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October 26, 2011
Carolina has now lost back-to-back football games, and the Tar Heels did not play all that well in the victory that preceded those two.
What is the problem, if there is one?
Well, I made a few phone calls to try to find out. The people I spoke to were parents of several different players. I hoped to get their take on the emotional state of the team at this moment.
After games coaches talk about making plays, turnovers and technical stuff. But often times it is the human element behind the scenes that genuinely makes the difference. How could there be a time riper time for a meltdown, burnout and short in their wiring, if you please, than now for Carolina.
This has been a marathon of misery as far as the NCAA accusations, which will come to a head on Friday, and the firing of Coach Butch Davis one week before the season started.
Chancellor Holden Thorp has done nothing to help these kids.
What I learned from speaking with parents is that this team cares so deeply about their coaches that they are putting too much pressure on themselves to win so the coaching staff will be retained at season's end.
This is a noble, but poor approach for a group in the middle of a two-year scandal in which they have lost their head coach, been pronounced a team of cheaters by the chancellor of their school and betrayed by a few greedy teammates.
"Those kids love Coach Davis," one parent said. "They love it that he comes to the games."
Nonetheless, this team has not clung to the idea Davis is returning or has it dwelled on the loss. What the players have done is add too much to the burden every collegiate football player already bears in just trying to be a successful student and a football player at this level.
One parent put it best:
"I told some of them, 'Guys, you have enough on you being students and football players. You do not need to worry about your coaches' jobs nor do they want you to do that.'"
For anyone who has ever played baseball or golf, think about how ineffective you were when tension and a fear of failure overcame all the practice and time you had put into being a good player. You could hardly swing the bat or club anywhere nearly as effective as you did in practice.
As Carolina prepares to play Wake Forest on Saturday at Kenan Stadium at 3:30 p.m. on ESPNU, the coaches' No. 1 job is not to have the defensive backs cover receivers better, or have the ballcarriers and wide receivers hold the ball high and tight better, or get quarterback Bryn Renner to look to his second option more than trying to hit the big play.
All those things are important. They must all be addressed. But if the coaching staff cannot get this team to stop worrying about what is going to happen when the season ends, then this season is all but finished.
These final four games are going to tough, tough endeavors. Wake Forest is 5-2, 4-1 in the ACC. This is a good team, and Jim Grobe is one of the finest coaches anywhere.
(I personally think Nebraska was nuts for not hiring him when it could.)
Carolina is 5-3, 1-3 and still has a chance at a special season, considering all this team has endured. Remember that football never ends for collegiate players. When there are no games, there is weight lifting, running and spring practice. These guys had to do all of that and do it with media and opposing fans taking shots at them daily.
Recognizing the players' emotional state and pressure points might be even more important at times than the other aspects of coaching. Dean Smith and Mike Krzyzewski are two of the greatest examples I know personally.
Smith was renowned for how well-drilled his teams were, but his ability to recognize the differences in kids and tinker with their minds played a huge role in his long-term success.
The players on that field Saturday are human beings. They are also adolescents or just slightly more mature young men. If the coaching staff can work on their heads as much as they do their blocking and tackling this week, Carolina still has a chance to finish with an excellent record and go to play in an enjoyable bowl.