Chancellor Holden Thorp said Butch Davis was being dismissed “without cause,” acknowledged that the timing — eight days before players were to report — was “terrible,” and said the coach would be given a $2.7 million good-bye gift. He cited ongoing damage to UNC’s “academic reputation” as the deal-breaker.
The announcement represented an about-face for Thorp, who had said repeatedly during the past year that he had confidence that Davis could fix the program, which stands accused of nine major violations in a report by the NCAA that mentions Davis just once, but not in connection with alleged violations.
Thorp lied to — or misled — not only Davis, fellow coaches, UNC football fans, the school’s board of trustees and current players, but high school football players considering playing for Davis, many of whom are now on campus with limited options — either staying, or transferring and sitting out a year. He also resuscitated a story that was gasping for air.
Does Thorp believe that UNC’s academic foundation is so wobbly that a half-dozen football players who cheat, get caught, get punished with F’s and expulsions, can bring it crashing down?
Want a truer measure? UNC’s football program was among the leaders in the country in graduating players when Davis arrived, and he has grown the percentage, which averages in the mid-70s.
What isn’t being reported is that Thorp was dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, which oversees the tutorial program, where the academic issues were conceived. UNC has constructed a wall that keeps the football coach out of the academic arena, so Davis is being punished for issues that occurred beyond his reach.
There are those convinced that Thorp and others in South Building don’t believe that a big-time college football program can exist on a campus that is serious about its academic mission, and that football will now be de-emphasized. What happens in the months and years following will testify for or against that assertion.
What is clear is that Thorp withered under the heat of the academics on campus and media, which were relentless in their charge, and that Thorp took advantage of turnover on the board of trustees, timing the announcement when the former chairman of the board, a Davis supporter, was out of the country.
This is not to say that Davis should not have been fired. He hired an assistant coach who, although cleared by the NCAA, brought with him a spotty reputation, and Davis could have been more diligent in making sure that a handful of players who said no to the NFL to return to play for the 2010 season better understood that parasitic sports agents were in the bushes.
That makes long ago, not now, the time for any dismissal.
Complicating it all is that UNC just completed construction of the Blue Zone to Kenan Stadium, a $70 million addition that is built but not paid for. Fannies in the seats were the payment plan, and a mediocre or losing football program will mean depressed revenues that imperil not only football, but Olympic sports — and even academics.
That is the new threat to what Thorp would call the “Carolina Way,” not a few football players who did what is done on campuses in this country every day, got caught, and paid a heavy price.