Coaching connection adds intrigue to Russell Bowl
ORLANDO, FLA. — Things may be supersized in Texas, but for North Carolina's Larry Fedora and Baylor's Art Briles, it also was once a very small world.
The coaches will be adversaries when they meet in Tuesday's Russell Athletic Bowl, but back in the early 1990s they were just two up-and-coming coaches.
It was 1993 and Briles was in the middle of building a Texas prep power at Stephenville High School. Fedora was a young assistant in his fourth season at Baylor looking to recruit Briles' highly touted quarterback.
More than 20 years later both coaches will face off seeking a victory that each believes would serve as huge marker in the evolution of their current programs.
"He's worked hard to get to where he's at and he's done a great job at what he's been. That, to me, is been the most impressive thing," Briles said of Fedora. "He's been an asset everywhere he's been...He's been given a chance. He's earned a chance. He's taken advantage of it and made it work."
Briles is just hoping that success won't include beating his Bears.
For 18th-ranked Baylor (9-3) a win Tuesday would be its first bowl victory since 2012, after a one-point loss to Michigan State in last season's Cotton Bowl and a 10-point loss to UCF in the 2014 Fiesta Bowl.
The 10th-ranked Tar Heels (11-2) came up short in their bid to upset Clemson in the ACC title game, but have a chance to become the first North Carolina team to post a 12-win season.
Though Briles has been credited in recent years with the offensive innovations he's brought to the bears, Fedora remembers first being awe-struck with what he was doing at Stephenville.
"That was my (recruiting) area, so I started spending a lot of time in Stephenville...getting to know Art and what they were doing and watching how they practiced and all things they did," Fedora said. "And it was really impressive back then because now you're talking that was early 90s."
Briles has said previously that earning respectability for a program could be as much as a 10-year process. After "hanging on" in his first three seasons following his arrival in Waco in 2008, he said progress is being made.
"I don't want respect for winning the Heisman in 2011. I don't want respect for winning conference championship '13 and '14. I want this team to have respect," Briles said. "I want those guys in the locker room to earn respect for themselves and for what they've done. So this is all about renewed respect for our football team."
Here are some other things to watch for in Tuesday's Russell Athletic Bowl:
HIGH-POWERED OFFENSE: The Tar Heels are just one of 11 schools nationally averaging more than 200 yards rushing and 250 passing yards per game. QB Marquise Williams has completed 61 percent of his passes this season, with 21 touchdowns.
SHORTHANDED BEARS: Baylor's own fast-moving offense (ranked No. 1 in FBS, averaging 48 points per game) will be missing a big part of its engine against the Tar Heels. Quarterbacks Seth Russell (neck injury) and Jarrett Stidham (broken ankle) are sidelined, along with Biletnikoff Award-winning receiver Corey Coleman (hernia surgery), and running back Shock Linwood (broken foot). The group accounted for 39 of the teams 79 touchdowns this season.
GETTING THE START: Down the two QBs, Baylor will turn to sophomore Chris Johnson, who will make his third start of the season. Briles said the plan is to keep the offense simple. "It's a situation where — it's like I've always said, you can have a lot of money but you can't buy experience and the way is to get on the field and do it," Briles said. "We're trying to help him feel comfortable with what he's doing. He's a guy we have a lot of confidence in and he'll fight like hell for us."