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December 26, 2011

Out with a Bang

For North Carolina's football staff, Monday's Advocare V100 Independence Bowl in Shreveport (La.) is one of those opportunities that is simply part of the job in coaching.

It's their last chance to make something happen with all these UNC players they recruited to play for the Tar Heels, and that should serve as motivation for them this one last time as they prepare to move on to new jobs elsewhere.

"It's been a very good experience to be here at Carolina and work as the interim coach," said Everett Withers. "I'm looking forward to taking the things I've learned here and moving forward."

These situations are never easy for anyone when you're talking about outgoing coaches and the pieces they leave behind within the team they're coaching and in recruiting.

There's children and families involved. There's relocation and finding new employment involved.

It's real-life, emotionally-draining, highly-challenging stuff---as anyone who's been in a similar occupational situation can attest.

"Every year I've been in this profession---I think this is 24 (years for me)---this time of year gets tough on a lot of people. And if you've been through it long enough you go through these. It's just part of the gig," Withers said.

When it comes to bowl games and the finality that they bring to college football teams, there's always that incentive to try and send the seniors out victorious.

But UNC also has a situation where many of the players are seeing an opportunity to send these coaches out with a bang and show them on the field how much they appreciate what they've done for them over the years.

"That's the biggest thing---send this staff out on a good note, you know. A win would be good for team morale and it will sum up this season pretty well," said sophomore defensive end Kareem Martin. "We'll all be going our separate ways after the season, but we're playing one more game for the staff."

"I definitely want to send this staff out on a good note," added sophomore quarterback Bryn Renner. "We're looking forward to sending Coach Withers and this staff out on a good note."

"I think that's our main thing (to get this win for the coaches)," added redshirt freshman running back Giovani Bernard. "I know for me and Bryn especially, it's something we really want to do. We felt like we let them down a couple of times this season. We definitely want to finish them off with an 8-5 record."

"There's some games in the past we could have won or whatever, but I think we definitely want to give this as a gift in a way, and finish off with a win. I'm just really excited, and hopefully we'll get this 'W,'" Bernard continued.

"Right now we've got to focus on beating Missouri with Everett Withers as the head coach," said junior defensive tackle Sylvester Williams. "I've got a tremendous amount of respect for the coaching staff that's here now."

Given the extreme circumstances of which he accepted his first collegiate head coaching job, the players are satisfied with the way Withers handled the 2011 season.

"I think Coach Withers did a great job with us this year. And I'd love to have him as our head coach for a long time, but I don't make those decisions. And I really don't want to," said Renner.

"The way this University handled it, they did a great job. But I definitely love Coach Withers and love this whole staff."

"He's done an amazing job this entire year. And even stepping into a position like he's done. I think he's done a great job. Hands down to him. He's a great guy. I've had my one-on-one conversations with him, and he's a real good role model," added Bernard.

"We're definitely going to miss him. He's a great guy and we're definitely going to miss him."

"We just want to go out on a winning note. This year there's been a lot of adversity with the coaching change and hiring a new coaching and all, We just want to give the coaching staff one last win, and play as hard as we can on Monday," Martin added.

For the Tar Heel players, Monday is not just about Coach Withers and the coaches who will be roaming the sidelines.

Several of them acknowledged that the Independence Bowl is also about Butch Davis, and closing the chapter on his era at UNC with success.

"I will go on record and say they turned this whole program around from where it was, starting with Coach Davis and then to Coach Withers. I think they've done a great job with us over the last five years, and given us a ton of their time," Renner said. "So I think the biggest thing we can do is play hard for them and go out on a good note."

The Tar Heel seniors got together last week before leaving for Shreveport and declared that they were dedicating the Independence Bowl to Davis and Withers.

"All the seniors, we kind of got together after the (last position) meeting (in Kenan Stadium) and talked about, 'Yeah, this is our last time together,' for Coach Withers, and especially for Coach Davis. He brought us here. We're trying to do it for him. It's our last game in Carolina Blue," said running back Ryan Houston.

For Renner, it's also about giving offensive coordinator John Shoop one last hurrah as he prepares to ride off into the sunset.

"Me and Coach Shoop talk every day. He's been critical to my development as a quarterback, and I can't thank him enough. I'm going to miss him. He's done a lot for me and the other quarterbacks," he said.

Make no mistake---Withers wanted to be the long-term, permanent head coach at UNC.

"Coaches are day-to-day. You're always disappointed when you don't get something, but as a coach you learn to move on fast," Withers said.

He wasted little time getting his situation figured out, and he's found a pretty soft place to land in Ohio State.

In Columbus, Withers will have the opportunity to rebuild the Buckeyes under Urban Meyer, who tried previously to hire him away from UNC two years ago when Meyer was still at Florida.

The fact that Meyer, one of the truly great modern-day college coaches, thought enough to Withers to try to hire him twice should answer a lot of questions from those questioning Withers as a coach or as a person.

"I feel very fortunate to be part of The Ohio State University. My title is assistant head coach/co-defensive coordinator," Withers said. "I'm looking forward to moving forward."

"We've known each other (Meyer and I) for a couple of years. A few years ago we talked when the Florida defensive coordinator job came open. So we've got a little bit of a past, and I"m looking forward to the future with Coach Meyer," Withers continued.

Withers knows that he's heading into a challenging situation in Columbus with Ohio State recently hit with considerable NCAA sanctions, but he knows he's going to be able to recruit elite talent there.

"I do think the sanctions are what they are. Coming on the front end gives us a chance to build a program, and I think it will be a very positive thing in the long term," he said.

"I think when you're recruiting at Ohio State, kids want to go to Ohio State."

The opportunity at UNC clearly provided Withers some perspective and invaluable experience as a head coach.

He admitted to us that is his ultimate goal---to lead a program as the top man again as he's done this year at Carolina.

And as he's done throughout the majority of his time in Chapel Hill, Withers said the right things as he talked about how UNC has prepared him for that day.

"I don't know about 'quite soon' (becoming a head coach) but I'm sure this experience will help me in the future," Withers said. "It's been a very good learning experience. Just being able to be the head coach of a major college, a BCS team, has been a very positive experience for me."

In a few short hours, it will all be over.

UNC's players will go their separate ways for a brief Holiday break before either returning to Chapel Hill or moving on with their lives.

Those graduating seniors will either start looking for regular work or begin training for a shot at the National Football League, while the returning UNC players will get going with the spring semester.

And virtually everyone coaching for UNC today in the Independence Bowl with the exceptions of Allen Mogridge and possibly Ken Browning will all be leaving Chapel Hill in the coming days.

The outgoing coaches' contracts were terminated effective December 27, and those coaches will begin the process of finding new work immediately in the coaching ranks.

Kenan Football Center will undergo a transformation in the coming days as Fedora and his staff move in, while the last things of the prior staff move out.

It's a extraordinary, bittersweet time for any college football program.

Which is why sending out these coaches with a win over Missouri means so much to so many of these UNC players.

"He's a great man of character. He's done a lot for this program," Renner said of Withers. "I can't even imagine what he's gone through, but I know he's done a great job. And he's been a father figure to this whole team this whole year on how to handle adversity. He's done a great job, and I wouldn't ask for a better guy to have for the season."

"We want to send him out with an 8-5 record and end the season on a good note."








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