It doesn’t require a deep look to recognize the similarities between North Carolina and Virginia.
Both are large public universities. Both are highly regarded academically. In terms of football, neither has a rich tradition as a powerhouse, but both are located in states with a decent amount of high school talent.
Lately, though, one has been head-and-shoulders above the other. North Carolina has defeated Virginia in each of the last six meetings and will be the favorite again when the two square off on Saturday.
While the Tar Heels are just a year separated from an 11-win campaign and the Cavaliers are in the midst of a five-year bowl drought, one primary factor can explain the separation between the two programs.
A change in leadership 10 years ago proved to be a defining moment for UNC football. Coming off a 23-0 Thursday night loss against — you guessed it — Virginia, then-athletic director Dick Baddour announced in October 2006 that head coach John Bunting would be fired at the end of the season. A month later, Baddour hired Butch Davis to be the Tar Heels’ next head man.
Davis’s tenure can be viewed in a couple of ways.
The legacy he left: an out-of-control program with players accepting money left and right and an assistant coach who had an active financial relationship with an agent. Oh, and there were those academic improprieties that eventually shed light on a long-running scandal that left a prideful university with an ugly black eye.
But Davis did something else while in Chapel Hill: He started to build a football brand at a basketball school.
There’s no question that basketball is still king at UNC. While Davis was at North Carolina, though, there was a stronger commitment to upgrading football facilities. In 2010, the Tar Heels opened their season in Atlanta against LSU in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff. First-round NFL Draft picks became the norm.
When Davis was fired for the aforementioned scandal and it was time to hire a full-time replacement, UNC didn’t go with a “hadn’t-been-a-head-coach-in-nearly-a-decade” candidate as it did with Bunting in 2000 and Carl Torbush in 1997. North Carolina Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham instead hired up-and-comer Larry Fedora, who was leading Southern Miss to a 12-2 season at the time.
The Fedora hire paid off. The 54-year-old is 37-22 as the Heels’ head coach and last year guided the team to its first ACC Championship Game appearance. He’s recruited well, runs an up-tempo offense that attracts prospects, and brought in a big name in Gene Chizik to run the defense.
The last decade has gone differently in Charlottesville.
Al Groh was at the helm during the 23-0 beatdown of Carolina in 2006. The following year, the Wahoos climbed as high as No. 16 in the AP poll and finished 9-4.
It was his last winning season.
Groh’s last two teams finished 8-16, leading to his dismissal after the 2009 season. UVA AD Craig Littlepage plucked Mike London from Richmond to take over the reins.
London possessed several positive qualities of a head coach. Recruited and their parents loved him, and the results showed in the early classes he brought to UVA. He ran a clean program. He hired reputable assistants, including Tom O’Brien and Jon Tenuta.
However, the most important factor was absent: He couldn’t get it done on game day.
After an 8-5 mark in 2011, London never again posted a winning record in Charlottesville. Quarterback play was a major issue throughout his six years with the program, and he was ousted last fall after the Wahoos went 4-8.
Bronco Mendenhall now steers the ship and is trying to make Virginia a player in the ACC’s Coastal Division once again. He came to UVA with a proven track record after averaging nine victories per year in 11 seasons at BYU, and has a chance to prove that he’s the right fit for a school in desperate need of a winning season.
Mendenhall has an opportunity to make a statement against the Tar Heels on Saturday. There’s plenty of rebuilding to do, but an upset over a ranked opponent would be a clear sign of early progress.
It’s unlikely, but not impossible.
After all, the two programs might not be as different as you think.