North Carolina

How 16 words are helping UNC’s Larry Fedora cope with his most difficult season

UNC coach Larry Fedora during this season has endured some of the most challenging moments of his head coaching career.
UNC coach Larry Fedora during this season has endured some of the most challenging moments of his head coaching career.

A little less than two years have passed since one of the most triumphant Saturdays of Larry Fedora’s tenure at North Carolina: the overtime victory at Virginia Tech, where Quinshad Davis’ dramatic catch in the end zone sealed the Tar Heels’ win and inspired a jubilant celebration.

UNC that day embraced the role of spoiler; its victory ruined, or at least deflated, Virginia Tech’s sendoff for Frank Beamer, the Hokies’ beloved former head coach who worked his final home game. More significant, the Tar Heels also clinched the Coastal Division championship.

The memories of that victory came back to Fedora this week while he prepared his team for another trip to Blacksburg, Va. – its first since the one two years ago. The contrast between then, with UNC on the verge of a divisional championship, and now, in the middle of a grim season, is difficult to ignore.

“That atmosphere was ridiculous,” Cayson Collins, a UNC senior linebacker, said earlier this week, recounting a moment he experienced as a sophomore. “The catch, and seeing everybody deflated. It was insane, so that’s definitely something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”

These days memories, and hope, are the only things keeping Collins and his teammates going. There are the memories of past triumphs. The hope that things can get better. UNC is headed toward its worst season in more than a decade, and Fedora toward the worst of his 10-year head coaching career.

And yet some things, at least, haven’t changed. Fedora said earlier this week that he is using the same approach, the same teaching methods, that led to such great success two years ago. He’s also starting every day the same way, repeating the same 16 words he has, daily, for the past 21 years:

“It’s going to be a great day. I cannot fail. I can only learn and grow.”

Many coaches have their go-to motivational phrases, their philosophical mantras. Those 16 words are Fedora’s. He didn’t find them in any book, he said earlier this week. He simply began saying those words one morning in 1996, and then created the habit of saying them every morning.

For a while, he had them written on a card taped to a mirror. For a while, he said them loud enough, and often enough, that his wife gave him a hard time about it. But now, Fedora said, “My wife hates hearing it, so I wait until I get into the shower.”

He doesn’t play the words over in his head, silently. He says them out loud, a verbal oath. He began saying the phrase amid a difficult time early in his coaching career, when self-doubt sometimes creeped into his mind. He needed something to fend off the negative thoughts, and so came those 16 words.

“It was when I first got to the Air Force Academy,” said Fedora, who spent some time there as a position coach after he began his college coaching career at Baylor. “And I just decided, you know, I’d been through some things there before at the end of the Baylor run, so it was just like, hey, you know what, I’m going to have a positive attitude about everything. No matter what it is. I’m blessed.

“We’re all blessed. So I’m going to be positive about it and live my life a certain way.”

This is a season that has tested the Tar Heels’ positivity, and tested Fedora’s, too. They will arrive in Blacksburg with pain both physical and mental. Sixteen players, including several who would have started, have been lost for the season.

And amid those personnel losses have come defeat after defeat on the field. UNC hadn’t lost six of its first seven games, as it has this season, since 2006, when the university fired former coach John Bunting. The Tar Heels now have lost nine consecutive games against major-conference opponents, and that streak appears unlikely to end this Saturday, at Virginia Tech, or next, against Miami.

During one particularly difficult stretch in Bunting’s tenure, his wife, Dawn, attempted to exorcise the demons through a now-infamous ritual inside Kenan Stadium. Some described it as an attempt at voodoo magic.

Neither Fedora, nor anyone in his family, have taken such drastic measures. And Fedora said earlier this week that he hasn’t tried any motivational tricks with his players. He has kept his coaching style, which has remained aggressive and energetic, largely the same. Yet he has learned some things, too.

“I learn every day about myself, I learn about my staff,” he said. “I learn about my players. Whether you win or lose, you learn those things. More things are revealed when things aren’t going the way you want them to go. You find out a little bit more about who really people are.”

This season, then, has been quite the learning experience. Every week, essentially, has brought a new internal challenge, independent of the changing opponents. It has been chaotic – the list of injuries and the defeats growing.

During difficult times, everyone seeks an anchor. One of Fedora’s is that simple phrase.

Two years ago he woke up before his team’s game against Virginia Tech and repeated the same 16 words that he had for nearly two decades. The Tar Heels went on to win a game whose memory will endure. On Saturday, Fedora will begin his day the same way:

“It’s going to be a great day,” he’ll say. “I cannot fail. I can only learn and grow.”

Andrew Carter: 919-829-8944, @_andrewcarter