(h/t to THF for the title idea)
When Butch Davis was fired as UNC's head coach on July 28th, there was a chorus of people, personified most intently by former Tar Heel player Deems May, who predicted doom and gloom for Carolina's season. That chorus was silenced to some degree by UNC's 5-1 start and interim coach Everett Withers' seemingly deft handling of the team and the media. But now that the team has lost two straight games, and looked really bad at certain points doing so, the "I-told-you-so" crowd is starting to let their laments be heard. Sports radio talk show host Taylor Zarzour posted a tweet this weekend (which he later deleted) saying that UNC lacked leadership and that was the cause of the six turnovers against Clemson. Wait, what?
Nevertheless, that begs the question, how much better would UNC's season have been so far if Butch Davis were the coach right now? The simple answer is that having Davis as coach probably would not have made a lick of difference in the team's record thus far, nor a lot of difference in how the season would have played out from here.
Just as a quick point of clarification: the purpose here is not to engage in dead equine abuse regarding the timing of Davis' dismissal nor is it to debate whether or not he should have been terminated in the first place. For starters, that ship has already sailed, and even if it hadn't, there is no way Butch was going to be the coach at UNC in 2012, so those points are moot. But we can look empirically at the structural and organizational make-up of the team and staff as well as how the team has performed thus far this season and compare to how Davis' UNC teams performed in his four years in Chapel Hill.
It is entertaining to me to read the message boards at Inside Carolina and see the fawning praise that is heaped on Davis. He apparently is this amazing leader of men, according to the IC crowd; by their definition he is George Patton, Vince Lombardi, and Steve Jobs all rolled into one. The reason I say Steve Jobs is that if you ask the IC monkeys what makes Davis so special that he can levitate 3 inches above the water at University Lake, a common response is that he is a great CEO. Really? Because when I think of the top-flight coaches in the game today - Nick Saban, Les Miles, even Mack Brown - "CEO" is not exactly what comes to mind. But giving the benefit of the doubt, does an objective analysis of the 2011 Carolina team's shortcomings reveal things that could be remedied by Davis' superior managerial and executive skills?
No, this UNC team would appear to have issues in two main areas: personnel and position coaching, both of which are directly attributable to Davis but neither of which would likely be significantly improved if he were still on the sidelines. As it relates to personnel, this is the team that Davis (and his staff) recruited, for positive and negative. The players are who they are and that would not change if Davis was still around.
From a coaching and strategic standpoint, the staff that Davis assembled is largely intact and in pretty much the same positions they were under Davis. The only major difference is that, with Everette Withers being the head coach, Art Kaufman is now the defensive coordinator. Given what we have seen from the UNC defense this year, however, Kaufman is still calling the defenses pretty much the same way Withers did, choosing to frequently drop seven defenders into coverage and with similar results to the Withers-led defenses of the past few years. John Shoop is still the offensive coordinator, doing what Shoop does, which is bewilder fans and cause them to lose their religion most Saturday afternoons. It is therefore unlikely to think the major functions of the team would be led differently if Davis was still there.
In football, unlike most other sports, so much of the coaching is done at the positional level by specialist coaches. So far this season, UNC has had three glaring weaknesses in its team units: offensive line, defensive line, and defensive backs. Is it reasonable to think that if Davis were still coaching the O-line would be able to open holes between the tackles? That the D-line would actually be able to shed blocks? That the secondary would be within the same zip code of receivers?
And then there is the issue of game planning and in-game coaching. In all the IC man-crushing on Davis, no one can say what a master strategist or game planner he was. The in-game adjustments that didn't get made under Davis are still not getting made under Withers, so that is a net wash as well.
All that leaves are the intangibles, which by definition are difficult to measure. There is no doubt that Davis apparently had a huge locker room presence, and there is also no doubt that he did a masterful job of holding the team together throughout the turmoil that was last season. But you could make a similar argument for Withers and holding the team together in the tumult of the beginning of the season this year, which is when UNC was arguably playing its best football. Davis' biggest contribution to the program, for better or worse, was apparently recruiting and bringing the feel of "big-time football" to UNC. Thus Davis' greatest strengths are not something that would manifest themselves over an 8-game stretch of the season.
Which brings us back to the original question: how much better would UNC be if Butch Davis were still the coach? Let's take a look at the three losses thus far: Carolina lost on the road at a top 10-ranked Clemson team; they lost on the road by a touchdown to Georgia Tech, and lost at home by 6 to Miami. Face it, Clemson is just a better team than UNC right now, and given the fact that UNC never plays well in Atlanta and Paul Johnson's offense always seems to flummox UNC (but not Virginia or Miami, for some reason), it is not reasonable to think UNC would have beaten the Jackets either. That just leaves the Miami game, in which the Heels came out flat as a pancake but righted the ship and had the ball in Miami territory on the final possession with a chance to win the game. Many have argued that UNC would never have come out that flat under Davis, and a hallmark of his tenure was the competitiveness of his teams. But the Heels have not exactly rolled over under Withers despite the first 2 1/2 quarters against UM and the nightmarish 3rd quarter against Clemson. Ultimately, all the hand-wringing and angst about what it would be like if Butch were still here is the difference at this point between being 6-2 (at best) or 5-3. Big deal.
More important is what happens going forward, and this is where analysis ends and speculation begins. UNC's four remaining games are all potentially winnable or losable. In the past four years, UNC has had some success with Virginia Tech on a Thursday night, all four games with Duke have been hotly contested, and we won't talk about the record vs. NCSU. A split of the last four games would allow UNC to finish at 7-5, and most pre-season pundits had pegged the Heels for about 8 wins, and that was with Davis as coach.
At this point, the season is about survival. This brutal stretch of games, from Miami through VT, would have been crucial even if Vince Lombardi were coaching the Tar Heels. I think 7-8 wins is all Butch Davis could have gotten out of this team, particularly with the shortcomings that are more evident every week. If Withers comes within a game of that total, then all the hand-wringing is for nothing. Let's be perfectly clear: in no way am I saying that the absence of Butch Davis has not been felt in the locker room, meeting rooms, or on the sidelines. But I do think it is a stretch to think that his presence would have made any significant impact in the team's record after 8 games.