Thursday, July 28, 2011

'Why now?' is the question at Chapel Hill

The question I have about UNC's firing of head football coach Butch Davis is not "Why?" but "Why now?" Chancellor Holden Thorp said there was nothing new in the year-long NCAA investigation of the football program, just cumulative damage to UNC's reputation as a quality educational institution that plays by the rules. So he chose to fire Davis a week before football practice begins.

Why now? Although Davis asserted his innocence in a written statement issued after his surprise dismissal, UNC had grounds to fire the coach a year ago. That was when it was revealed that assistant coach John Blake, whom Davis had hired and supervised, was acting as an agent in an unseemly scheme to connect UNC players with a sports agent friend of Blake. The bad situation unraveled from there. The NCAA investigation happened upon academic problems with a tutor hired by the university, and about a dozen players were withheld from one or more games. A couple of players' actions were so egregious that they were banned from college football. One player's lawsuit against the NCAA led to the revelation that he had heavily plagiarized a term paper, and the student Honor Court had failed to discover the obvious violations. You can complain with some justification that NCAA rules are too picky and its disciplinary actions too inconsistent, but the activities revealed by the NCAA probe and news media investigations have been embarrassing to the university. That cumulative embarrassment apparently is what led Thorp to fire Davis.

But in the weeks and months leading up to Wednesday's announcement, Thorp and athletics director Dick Baddour had repeatedly vouched for Davis, missing every opportunity to hang the responsibility around the coach's neck. By reversing himself days before practice begins, Thorp has not only shown himself to be inconsistent, but he has badly damaged UNC's ability to field a competitive team. And if Davis is responsible, so is Baddour, who selected Davis and started UNC on this path of embarrassing surprises.

The football scandal at UNC goes back further that Wednesday's announcement or last year's NCAA probe. The university's decision to hire a big-name coach with Football U. and NFL experience paved the way for the embarrassment UNC is trying to purge now. Under Davis, venerable Kenan Stadium has lost its iconic and charming tile-roofed field house to be replaced by fancy wrap-around lounges for well-heeled donors. Die-hard fans had hoped Davis would bring top-five national rankings, even a championship, to Chapel Hill, but that hasn't happened. Davis has brought a megalomaniacal super stadium, some talented teams and exciting games. But his four years as head coach will be remembered mostly for the embarrassment of the NCAA and academic investigations.

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