Behind The Scenes: Part Three

Behind The Scenes: Part Three

by Jeff Greenberg

Game Day: Rise and Shine:

Day three is game day.  I did not need my phone to wake me up on this day.  It's game day.  If you like college football your adrenalin gets going early on Saturdays.  When it's a Saturday where you'll have a backstage pass to the action, then no alarm is needed.

I tried to run into Starbucks to grab a drink.  But there was a line.  Again, Jeff's Starbucks needs were not a line item on “The Card” so I wasn't about to let my desire for caffeine make me late for my ride at the stadium.

Coaches' Shuttle – 8:15 a.m.:

First on my agenda was making sure I was at the football building in time to catch the coaches' shuttle to the team hotel.  I boarded the bus early and had a chance to catch up with Coach Charlton Warren about our drone sighting the day before.  He actually had extensive experience working with drones during his time in the military so hearing his stories peaked my interest.  Right about then Coach Fedora boarded the bus.

“Did you really have a flat tire yesterday?” he asked.  I nodded affirmative and mentioned that I didn't want the bus to wait on me.  “Oh, don't' worry, the bus wasn't going to wait,” he replied smiling.  Like I said before, fixing Jeff's flat tire wasn't on “The Card.”

As we made our way to the hotel, the coaches listened to wide receivers coach Gunter Brewer recap some high school football results from around the state of North Carolina and some from South Carolina.  As they commented on different results I was amazed by coach Brewer's knowledge of all of the different schools, their players, and their relevance to the state's football world.  He was like an encyclopedia of information; which makes sense since he's considered one of the Tar Heels' most valuable recruiters on the staff.

Team Breakfast – 8:45 a.m.:

Breakfast was a little less formal than dinner the night before.  However, the tables were set up again by position and had the sports' drinks laid out at each table again.  The word hydration was again mentioned frequently while at the hotel.

During breakfast, linebackers coach John Papuchis, sat down with us.  I asked him why he didn't take the shuttle over to the hotel.

“Actually, I live near here so I drove myself.  It allows me to see my family for an extra hour and that's important to me,” he answered.  Once the season begins, coaches sacrifice a lot of family time and miss a lot.  For instance, coach Papuchis got some extra time with his family this morning, but when he left to come to the hotel his wife and son were leaving to head to his hockey game.   

“I hate missing those moments.  It's one of the hardest parts of this job.  You can't really relate to it unless you've worked in it.  And it goes both ways.  Our families are making those sacrifices as well,” he explained. 

Just then he got a phone call from his wife, who was calling to update him on his son, John, and how the hockey game went.

“A hat trick?  He got a hat trick?  That's awesome!”  Then he turned to me, “See, that's so awesome.  I wish I was there to see it.  He'll tell me all about it after our game.”

Walk-Throughs – Parking Lot – 9:45 a.m.:

When breakfast ended the players and coaches split up into offense and defense meetings and walk-throughs.  The walk-throughs were similar to the evening before at the stadium.  Except this time they were in the hotel parking lot.  There were some confused looks by some of the hotel guests that stumbled across a football team practicing in the parking lot.

The offense went through some final thoughts on their keys to the game and went over assignments one last time.  Before heading over to see what the defense was doing I looked over the call sheet again.  Still on the opener list…'Special XYZ.' 

Once again the players were mostly silent during this time.  The air was thick with intensity and focus.  When these meetings ended the players went back to their rooms to change and report back for lunch before heading to the stadium.

Lunch – Noon:

Lunch was much like dinner the night before.  Everybody was sitting by position.  Everybody was quiet.  Me?  I was sitting with Coach Fedora at his table again.  We were joined by his brother, who is himself a very successful high school football coach in Texas.  Did the brothers talk during lunch?  Nope.  We just sat and ate our steaks.  Yes, after eating a big breakfast, who doesn't eat steak at lunch?

Final Team Meeting – 12:35 p.m.:

After lunch we all filed into the ballroom for the final team meeting.  Once seated, the lights went down and a video came on the screen in front of us.  It was a highlight reel set to music, often referred to these days as the “hype video.”  Well, it hit all the right nerves as the players whooped and hollered for their teammates in the video.

After the video it was speech time.  First up were guiding words from offensive coordinator Chris Kapilovic where he went over the keys to the offense being successful in the game.  Next up was defensive coordinator Gene Chizik.  He gave an impassioned speech around wanting to be the best they could be for that game.  His speech didn't really focus on the X's and O's.  It focused on what was inside their chest and between their ears.  It was motivation at its best.

After the coordinators were done each position coach had one of their players stand up.  They would ask the player what their role was in a certain game scenario.  Each player had to recite the exact role and responsibility of that position without any notes or help.  To a man, every single one of them got their assignment right, including a freshman or two.  These guys were ready. 

Next up was coach Fedora.  He brought it all together.  The themes they had heard all week long.  The keys to success for this game.  He described the opportunity that they had in front of them to open the home schedule strong and “Live up to the standard that we've set for playing in the Tar Pit.”

All Aboard – Bus Departure for Kenan Stadium – 12:55 p.m.:

Everybody filed out of the building and onto the buses waiting outside.  One for offense, one for defense and one for special teams.  I was hanging back with coach Fedora.  I noticed his bag on the table near the door.  I offered to take on the bus for him.

He responded, “Thanks, but I'll get it Jeff.  I always have it right there for me to carry, and I'm the last one out of the building.”

Like I said before, coaches like their routines and game day habits.  Whether it's a certain place you eat lunch on Thursdays or the particular way you exit the hotel; these guys are creatures of habit.  Even the bus drivers know.  When coach Fedora stepped onto the bus and sat down, the door closed and the bus pulled out of the parking lot.

Victory Walk – 1:20 p.m.:

We had a police escort all the way to the stadium.  As we began to weave through campus you could see people tailgating on all sides.  Once they saw the buses they started cheering.  They knew who was on these buses.

The crowd waiting outside of the stadium knew too.  We pulled up to the top of the hill near the football building.  An enormous crowd filled the entire area.  Every school has their own version of this ritual and the Tar Heels are no different.  The football team walks through the crowd of fans wishing them luck as they make their way to the stadium.  It's a chance for the fans to get up close and personal and let the players know they're behind the team.  As we filed off the bus the excitement in the air hit you right in the face.  The band, the cheerleaders, the grill smoke.  It was game day and the team had arrived.  I think I even saw coach Fedora crack a smile to a few fans.

Once assembled, we began the walk down the hill through the crowd.  I have to admit, it was a cool adrenalin rush.  The best part was seeing the awestruck look in the kids' eyes waiting to high-five their heroes.  This is what college football is all about.  The pageantry and the passion of the fans.

Time to go to Work – The Clock Starts Now:

Once in the building, the players filed off to the locker room to get ready for warmups.  The coaches headed to their locker room to change and head upstairs to visit with recruits.  I headed out onto the field as Coach Fedora was busy hosting recruits in his office.  It was then that “The Clock” started.

“The Clock” is the countdown to kickoff.  In the locker room it sits above the door.  In the middle of the locker room there is a chart showing at what time intervals different position groups are supposed to take the field to warm up.  Every minute before kickoff is accounted for because just like during the week, every minute counts.  The whole locker room is a frenzy of activity.  Players are getting all of their uniform needs taken care of with the equipment staff.  Others are in the training room getting taped up.  Some are even getting in a quick cryotherapy session in before getting ready.  Yes, I said cryotherapy.  How times have changed.

Walking around the field during warm-ups was another cool experience.  This is where the players seemed to be the most exposed and their raw emotion couldn't be contained anymore.  All of the preparations were done.  There were no more meetings to talk about what they needed to do.  They were on the field running around on cloud nine in anticipation of kickoff. 

I spoke with backup quarterback Nathan Elliott about being ready to possibly get in the game.  He was nervous and excited all at the same time.  His family had travelled up from Texas and this had the chance to be his first time playing a game at Kenan Stadium.  Honestly, he looked like a kid on Christmas Day, eagerly awaiting his opportunity. 

One of the more interesting encounters I witnessed was when the head referee came to chat briefly with coach Fedora.  After hellos and introductions, he said to Fedora, “Coach, if I could, all I want to ask for today is a little patience during the game.”  Fedora smiled and responded, “Of course, you bet.”  

At about this time the public address announcer took the microphone to announce that the stadium was now open for the fans to enter and find their seats.  A flood of students ran in and filled the aisles on the way down to the student section.  As the crowd filed in the entire team was now on the field.  They lined up to stretch out as a team.  While stretching, coach Fedora was making his way around to each player to wish them luck and get them hyped up.  Like the players, the coaches were tired of meeting and talking.  You could see it in their eyes and actions that they were ready the game to begin too.  This is when you noticed that this really isn't work for them.  Work can be something you “have to” do.  The coaches looked grateful that they “get to” coach football.  They love what they do.

Pregame Locker Room:

Once they were back in the locker room, the players readjusted their uniforms, drank down whatever fluids they could, and took care of whatever they needed to do before heading out for the kick-off.  After a few brief talks the team assembled in front of Coach Fedora.  He essentially told them there isn't much left to say that hasn't been said already.  They knew what they had to do and they knew the standard they had had set for when they play in front of their home crowd.

After the speech was done we filed out into the tunnel.  The scene was incredible.  By now the stadium was full of fans.  The band was lined up at the end of the tunnel.  It was at this moment that you could hear this loud, pounding sound.  It was the students hitting the roof of the tunnel in unison.  It was deafening, and it was awesome.  Then the smoke machines ignited it felt like the players were about to explode out of the tunnel. 

And We're Off – Game Time:

After running out of the tunnel it was time to get down to business.  The numerous managers got all of the coaches hooked up to their headsets.  Their chatter started immediately.  The players gathered around their respective units.  I was looking for something to do so I got out my call sheet and looked over the opening play script again.  Of course, my eyes went right to 'Special XYZ.'  I asked coach Heckendorf during warmups if they were planning on running the play.  “You bet we are.  If we're in the right position on the field with the right down in the series, you'll see it,” he explained.

Kickoff was here.  All of the meetings.  All of the film study.  All of the reps in practice.  Every minute spent preparing during the week all culminated in this moment. 

The Tar Heels kicked off to James Madison, who proceeded with marching right down the field to score on their first drive.  The defense ran off the field frustrated, but their teammates on offense told them not to worry.  They'd have their backs on the offense.  Guys were picking each other up immediately.  Coaches were telling players to wake up and focus because there was a lot of game left in front of them. 

The speed of the game is rapid.  There is no time to dwell on any single play because the game keeps moving on.  The amazing thing to witness was the calmness, in the midst of all of the chaos of the game, in how the coaches addressed their position groups on the sidelines.  Listening to the coaches talk, listening to players talk to each other showed me just how much the sideline is a different world from the rest of the stadium during the game.

The offense took the field and I checked the call sheet again and verified the first play.  I recognized the formation of the first play and was eager to see if I was right.  Yes indeed, but I guess James Madison had studied too because they blew up that first play.  UNC regrouped and marched right down the field using the other plays in the openers to score on their first drive.  They would go on to score touchdowns on their first five drives.  But it was their second drive that had my attention, if you could call it a drive.

After the Tar Heels scored, James Madison drove down the field again and scored.  After a touchback UNC had the ball on their own 25 yard line.  And then I heard it.  I heard the quarterbacks say that 'Special XYZ' was called.  I looked on the field and saw the formation for that exact play.  It was at this moment that I found a new appreciation for how fun, yet nerve-wracking, coaching could be.  You spend all week working on a gadget play that you might use at some point.  You have the exact scenario you want for it, so you call the play.  The 10 to 15 seconds in between making the call and waiting for the ball to be snapped is excruciating.  It's such a double-edged sword situation.  If it works, you're a genius.  If it doesn't, you're an idiot for calling such a ridiculous trick play.

Well, the offense lined up.  They snapped the ball.  Quarterback Mitch Trubisky handed the ball off to running back Elijah Hood.  He took a few steps and then stopped and pitched it back to Trubisky.  The flea flicker! Trubisky then threw a perfect ball down the field to a streaking Ryan Switzer who took the ball 75 yards to the house.  Touchdown!  'Special XYZ' worked!  The beauty of preparation played out right in front of me in another way.  The players had studied the play so much and knew what the other team's tendencies were with their formations.  When the ball was snapped, the moment wide receiver Mack Hollins saw the defenders take their first steps in their alignment, Hollins raised his arms to signal touchdown before Trubisky even threw the ball.  He knew, based on his knowledge of the defense, that the play would score before Switzer was even five yards into his route.  Just a great example of how important all of those minutes spent watching film and preparing pay off by the time a team gets to kickoff on Saturday.

Halftime – Refocus and Finish:

Back in the locker room, it was all about getting the players refueled.  Trainers passed around Gatorade and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.  Players took their pads off and tried to regroup and rest the best they could.  The defense, after a poor first half expected to get an ear-full from defensive coordinator Gene Chizik.  Instead, he came calmly walking in and said simply, “Guys, we're not changing a thing.  Our plan is sound.  The only thing that has to change is how you execute the plan in the second half.  It's up to you.  There's nothing to fix.  You just have to choose to be better.  You have to choose to show you're better than you were in the first half.  That's it.”

Various position coaches gathered their groups and gave them the adjustments that were needed heading into the second half.  Before you knew it the clock told them it was time to head back out onto the field. 

They gathered up front again in front of coach Fedora.  His message wasn't complicated either.  He told them, “Guys, you're in a dogfight now.  That's all this is.  Isn't it fun?  That's what this game is all about.  So it's time to go out there and win this dogfight on our home field and play the way we expect to play in the Tar Pit.  That's it.  Play for the guy next to you and let's go get it done.”

Finish What They Started:

The offense continued to pour it on and scored three more touchdowns before getting some of the back-ups in the game.  The defense listened to coach Chizik and went on to keep James Madison scoreless on four of their five second half possessions.  The Tar Heels won the game.  Coach Fedora made his way to midfield to shake hands with the other head coach.  The team then headed to the student section to celebrate.  It was the first moment I noticed coach Fedora exhale and look relaxed for once.

While the band played, he leaned over and said, “Every win matters.  Winning isn't guaranteed for anybody.  It's a big deal to win no matter who the opponent is or what type of game it is.  None of these are easy.”

I tried to process what I'd just experienced.  Like anything in life, it was the interactions between everybody that stood out to me.  Hearing what the coaches are saying to each other between plays.  They look like they're walking around talking to themselves when they're really in constant conversation over their headsets.  Hearing players talking and reacting as they run on and off the field.  Listening to the conversations between the referees and the coaches, both in friendly situations and in moments of frustration.  Seeing and hearing the pure joy in the players' conversations when something good happens.  Then seeing the anguish and frustration when it isn't going their way.  It's like a roller coaster of emotions and conversations until that clock strikes 00:00.

Back in the locker room the team gathered one last time in front of coach Fedora.  He congratulated them and told them to, “Find your families and the people you love and hug their necks.  Be smart, be together and enjoy this win.  And then get to bed.”

End It with Family:

Coach Fedora headed off to do his postgame press conference.  His wife and kids looked on as he answered the media's questions.  Then we headed up to his office while he went to finish his other obligations.  When he arrived back in his office, a happy family was waiting for him to celebrate. 

He walked in, smiled, and simply said, “Alright, let's go home.”

He spends enough time at his office.  He didn't need to spend another minute there that night, and he was ready to get home and be with his family and friends.  Like practice and preparation during the week, his family time after the game is precious to him.  Once again, every minute counts.

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