Fedora can thank Tech’s McCollum for career break

It would not be accurate to say that Andy McCollum created the monster that is North Carolina’s no-huddle, up-tempo offense. But the Georgia Tech linebackers coach once gave the monster a job.

The most imposing challenge for the Yellow Jackets on Saturday will be the Tar Heels’ fast-break offense. Its architect, coach Larry Fedora, first put his ideas into practice when McCollum, then the head coach at Middle Tennessee, hired him to be his offensive coordinator.

“It was a huge break for me,” Fedora said this week.

Fourteen years later, the up-tempo concept has overrun college football and found a home in the NFL. Fedora, McCollum and the success they enjoyed at Middle Tennessee have played a part in changing the game.

“Nobody was doing it back then, nobody except for one (other) team,” McCollum said. “That was what we felt like was our edge.”

McCollum and Fedora became close friends in the mid-1990s when both were assistants at Baylor. Fedora left Baylor to become wide receivers coach at Air Force. In December 1998, McCollum was hired from Baylor to become head coach at Middle Tennessee, which was transitioning from FCS (then Division I-AA) to FBS (then Division I-A). He asked Fedora to be his offensive coordinator.

Fedora was in Hawaii with Air Force at the Oahu Bowl, and Falcons coach Fisher DeBerry thought Fedora would be crazy to leave the WAC champions for a job with an uncertain future where he wouldn’t be hiring his own offensive staff. Fedora went anyway.

Since his team would be overmatched as it moved up in division, McCollum wanted an offensive scheme that would be unorthodox and provide his team with an advantage. One possibility was a no-huddle spread, at that point run only by Tulane, McCollum said, but an offense that Fedora had long been interested in attempting. The other would be Air Force’s flexbone option offense, which, ironically, is highly similar to the one run by Tech and coach Paul Johnson.

The talent on the Middle Tennessee roster — which included former Columbia High star wide receiver Kendall Newson — convinced McCollum and Fedora to go the up-tempo spread route.

“It was fortunate for me that we were able to do the things that I really believed in and wanted to do,” Fedora said. “You know, back then, in ’99, there weren’t many no-huddle teams in the country.”

The plan succeeded. In 2001, McCollum and Fedora’s third season, Middle Tennessee ranked No. 5 in the country in total offense and No. 9 in scoring offense. The Blue Raiders finished 8-3.

“That was the year my staff lost seven coaches,” McCollum said. “Everybody raided my staff.”

That included Fedora, who was hired by Florida. He was head coach at Southern Mississippi by 2008 and brought the offense to North Carolina in 2012. The Tar Heels finished eighth in scoring offense last season and 14th in total offense.

What would have happened if Middle Tennessee’s personnel had been more suited for the Air Force offense?

“I might be doing what Paul Johnson’s doing now,” Fedora jokingly told North Carolina’s website recently.

Fedora was intent on trying his up-tempo ideas, tactics that have proved successful. If it hadn’t been McCollum and Middle Tennessee, it would have been elsewhere.

Said Fedora, “So it was just a great experience for me, and I appreciate it very much that Andy gave me that opportunity.”

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