When Larry Fedora agreed to become the head football coach at North Carolina in December 2011, the university’s administration assured him that a years-long scandal was in its final months. The uncertainty related to that scandal, and the NCAA investigation that came with it, would soon be over, Fedora was told.
Nearly six years later, an end point that Fedora believed was imminent in 2011 finally came last Friday. Since arriving at UNC, Fedora, now in his sixth season with the school, had never experienced what he’s experienced the past four days: freedom from the specter of an NCAA investigation, and freedom from the fear of the potential sanctions that might come with it.
Fedora officially became UNC’s head coach in January 2012. A years-long NCAA investigation into the football program – an investigation that focused on impermissible benefits from agents and academic misconduct involving a tutor – ended in March 2012, and ended with Fedora’s team forced to serve a one-year postseason ban that kept it out of the ACC Championship game his first season.
In the meantime, another scandal brewed. Internal investigations at UNC, along with independent media reporting, showed how UNC athletes, especially football and basketball players, maintained their eligibility through a scheme of African Studies courses that UNC’s accrediting agency found to lack integrity. And so the NCAA reopened its case in June 2014.
When that case ended on Friday, without the NCAA Committee on Infractions sanctioning the university in large part because UNC never deemed those courses to be fraudulent, Fedora said he was “just happy that it’s over.” And yet he also said, after UNC’s 20-14 defeat against Virginia on Saturday, that he’d long ago stopped feeling much of anything associated with the case.
“I’ve been numb about it for a long time,” he said. “I mean, just numb.”
Fedora believed when he took the UNC job that its first NCAA investigation would be over in a few months, which turned out to be correct. He never imagined, though, that another scandal would erupt – and that another NCAA investigation would begin.
For the entirety of his tenure at UNC, Fedora had either dealt with the fallout of the first investigation or the fear of the second one. He’d maintained in the past three years that he was never concerned about his program enduring more sanctions – an opinion that proved prescient – but during his first three years he coached through the one-year postseason ban and NCAA-mandated scholarship reductions.
On Saturday, the day of UNC’s game against Virginia, Fedora woke up with a new kind of freedom. For the first time since he’d become UNC’s head coach, there was no ongoing NCAA investigation, or concern about sanctions, or any thought that another NCAA investigation might begin. All of that uncertainty, the cloud of two investigations, was now a thing of the past.
And yet, Fedora said, “Don’t think that we haven’t been penalized. I mean, since I’ve been here, we’ve been penalized. Six years.”
He was talking, primarily, about how the ordeal affected his ability to recruit. Throughout Fedora’s entire tenure, rival schools have used UNC’s NCAA investigations against the Tar Heels in recruiting. Rival coaches have questioned why prospects would consider going to UNC.
Fedora and his staff, then, have constantly had to fend off rumors. Some of them were more benign but still damaging, ones about another potential postseason ban, or scholarship cuts. Some of them were more absurd, such as ones that went around about UNC receiving the so-called NCAA “death penalty.”
J.K. Britt, a sophomore defensive back, said on Saturday that he didn’t hear “that word” – speaking of the death penalty – from rival schools during his recruitment. He did acknowledge the obvious, though – how other schools “tried to say things” to get him to change his mind about going to UNC.
“I did hear violation, maybe bowl game things,” Britt said on Saturday. “But I was talking to the coaching staff that was here and I believed what they were saying and it all worked out.”
Fedora and his staff in recent years tried to spread their confidence. Given the construction of the NCAA Enforcement Staff’s case, which didn’t specifically charge any sport or any coach with wrongdoing, Fedora believed, along with other UNC coaches, that the NCAA wouldn’t levy sport-specific penalties.
As it turned out the infractions committee didn’t levy any penalties at all after determining, in effect, that the transgressions at UNC didn’t fit into the NCAA rulebook. The ruling, Fedora said, was “a good thing” for him and his program, and yet he made a point of emphasizing his belief that UNC had already experienced penalties in the form of years of uncertainty.
Now, Fedora said, “We don’t have to worry about that anymore. We don’t have to defend ourselves anymore in recruiting. We can just sell, and we have a lot to sell.”
During his six seasons at UNC, Fedora has been the Tar Heels’ head coach for 72 games. The one on Saturday at Virginia Tech will be his 73rd, and second without some kind of NCAA-investigation-related cloud hanging over him.