North Carolina football focused on Independence Bowl, not future

Saturday, December 24, 2011 | 4:28 p.m. CST; updated 7:43 p.m. CST, Saturday, December 24, 2011

SHREVEPORT, La. — They say they’re doing it for their seniors. They say the fact that their coach is leaving for another job and that the school has already hired his replacement hasn’t affected them. They say that the goal is to simply win the game and to end their season on a successful note.

Heading into their Independence Bowl matchup with Missouri, the North Carolina Tar Heels are saying all the things you would expect them to say in the face of an uncertain future.

Independence Bowl

Missouri (7-5, 5-4 in Big 12)
vs. North Carolina (7-5, 3-5 ACC)

WHEN: 4 p.m. Dec. 26
Independence Stadium, Shreveport, La.
KTGR/1580 AM, 100.5 FM; KCMQ/98.7 FM

2011 Coaching Carousel: Bowl Edition: North Carolina is not alone. The following teams playing in bowl games will have new coaches next season.

Arizona State: Fired Dennis Erickson.
Arkansas State: Hugh Freeze departed for Ole Miss.
Houston: Kevin Sumlin departed for Texas A&M.
Illinois: Fired Ron Zook.
Ohio State: Interim coach Luke Fickell will be replaced by Urban Meyer.
Penn State: Fired Joe Paterno.
Pittsburgh: Todd Graham departed for Arizona State.
Southern Miss: Larry Fedora departed for North Carolina.
Texas A&M: Fired Mike Sherman.
Toledo: Tim Beckman departed for Illinois.
UCLA: Fired Rick Neuheisel.

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Interim Coach Everett Withers, who took over after Butch Davis was fired in late July, did not get the job on a permanent basis. The Tar Heels hired Southern Miss coach Larry Fedora instead, and earlier this week Withers accepted a job to be co-defensive coordinator and assistant head coach at Ohio State.

But it will be Withers who leads the Tar Heels onto the field for the season finale Monday, not Fedora.

Withers said that he felt “all along” that he wouldn’t get the job.

“Our focus was on these guys, on these players,” Withers said. “To make sure we stay on the right path and do the right things and make sure we have a successful season.”

He also said there was no sense of relief that this period of uncertainty in his life would be ending.

“This has been an experience for all of us,” Withers said. “I don’t look at it as necessarily tumultuous; it’s been a life lesson, a life journey.”

Despite being torn between two jobs, Withers said it’s been “pretty easy” to stay focused on preparing the Tar Heels for Missouri.

“I’ve already made my calls for the week for Ohio State,” he said.

New coaches can sometimes mean personnel changes, but the Tar Heel players said they didn’t feel at all like Monday was an audition for the future.

“I hope whoever’s watching the game just sees the type of playmakers that we have on this offense,” running back Giovani Bernard said. “For the most part, I think we’re just going to go out there and play like we can. We can’t worry about the future.”

If it is an audition, it won’t be a live one. A North Carolina official confirmed that Fedora, who will coach Southern Miss against Nevada in Saturday’s Hawaii Bowl, will not be in Shreveport.

For defensive end Quinton Coples, ranked as the No. 5 overall prospect for the 2012 NFL Draft by Scouts Inc., and the rest of North Carolina’s seniors, it won’t be an audition either way. It will be their final game as Tar Heels.

“For these 17 seniors, we want to send them out with a win,” Withers said. “That’s the bottom line.

“Just to send everybody off with a win, that’s the main goal,” he said. “Wherever everybody ends up, it’s the last game.”

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