Withers excited about interim role
First step for Withers has been to reach out to the players
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Everett Withers won't dwell on the mixed emotions of becoming a head coach for the first time after the firing of Butch Davis at North Carolina. The interim coach just doesn't have time with preseason practice only a week away for the troubled program.
"I told our assistant coaches this morning that I want to have fun," Withers said Friday at a news conference. "I don't want to stress. Our kids deserve an experience that's fun for them. Last summer wasn't a whole lot of fun for them. I want them to have some fun. We're going to have a good time, but we're going to work hard."
Withers had spent the past three seasons as defensive coordinator and secondary coach under Davis. But after Davis' surprise dismissal Wednesday, Withers, 48, now finds himself leading a program mired in an NCAA investigation of improper benefits and academic misconduct.
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The first step: Reaching out to his players. Withers said he has spoken to about 40 of them and that they're excited to get back to football. The Tar Heels report for preseason camp Thursday and then start practice the following day.
Withers -- a Charlotte native and the son of a postman and teacher -- played as a defensive back at Appalachian State in the 1980s, where he spent a season under former UNC and current Texas coach Mack Brown. He also spent three seasons as an assistant to Brown at Texas from 1998-2000 before leaving to spend six seasons on Jeff Fisher's staff with the NFL's Tennessee Titans.
Withers said he had already received a congratulatory text message from Brown after being named the interim coach Thursday evening. He also received a text from Davis with a simple piece of advice: just be yourself.
"I don't think there needs to be a style change," Withers said. "I'm not going to try to be everybody but Everett Withers."
Withers entered last season with a defense expected to rank as one of the nation's best with top NFL prospects Robert Quinn and Marvin Austin anchoring the line. But neither played a snap for a unit decimated by NCAA or school suspensions early in the year, forcing the Tar Heels to force young players into a constantly revolving lineup.
Yet Withers' unit still ranked fourth in the Atlantic Coast Conference and 30th nationally in total defense.
"We firmly believe that he has the ability to stabilize this team and rally the players around each other," athletic director Dick Baddour said.
The school fired Davis on Wednesday, with chancellor Holden Thorp citing the cumulative damage done to the university's reputation over the past year. Baddour will also step down in the coming months to allow a new athletic director to hire the new permanent coach.
The NCAA has reported nine potential major violations in its notice of allegations to the school. In all, 14 players missed at least one game and seven missed all of last season.
Withers promised "we won't flinch" at the trying times.
"I know there have been instances, there have been things that have happened," Withers said. "I think what we've got to do is get back to what we do with our own kids. We've got to teach our kids right from wrong, and we've got to hope and pray that they take our leadership. And that's what we've got to continue to do."
Associate head coach Sam Pittman, who also interviewed for the interim position, said the players will respond the way their coaches do in the aftermath of the abrupt coaching change.
"Obviously when [Davis] was let go, there was a bit of shock," Pittman said. "Certainly a lot of disappointment and concern for him and his family. But Coach Davis would want us to move on. He's concerned about these kids like we are. So right now we've got a job to do. The university is paying us money, and we need to go earn the money that we're paid."
Withers said linebackers coach Art Kaufman will serve as defensive coordinator this season. The Tar Heels could add an assistant to the staff, though Withers sounded like he planned to juggle the duties of the current coaches to cover the vacancy.
"I think the biggest thing we say [to the players] is, 'Hey, let's move on,' " Withers said. "We're not looking back or worrying. We're focusing on the day and the task at hand. These guys have seen me every day. I've been in front of the entire team before. So they know me. They know these assistant coaches. So I don't think we'll miss a beat."