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Bunting Decision Came over Weekend

Monday, October 23, 2006

The losses kept mounting during North Carolina's miserable season, and so did the frustration. So a few days after a lackluster performance in a nationally televised game against Virginia, athletic director Dick Baddour knew he had to fire coach John Bunting.

"It's in part been an evolution, and in part crystallized over the weekend," Baddour said Monday.

"I don't want to get into a public evaluation of all of this," he said. "Not everything John and I agree on. We are a bit -- or a lot -- in a numbers game, wins and losses and productivity and assessment of where things are headed. Suffice it to say, I felt like we needed a new direction."

Bunting's dismissal, which is effective at the end of the season, came Sunday night after the former North Carolina linebacker and team captain was blamed for a season in which the Tar Heels (1-6, 0-4 Atlantic Coast Conference) have yet to defeat a Division I-A team.

"Unfortunately, the wins and losses this year don't justify what we've done," Bunting said.

Bunting's ouster means Baddour is looking for a football coach for the third time in 10 years. Baddour promoted Carl Torbush to succeed Mack Brown when he left for Texas in 1997, then fired Torbush in 2000 and hired Bunting.

Baddour didn't discuss many specifics about the upcoming coaching search out of respect to Bunting, but said the university will formulate a plan and will seek help from advisers. Then, he defended his qualification to find the next coach.

"I am at peace with the fact that John Bunting was here to lead this program for six years," Baddour said. "My job is to lead this athletic department and that is what I will do in the most effective manner that I know how."

Baddour also bristled at suggestions that finances played a role, saying "the motivation here has to do with an assessment of the strength of the program and direction of the program. It can't operate in a vacuum, but I don't think it's proper to say finances drive this decision. ... The willingness to come support this program and the unity of this program is important, but it is not always demonstrated in a financial way."

The Tar Heels hit a low point last Thursday night during a 23-0 loss at Virginia, where they have not won since 1981. Bunting denied a news report the next day that said he would step down, and as recently as early Sunday evening told his weekly teleconference that he had "absolutely not" resigned.

Hours later, he was fired with a record of 25-42 at North Carolina but was asked to remain as coach for the final five games of the season.

"It was clear to me that we needed to go in a new direction but absolutely allow John Bunting to finish what he started this year," Baddour said. "There was no other option. He is the best person to keep this program together right now, keep this team together right now, and for us to have a chance to keep the recruits together. John's focus will be on the next five games. Our focus will be to support that, and to turn our attention to hiring a new coach."

North Carolina State coach Chuck Amato -- perhaps Bunting's biggest rival -- said coaches hate to learn of the firings of their colleagues.

"No coach likes to see that happen to another coach," Amato said. "Nobody in this room has ever heard me say a bad word about coach Bunting. All that I've ever said about that man is he's a smart guy, he's a good person and really, that's all I can say at this point. I feel for him. We all do. Anybody in this profession feels for him."

Bunting promised to keep his players' focus on the field and prevent them from worrying about the future.

"We're going to finish as hard as we possibly can," Bunting said. "That's what I'm about. That's how I was raised. That's what Carolina taught me."

Offensive lineman Brian Chacos, a sixth-year senior who was a member of Bunting's first recruiting class in 2001, said he and his teammates should accept the responsibility for the team's failures.

"If anyone's going to be at fault for what's happening in the season, it's the players," Chacos said. "The coaches can only prepare us and take us so far. Obviously, we've been frustrated this whole season. The coaches can only prepare us and take us so far. Coach Bunting and his staff prepared us the best way they know how."

The fates of Bunting's assistants, including three who are in their first year in Chapel Hill, remain unclear. Five are signed through the 2007 season and two of those are signed through 2008. Under the terms of their letters of appointment, they would be paid by the university until they find other jobs.

Bunting will make $286,200 a year through the 2009 season. If he accepts another job that pays less than that, North Carolina must compensate him the difference.

But in the wake of being fired from his beloved alma mater, Bunting wasn't sure where -- or if -- he'll resume his coaching career.

"I'm not sure how much football I'll coach, if any," Bunting said. "This is the place I wanted to be. We were that close. That close."

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