After missing a bowl game due to NCAA sanctions, North Carolina's seniors are closing their careers with a return to the postseason.
The Tar Heels will face Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl later this month after digging their way out of a 1-5 start to become bowl eligible. Second-year coach Larry Fedora also sees it as a reward to the upperclassmen who have stuck around through a bumpy few years for the program.
"These guys have overcome a lot," Fedora said Monday. "They came in at the beginning of an NCAA investigation and saw it through to the end and had to accept the sanctions against them. They had three head coaches, they had two staffs. ... It's a pretty unique group, so I'm very proud of the way they held this team together when we were 1-5. I think they're very appreciative and I think they're very excited about the opportunity."
Most of this year's seniors were freshmen when the NCAA launched its investigation into improper benefits and academic misconduct within the program in summer 2010. Five — defensive linemen Kareem Martin and Tim Jackson, defensive backs Tre Boston and Jabari Price, and offensive lineman James Hurst — played bigger roles as true freshmen in the opening loss to LSU that year because the school held out 13 players due to the probe, which ultimately led to scholarship losses and a one-year postseason ban.
The Dec. 28 game against the Bearcats will be the Tar Heels' first bowl since losing to Missouri in the Independence Bowl after the 2011 season. The Tar Heels played that game under interim coach Everett Withers, who took over after the school fired Butch Davis shortly before preseason practice due to the probe, and after UNC had named Southern Mississippi's Fedora as its next permanent coach.
The Tar Heels (6-6) missed the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game and a bowl in Fedora's first year due to the sanctions, then looked headed for a second straight bowl-less year after losing to Miami on a last-second touchdown on Oct. 17.
But, with Fedora pushing his team to focus on a "1-0 each week" approach, UNC won five straight before falling to rival Duke in the season finale at home.
"It's impossible not to" feel pressure at 1-5, Fedora said. "That's why we started the 1-0 deal, and just focusing on trying to be better and be 1-0 each week and not looking at the big picture to try to take some of that pressure off of them. ... I think it was really good for our football team."
UNC is in an exam week and will return to practice Saturday.