On the day North Carolina found out that defensive coordinator Everett Withers would replace fired coach Butch Davis as interim head coach, Withers’ cell phone came alive with encouraging text messages from about 30 of his players.
“Coach, let’s go!”
“Coach, let’s roll!”
“I think our team sees it different than what the outside public sees it,” Withers said.
From the outside looking in, North Carolina’s players had the carpet yanked from underneath them for a second straight season when Davis was fired just over a week before summer camp was scheduled to begin. Last year, the team had to deal with the uncertainty of the NCAA investigation, which sidelined 13 players for the season opener against LSU. This summer, their coach was fired. Since then, Withers has picked up the pieces, and he enters his first game as a head coach against James Madison confident that his players have blocked out any and all distractions and moved on.
“These kids have been resilient,” said Withers, who was promoted from defensive coordinator on July 28. “When they’re here and in this building and on the practice field, they’ve done nothing but focus on being a good football team. We had a lot of practice on blocking out distractions last year. I just feel like those kids said, ‘Ok, this is what it is.’ … I think it took about a day for all the talking to stop, but after that, it was the task at hand. This is a mature team and they’ve done a good job of handling it.”
Withers has also had prior experience at navigating his players through adversity. Despite the personnel losses and injuries that decimated UNC’s defense, last year, the Tar Heels still ranked fourth in the ACC in total defense and No. 30 in the country while using a different lineup almost every week.
Withers, a native of Charlotte, said he would love to be hired permanently as head coach, but he’s not looking at the big picture right now.
“I think as football coaches we’re all day to day,” he said. “We’re all auditioning day to day. You can go out and do something stupid and not have a job tomorrow. Day to day you’re auditioning for your job. Do I want to be the head coach at the University of North Carolina for a long time? Yes, I do, but I also know that’s going to be out of my hands other than winning games and that type of deal. I want these kids to have the best experience they can over the next four or five months. I’m going to be fine, the assistants will be fine. The whole deal is for these kids to have success.”
And it all starts on Saturday.