‘Changing coaches is … even more difficult when you consider the character and integrity of someone like John Bunting.’
— Dick Baddour ’66
John Bunting ’72 didn’t wear a necktie to his farewell news conference. He only wears them to funerals, he said, and he insisted this was not a funeral.
Indefatigably certain that the UNC football program was headed in a positive direction despite a season that left Tar Heel fans bewildered with the results on the field – many of them leaving their seats empty by the South Florida game in mid-October – Bunting agreed reluctantly to his dismissal halfway through his sixth season as head football coach. He then embarked on preparing the team for its remaining five games, uncertain what he’d do professionally after it was over.
Athletics Director Dick Baddour ’66 met with Bunting on Oct. 22 and told him he would be relieved of his duties. Carolina remains obligated to Bunting’s $286,200 annual salary through January 2010 but might not have to pay all of that if Bunting gets another job in coaching.
Bunting became head coach in December 2000 after Carl Torbush failed in three years to keep Carolina on the successful footing established by Mack Brown in the 1990s. Bunting had his highs – leading the Tar Heels to a Peach Bowl win over Auburn in his first season, and wins over No. 5-ranked Florida State in 2001 and No. 4 Miami in 2004. The dramatic Miami win is considered among the greatest-ever moments in Kenan Stadium history.
But his 2001 team’s 8-5 record was the only winning campaign. In subsequent seasons, the Heels were 4-8, 2-10, 6-6 and 5-6. This fall, Carolina lost to Rutgers, Virginia Tech, Clemson, Miami, South Florida and Virginia. The Clemson game was a 52-7 debacle in which nothing went right, and the team appeared to be heavily overmatched in the games that followed. Bunting’s dismissal came three days after the 23-0 loss at Virginia, a team considered beatable as it also was suffering a bad year.
Through the Virginia game, Bunting’s record at Carolina was 25-42, 16-28 in the ACC. Critics said that in five and a half years he never gave consistent evidence that the program was on the right track. They pointed to 12 defeats of 30 points or more.
“Changing coaches is never a pleasant experience, but it is even more difficult when you consider the character and integrity of someone like John Bunting,” Baddour said in a statement after he notified the coach. “He and his wife, Dawn, have given so much to the University, to Carolina athletics and to the local community. John led us to some of the most exciting wins in Carolina football history, put character and academics first, and never once compromised his or the University’s principles. This is simply one of those times when it is in the best interest of the football program to make a change. I appreciate and applaud John’s commitment to his alma mater, to our football program, and most important, to his student-athletes and coaches.”
At a news conference the next day, Baddour said that the athletics department had been “bombarded” with criticism over the direction the program seemed to be taking and that to not take action on the coach “could only create a more severely difficult situation for the players.”
He cited fan support and other factors in the decision, but he denied that financial considerations such as an impact on donations and tickets sales figured in. “I don’t think it’s proper to say finance drives this decision,” Baddour said.
“John Bunting is a first-class man” whom the community holds “in highest regard,” Baddour said. He said football never was put above the interests of the University in any decision that Bunting, or Bunting and he together, had made.
“I tried very hard to get this program where it should be, where it needs to be,” Bunting said. “We got things rolling, and there are some right things going on.” He cited an entire freshman class of players who were red-shirted this season and what he considers an “unbelievable” crop of recruits expected to enter next fall, saying the future of the program was “bright. Very bright.”
Bunting said he was buoyed by an outpouring from sympathetic friends and colleagues on the day of the announcement. He said men’s basketball Coach Roy Williams ’72, a classmate of his, showed up at his door at 10:30 that night.
“I am disappointed and, of course, I don’t agree with the decision, but I know I must accept it,” Bunting said in a statement that day. “My love for this great University has not and never will waver. I am very proud of the many great things we have accomplished over the past six years. We simply have not won enough games this year.”
At the news conference, he added about this season, “It has been a little bit of Murphy’s Law – one thing after another.” He said, “I am very much at peace with my decisions.”
The Tar Heels’ lone win in their first seven games was over Division 1-AA Furman. Going into the Virginia game, they were near the bottom of all Division 1-A teams in the country in every defensive statistical category. On the offensive side, they were 82nd in rushing yards and 95th in passing yards out of 117 teams. In the last four games before Bunting’s dismissal the average margin of defeat was 26 points.
Bunting’s teams beat N.C. State four years out of five. He took the Heels to two bowl games. On the other side of the ledger, he never won his first game of the season, never strung together three wins in a row after that first season and lost to Duke at home in the forgettable 2003.
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