CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina’s seniors stuck around for Larry Fedora’s first season as coach despite knowing that NCAA sanctions would keep them out of a bowl game. On Saturday, they’ll wrap up careers marred by that NCAA scandal when the Tar Heels host Maryland.
Those seniors — including top starters like offensive lineman Jonathan Cooper, defensive tackle Sylvester Williams and linebacker Kevin Reddick — were allowed to transfer without sitting out elsewhere once the NCAA handed down penalties for improper benefits and academic misconduct. But they stuck around, forming a foundation for a team that would’ve reached a bowl and contended for an Atlantic Coast Conference division title if not for those sanctions.
Fedora said their impact was “tremendous.”
“First of all, it gave confidence to everybody else that was in the program and to our fans and to everybody that these guys saw value in staying,” Fedora said. “I think that’s kind of what started the ball rolling and got everybody rolling in the right direction.”
Williams said there wasn’t any big meeting among the seniors or any players wavering on whether to return under a new coach.
“It takes a lot for a guy to say, `I’m going to transfer from this school to another one’ because when you sign with a school, they’re giving you the opportunity and paying for your education,” Williams said. “For me to say or for any senior, it kind of came to we’d be letting our school down for us to leave.”
All season, Fedora and his Tar Heels (7-4, 4-3 ACC) talked about the importance of not squandering any opportunity since they would play just 12 games. They talked about trying to have the best record in the ACC’s Coastal Division despite being ineligible for the division’s spot in the ACC championship game.
Now the Tar Heels have a chance to win eight games for the fourth time in five years, though they vacated two seasons’ worth of those victories as part of the NCAA penalties. Three of their four losses have come by a combined nine points.
“We’ve reached some of our goals but there’s still room left to work,” Cooper said. “But I’m fine not having a bowl game. … Now it’s just a matter of being more upset of not being able to play more with this team and my teammates. That’s really the biggest part of it. A bowl game? You can go on without that. But these are the guys who I’ve done so much with and been through so much with.”
North Carolina hasn’t played since a 37-13 win at Virginia in a Thursday night game last week, while the Terrapins (4-7, 2-5) have lost five straight coming into their final game in a second straight bowl-less season under Randy Edsall.
Maryland started 4-2 before a wave of injuries hit, sidelining 10 players — all potential starters — for the season. That list includes four quarterbacks, forcing the team to play converted linebacker Shawn Petty as the starter against the Tar Heels this weekend.
The schedule didn’t help either, with the Terrapins closing with games against the ACC’s top four scoring offenses in Clemson, Florida State, Georgia Tech and now North Carolina. The Terrapins lost 41-14 to the Seminoles last week.
“I told some of the guys, `Even though you may not have a bowl to work for, find something that you haven’t done well all season and make this the game you fix it,”‘ Maryland receiver Kevin Dorsey said. “This will be the last game, and what you have carrying over to the winter workouts, spring and next camp. For me, just to be consistent, whether it’s blocking, catching or running.”
The Terrapins also started the week with a big piece of news: they’re leaving the ACC to join the Big Ten in 2014. Edsall said the conference talk hasn’t been a distraction for his team before its final game of 2012.
“The team was really excited about it, but all of that has now been decided and is done and over with,” Edsall said. “All our attention today is focused on North Carolina so we just have to go to the practice field and take care of our preparations. Everything is pretty much normal for us, which is how we need to have it.”
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)