If Holden Thorp, the chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, figured that firing football coach Butch Davis would make the embarrassing headlines of the past year go poof, then he miscalculated badly — and now it’s his own future that appears uncertain.
After spending a year telling everyone who would listen that Davis had his support, Thorp fired Davis on July 20 without explanation, angering Tar Heel fans who are now convinced that mediocre football is the goal. A few days later, Thorp dug his own hole deeper when, while answering a reporter’s question about a football recruit named Drew Davis, he committed a secondary NCAA violation, which the school self-reported. Drew Davis, by the way, is the son of Butch Davis.
For those keeping score, the tally is: Holden Thorp, one NCAA violation; Butch Davis, none.
But the bigger problem is that while Thorp claimed unanimous support of the UNC board of trustees, the truth is that the matter was debated for three hours, and not everyone was on board. So that makes shaky support that Thorp is going to need as angry alumni and football fans threaten to withhold donations, both to academics and athletics.
The most egregious charge is Thorp planned to fire Davis all along, but laid low in the weeds until he had enough support on a new board of trustees. That is worse than mere dishonesty because all along he was telling well-heeled boosters considering donating big bucks for the $70 million addition to Kenan Stadium called the Blue Zone that Davis would remain the coach.
Some of those boosters want their money back with a side order of the truth. They have enlisted the help of five lawyers, all graduates of UNC, who are threatening a lawsuit, but are beginning by using the Freedom of Information Act to make public all kinds of correspondence between Thorp and key players to see if it’s true that Thorp was saying one thing publicly and another privately.
If it can be demonstrated that Thorp was intentionally misleading alumni in order to secure donations, his tenure as UNC’s chancellor will soon be at an end.
Still to be determined is whether UNC’s leadership decides to roll back the football program, or continue the upward direction it was headed under Davis. There are those within the UNC academic community who believe that a powerhouse football program cannot be achieved without unacceptable compromises, and point to the NCAA allegations of major violations as Exhibits Nos. 1 through 9.
The irony is that if Thorp survives this initial gunfire, his future might be determined by wins and losses by a football team that his critics are convinced he wants to disarm. And if Thorp doesn’t survive, is his successor to conclude that football is not to be toyed with?
Even if you are in Thorp’s camp and agree that Davis did indeed have to go, it’s hard to defend the chancellor’s handling of the situation, which explains why few have stepped forward to do so. Thorp simply replaced Davis on the hot seat, and threw gasoline on a fire that was beginning to retreat.
Now an end to the media onslaught, in sight the morning of July 20, is well past the horizon.