In the wake of another excruciating, gut-wrenching loss to NC State, message board monkeys and pundits alike are taking stock of Butch Davis and the progress of the UNC football program in year four. Some feel that Davis is definitely the man to lead UNC to football prominence, as evidenced by the assemblage of yet another seemingly stellar recruiting class and the prospect of a third-straight winning season and a third-straight bowl game. Others look at the on-field results, such as back-to-back bowl losses and 8-5 seasons, and being 0-4 against NC State, as proof that Davis is not the man to lead Carolina forward, and all this before the NCAA came calling.
In other words, is it possible Butch Davis is becoming UNC's own version of Herb Sendek?
There are a number of striking parallels between Davis and the oft-maligned former NC State basketball coach who was in essence sent packing after 10 years in Raleigh. Both inherited losing programs wandering in the wilderness and made them instantly competitive. In Sendek's first year, the Wolfpack made the ACC tournament finals from the play-in game and won an NIT bid. Davis' first UNC team only went 4-8 but six of the losses were by a touchdown or less, which was a vast improvement on the blowout losses of the John Bunting era.
Sendek later went to five straight NCAA tournaments, tying the school record set in the Jim Valvano heyday of the 1980s. His teams won 20 games five times and he averaged over 19 wins per year in Raleigh. But the boring, dry, and cerebral Sendek, who never embraced the barbecue and iced tea circuit of athletic politics and culture in North Carolina, never endeared himself to fans and didn't seem to grasp what being the head basketball coach at NC State - the successor to Everett Case, Norm Sloan, and Jimmy V - was all about. He talked in coaching platitudes about daytight compartments and chopping wood, but aroused no passion whatsoever about the Wolfpack's mortal enemy, the North Carolina Tar Heels. He spoke of the Carolina game as just another game, part of a larger landscape. Sendek was roundly criticized for his recruiting and for being an average-at-best game-day coach.
Eventually, State fans had had enough of Sendek and a mutual divorce was agreed to, with Sendek fleeing to Arizona State. National pundits and rival fan bases skewered the university and its rabid fans for running off a coach that had built and sustained the program at a level only sporadically achieved in the previous 40 years. NCSU eventually settled for Sidney Lowe, who in four years has a solid recruiting class and a pair of 20-win seasons, but has not returned to the NCAA tournament.
Meanwhile in Chapel Hill, Butch Davis has led UNC to three straight winning seasons and what will probably be three straight bowl bids for only the third time in UNC football history. And while there is a much more sizable faction that supports Davis than supported Sendek, there are those who also believe Carolina has plateaued under Davis with two consecutive eight-win seasons and another 8-win season at best this season.
Like Sendek, Davis has been criticized for not embracing the culture of UNC, even down to his seeming preference (prior to this season, apparently) for wearing navy blue rather than Carolina blue on the sidelines. And despite beating Virginia Tech, Miami, Florida State, and Notre Dame among others during his time in Chapel Hill, Davis has also developed a reputation as a mediocre game-day coach.
So the question then becomes, what is a reasonable expectation for UNC football under Butch Davis? This was a constant question for NC State and its fans under Sendek, and one that does not have a simple answer. The national punditry seemed to think that, given the power structure of the ACC and the dominance of Duke and UNC, that 20-win seasons and yearly NCAA appearances should be enough for Sendek. Are 8-win seasons and mid-level bowl bids where UNC should be given the power structure of the ACC and the dominance of Virginia Tech?
The general consensus prior to Davis' arrival seemed to be that most UNC fans would be satisfied with 8-9 win seasons every year, with the occasional 10- or 11-win season where UNC challenged for a division title and BCS bid and the occasional 6-6 season while Carolina re-stocked. Then came Davis and a $2 million price tag, stadium expansions, and NCAA investigations.
Part of the problem in the public perception of Davis is that the first 8-win season came too soon. In his second year, Davis' Tar Heel team vastly exceeded expectations with wins over Miami, Notre Dame, and Georgia Tech, while four of the team's five losses were by a combined 9 points. Before the NCAA unpleasantness, this was poised to be a breakout year for UNC. If the 2008 team had only won 6 games instead of 8, so that UNC improved from 4, to 6, to 8 wins in each of Davis' first three years, would people think Carolina had plateaued, or would it be a natural progression?
Of course, Davis comes with a $2 million per year price tag and has brought the wrath of the NCAA to Chapel Hill for the first time in 50 years. But otherwise, Davis and Sendek have much more in common than people might think.