The faithful knew UNC used to be something. For the younger, memories of 1997 lingered, swirling in the backs of their minds as they watched North Carolina's football team limp to 3-8 and 6-5 seasons under Carl Torbush in 1999 and 2000.
For the older, the good ol' days of Bill Dooley, the man who turned the Tar Heels around in the '70s and brought home three ACC titles, made it clear that the laid-back Torbush just wasn't cutting it. They knew it had been 20 long years since North Carolina had held the ACC Championship in its hands.
Both young and old fans alike have had their hearts broken. Although 1997 might have been one of North Carolina's greatest years ever, it was bittersweet, tainted almost by the abrupt departure of Mack Brown.
Brown's legacy as the Tar Heels' coach was turning a team that went 0-11 in two straight seasons into a national contender. And his legacy was riding out of town before the Gator Bowl to coach at football-crazy Texas.
The faithful cried turncoat, knowing that Texas offered Brown a hefty sum. Brown will return to Chapel Hill as Texas' coach in 2002. The faithful will be ready.
Stepping smoothly into Brown's place was Carl Torbush, a man so popular with the players that they lobbied Director of Athletics Dick Baddour to hire him in 1997.
Torbush was also so popular that in the aftermath of his dismissal, professors protested Baddour and Chancellor James Moeser's decision.
To replace Torbush, Baddour went looking for a proven coach and chased Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer. Beamer seemed perfect. He plucked the Hokies from obscurity and led them to the promised land of the national championship game.
The faithful wondered what he could do for the Tar Heels.
Nothing, as it turned out. Beamer flirted with UNC, but used North Carolina to earn a fat raise from his athletic department. The faithful were hurt, disappointed. They felt used. They vented their frustrations at Baddour, likening the Beamer debacle to the public humiliation of Roy Williams turning them down for the head basketball job. They were angry.
So, Dec. 11, Baddour did the only thing he could do to make the faithful happy. He hired one of their own.
His father cried.
When John Bunting broke the news to his parents that he would be returning to his alma mater to become its head coach, his 81-year-old father wept.
Basketball, like for so many, drew the boy from Silver Spring, Md., to North Carolina. He grew up watching Dean Smith. When the University came calling in the person of Bill Dooley, Bunting signed on to play linebacker. Says UNC senior linebacker Quincy Monk: "He's like a diehard Tar Heel fan. He's going to make the best of it. This is his home."
Walking onto campus in 1968, the life Bunting knows now began to take shape. Intent on building something out of the North Carolina football program, Dooley demanded an emotional commitment from his players -- the same commitment Bunting now demands from the Tar Heels. Upon returning to Chapel Hill in December, Bunting met with the team's seniors, and then the rest of the team, and told them they could be winners. Nine months later, Bunting still finds himself trying to convince the Tar Heels that they can win.
"I think what we established in this first training camp together is a work ethic," Bunting says. "I think they needed to learn how to work harder at what we're doing. It's both mental and it's physical, certainly, but it's also emotional. I mean, you just can't go out on that field and expect things to happen. You have to have an emotional commitment to it before you go out on the field. You step across that line from being a student and now step across that line to be an athlete who wants to achieve."
Achieving is something Bunting knows a lot about. Not a particularly large linebacker, he played college ball on his intensity, the same intensity that keeps UNC's players on their toes in practice. He earned an ACC championship ring in 1971 and started for three years. And Bunting then took his game to the next level and had an 11-year career in the NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles.
After his pro career ended, Bunting found work as an assistant football coach in the United States Football League and then at Brown University. He hated it -- coaching was awfully hard work, and he didn't like the idea of dragging his family all over the country. But when he accepted a job helping out at Division III Glassboro (N.J) State University (now Rowan), he fell in love with coaching. And he discovered that he had a real knack for coaching. As head coach, he led Glassboro to a perfect regular season and a berth in the NCAA semifinals. By then, his two children, Kimberly and Brooks, were grown up, and he decided to go back to his home in the NFL. "I was asked to come to Kansas City in the pros," Bunting says, "And I said, `I gotta do it. I played in the Super Bowl, and I'd love to go to the Super Bowl as a coach.'"
The ring is gaudy. The sheer size of Bunting's St. Louis Rams Super Bowl ring is so ridiculous that it's too uncomfortable for Bunting to wear. But it was on display when he introduced three important guys in January before a UNC-Maryland basketball game. Offensive coordinator Gary Tranquill. Defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta. Strength coach Jeff Connors. Three guys that burn with the same intensity as Bunting does.
"Coach, he goes at it," cornerback Kevin Knight says. "He wants to be out there. You can tell by the things that he does that he wants to be out there. That's what we need. He won't step down for nobody. Like people doubting us for playing Oklahoma, he's not going to back down, we're not going to back down."
The ring, the guys, they're symbols. In practice, the 71-year-old Tranquill gets hopping mad and threatens the offensive players with laps if they get the formation wrong one more time. Tenuta screams with veins bulging in his neck at the defensive backs who allow senior wide receiver Kory Bailey to pull down a pass in practice. "I wanted coaches who had experience or had a special aura around them that kind of resembled my personality," Bunting says. "I want them to be intense. I want them to coach hard." The ring, coupled with his ACC championship one, is a constant reminder of the success that such intensity has brought him.
"He knows what he's doing because he played in college," Knight says. "He played here. He played in the NFL. He coached in the NFL. He knows the game, and everything you need to do to be perfect."
But obtaining perfection with the Tar Heels is a difficult task, and Bunting knows that. He estimates the Tar Heels are two to three years away from being really good. "It's going to take some time," he says. "It's not going to take a lot of time, but it's going to take some time. It's going to take some patience. It's going to take a lot of hard work." This year, he thinks they'll be competitive. And they'd better be competitive -- the players don't want to bring Bunting's displeasure down on them. Monk likens Bunting to a parent who can straighten a kid out with "The Look."
In June, Bunting kicked Jamal Jones and JaVon Lewis off the team and suspended David Stevenson, who left the team in August, weeks later. He refused to let backup quarterback Luke Huard practice with the team when he showed up to training camp overweight. Bunting is not afraid to take players off the field as punishment. He's a big believer in discipline. "He really gets out there and lets you know what you're doing wrong," defensive end Julius Peppers says. "It doesn't matter who you are -- if you're Julius Pepper or Ronald Curry or Joe Blow." But for all of his seemingly harsh actions, the UNC coaching staff is helping Jones, Lewis and Stevenson relocate to other programs.
Bunting's shoot-from-the-hip personality landed himself in some trouble earlier in the month. He was quoted in local newspapers angrily accusing former UNC punter Blake Ferguson of cowardice for leaving the program. "I said several positive things about Blake that did not reach the papers," Bunting says. "But I regret the negative things I said about Blake, I do." Bunting has apologized to Ferguson and his family and to Moeser. "It's an embarrassment. I hope I don't make that mistake again."
He hasn't really thought about what he wants his legacy to be -- his first game is Saturday. But as his team flies to Norman, Okla., they'll watch "Men of Honor" on the plane, a movie Bunting loves. And when they run out onto the field at Kenan Stadium this year, they'll run to the music from "Gladiator,"
one of the team's favorites. They're starting new traditions. For now, it's baby steps to building his legacy as the faithful's coach. But, he's got a pretty good idea what direction he'd like the team to go during his tenure at his alma mater. "I want to see this program return to being a top 10 team every year," he says.
"A team competitive in the classy way that Carolina is."
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