Tar Heels playing for each other

North Carolina interim coach Everett Withers has been tasked with two of the most difficult jobs in college football this year. First, he had to take over a program that had just fired its head coach days before summer camp began. Now, he has to prepare his team for a bowl game, knowing that the entire staff won’t be retained when it’s over.

“My process here is, when I get back, I’m ready to move to the next one,” he said.

The next one will be at Ohio State, where Withers confirmed he will join Urban Meyer as a co-defensive coordinator and assistant head coach. With one foot out the door, he and his staff have worked to prepare the Tar Heels for what should be a difficult matchup against Missouri in the Dec. 26 Independence Bowl. Add to that a brief side note that star receiver Dwight Jones was declared ineligible and then quickly reinstated by the NCAA on Wednesday, and there has been no shortage of distractions. Those within the program, though, say the team has remained focused and is determined to send the staff and the seniors out on a winning note.

“I think he’s done a remarkable job,” quarterback Bryn Renner said of Withers. “We couldn’t have asked for a better character guy to handle this program and handle the adversity we’ve gone through these last 18 months. He’s really been there for all of us. This has been a tough time around here, and he’s really done a great job -- wouldn’t have had a better guy do it.”

Withers did a respectable job this year and led the Tar Heels to a 7-5 record, but it obviously wasn’t enough to impress first-year athletic director Bubba Cunningham, who hired Larry Fedora as the Tar Heels’ next coach.

“When the decision was made that they were going in another direction, really the kids knew, so there wasn’t a need for me to tell them I was moving on,” Withers said. “They knew I was moving on. We’ll talk a little bit more as we get ready to prepare to leave about everything. We’re just trying to keep things as normal as possible so we can have our practices here. It’s important we have good practices here because we don’t have much time there.

“I think kids, coaches, people understand this business, and the bottom line in this business is winning and preparing to win and getting yourself ready to win, and that’s what we’ve tried to focus on.”

A win would give the Tar Heels eight wins for the fourth straight year, and the 32 wins would be the most in a four-year period since UNC won 36 from 1994-97. Withers said his main motivation, though, is his players.

“It’s important for me, for the seniors more than anything else, and for this football team,” he said. “I want these players to go out on a winning note. It really doesn’t register personally with me that much. I want to win the game, but I want to win the game because I want these kids to have a good feeling going out.”

There’s no question the feeling is mutual, and despite the temporary feel to the final game, North Carolina is in this one together until the end.