isn’t encouraging so far this year, with only a few weeks left.
Again, this isn’t the movement you want:
- 2015: 28th, per the 247Sports Composite
- 2016: 32nd
- 2017: 29th
- 2018: 20th
- 2019: 60th and 13th in the ACC, two months before the Early Signing Period
We should use extreme caution in assessing the 2019 class before it’s finished. The class ranking’s down in part because it has a small number of verbal commits — 12, after Week 8, while 11 of the 14 ACC teams have at least 16.
But UNC also has the third lowest average player rating in the conference, well off where it’s been recently. That group of commits doesn’t include any four- or five-stars.
Maybe the Heels will close strong, but a second straight losing season won’t help, and any uncertainty around Fedora’s job status really won’t help. Firing Fedora probably wouldn’t help the 2019 class either, because the Early Signing Period makes life hard on programs in transition, so this point is more about the future than the 2019 class specifically.
3. If Fedora won’t compete now, in this limp version of the ACC Coastal that might literally be won by Virginia, when will he compete?
Fedora’s won the Coastal before. But it was when Miami still had Al Golden, Virginia Tech was in its fading days under Frank Beamer, and Georgia Tech was suddenly crashing after an Orange Bowl win.
Any strides UNC makes going forward will probably be mitigated by its division less resembling a dumpster fire than it does right now. The whole non-Clemson ACC should be better than it’s been in 2018, when UNC’s struggled. This is all theoretical, of course, because the Coastal’s annual quest for 4-4 records across the board makes anything feasible.
4. There isn’t likely to be a lot of competition in the coaching market.
The outlook could always change, but 2018 is set up to be a quiet year of hiring and firing. The blue-blood that looks likeliest to fire its coach is Auburn, and that’s not a sure thing at all. A bunch of recent hires from the biggest schools, a lack of hot-shot candidates, and some big buyouts (keep reading this post) have slowed the coaching carousel.
While there’s less demand, UNC might find better supply. There’s no better time to hire for a good job than when nobody’s hiring for a great job.
5. UNC could hire a replacement-level coach who won’t say embarrassing things that cast doubt on his commitment to player safety.
Larry Fedora: “Our game is under attack ... I fear that the game will be pushed so far from what we know that we won’t recognize it 10 years from now. And if it does, our country will go down, too.”— Nicole Auerbach (@NicoleAuerbach) July 18, 2018
Fedora harped on how there’s not a proven link between football and CTE, and while that’s true, he still aggressively spoke out against rules that might make the game safer.
Talking about football in WARFARE terms is a broader cultural issue with the sport. There’s no guarantee the next UNC coach doesn’t also put his foot into his mouth.
Cons to firing Fedora in 2018
1. He’s already reached football heights UNC hadn’t in a long time.
Upside counts for something. While Fedora’s put up the school’s worst record since ‘06, he’s also put up its best one since 1997: an 11-3 mark in 2015. He went a solid 8-5 the year after that, and then his QB, Mitchell Trubisky, became the No. 2 overall pick.
2. Fedora probably hasn’t forgotten how to coach offense.
That’s been his calling card for years. He was Mike Gundy’s coordinator in the mid-2000s, while the Pokes were making their bones as a scoring machine. In 2006, Fedora’s second year, OSU jumped from 92nd to 12th in yards per play, then to sixth the next year.
Then Fedora went off to be Southern Miss’ head coach, and he fielded a handful of solid offenses. By 2015, his Heels were No. 1 in all of FBS in yards per play. They’ve been bad on offense the last two years. But the smart money says that at some point, Fedora should be able to teach his team to get yards and score again.
Tar Heel Blog says changes must be made on this front:
If Larry Fedora has any hope of surviving this season, then there must be some immediate changes on the staff. Maybe offensive coordinator Chris Kapilovic is the sacrificial lamb for a team without great options at quarterback. To any reasonable observer, however, the offense is totally within the purview of Fedora and the blame should fall on him. Whether it is recruiting, play calling, or an inability (or unwillingness) to make mid-game adjustments, all of those are on the head coach.
3. His buyout might be affordable, but it’s big.
Fedora’s payoff would be $12.2 million if UNC fired him right after the season, according to USA Today. There are bigger buyouts out there that teams might be willing to pay, but that’s a lot for an athletic department to set itself back. Consider that UNC would need to hire another ACC coach for at least $2.5 million or so, plus hire that coach’s staff and buy out Fedora’s assistants.
4. Are you sure you can expect better?
Fedora’s record through seven years at North Carolina will finish just above .500. Plenty of coaches have done significantly better at UNC, but only Dick Crum in the ‘80s and Mack Brown in the ‘90s have done so for extended periods in the modern era. Going the equivalent of 8-5 is basically UNC’s entire football history. (Then again, Fedora’s missing that mark lately.)
The nature of the Heels’ 2018 struggles makes it even harder to evaluate Fedora.
Are the Heels as bad as they’ve looked? In their 1-5 start, they lost three games by one score, including two by a field goal. But they also won by a field goal against Pitt, and according to S&P+ and its play-by-play number-crunching, they’re bad anyway. That metric ranks them No. 90, among the worst power conference teams.
If Cunningham doesn’t want to fire Fedora, it won’t be hard to sell that decision. But it definitely wouldn’t be hard to frame a firing as the smartest course of action.