Win over Miami may buy Bunting more time

For the moment, at least, the sky over Chapel Hill is Carolina blue again, and not just because the men's basketball team opens its exhibition season on Friday with five returning starters.

The only upset bigger than last weekend's surprise victory over third-ranked Miami might be that the buzz on the University of North Carolina campus this week is about football.

That, of course, can change with the speed of a crossover dribble.

Coach John Bunting gave his players 24 hours to enjoy the school's first-ever victory over a top-five team in football, then sought to refocus his team's thoughts on Saturday's visit from 18th-ranked Virginia Tech.

How long he gets to savor the feeling probably rides on the outcome against the Hokies, in a game that offers no middle ground. A win puts the Tar Heels in a three-way tie for second place in the Atlantic Coast Conference standings and sets them up for a possible 7-4 finish and a bowl game.

A loss and those nagging questions about the direction of Carolina football resurface as the Tar Heels dip below .500 again. In that case, even victories over Wake Forest and Duke in the final two regular-season games might leave the Heels home for the holidays for the third consecutive season.

But those are negative thoughts, not the kind Bunting wants to entertain at the moment. There are too many other things to worry about, like whether he'll have at least one healthy tailback available against the Hokies.

"I don't think about that," he said, when asked if he ever though he might not be around long enough to see his program through to the feeling of beating a team like Miami.

The significance of the final home game of 2004 isn't lost on Bunting, however. His four seasons at Carolina have included few moments as exhilarating as the scene late Saturday night, when students rode both goal-posts to the ground within moments of freshman kicker Connor Barth's game-winning field goal on the final play against the Hurricanes.

You'd have to go back to Bunting's first season since replacing Carl Torbush at his alma mater, in 2001, to find an equally uplifting moment in Carolina football. After losing their first three games under Bunting, the Tar Heels scored a 32-point victory over Florida State at home, which is, by far, the most lopsided league defeat the Seminoles have experienced in 13 seasons in the ACC.

It was the first of a five-game winning streak that appeared to signal good times on the horizon. Since then, Carolina has won 12 of 25 games and is 6-18 in the ACC, with three of those wins coming this season.

His greatest accomplishment may be in maintaining an upbeat outlook. His players reflect his disposition.

"Things have not been well for us the past couple of years," senior center Jason Brown said. ""But after you have two losing seasons you can't go around moping or feeling sorry for yourselves. You just can't live like that.

"We told ourselves no matter what happens we're gonna maintain our brotherhood and keep encouraging each other to succeed."

Not that it has been easy.

Every game the Heels have won this season has been followed by a loss. A rousing victory over Georgia Tech on Sept. 18 was followed by a 34-0 defeat at home to Louisville. The good vibes from a last-second win over rival North Carolina State gave way to a 30-point blowout at Utah.

Bunting's future in Chapel Hill remains a source of uncertainty, though the win over Miami could signal the turning point if it's the start of a strong finish. If he has heard the numerous rumors that have swirled the past two seasons about his job status, Bunting isn't saying, and he certainly isn't dwelling on it. Especially not now.

"I've got some great people here in our organization that help me in that regard," he said of tuning out the negative. ""I've got a great wife that helps me with all that, too."

The irony is that Bunting is using the same approach this week, except he's insulating himself and his team from the accolades that go with a monumental win over Miami.

He refers to bowl games as "the B-word" and said any discussion of it, at this point, "is ridiculous."

"Right now, we have to make it stand the test of time," said Brown, a team captain who has started 35 games since appearing in his first college game as a freshman in the '01 victory over the Seminoles.

"Can we pull out two wins back-to-back? Can we put together two successful game plans and keep going? We know, if we stay focused, we can do anything."

Doug Carlson covers the ACC for the Tampa Tribune.