There's never a wrong time to do the right thing.
If you are of the opinion that relieving Butch Davis of his duties as UNC's football coach was the right thing to do, as Chancellor Holden Thorp apparently felt it was, then now is as good a time as any to let Davis go.
Certainly the timing - just over a week before the beginning of fall practice - is horrific and is a public relations nightmare. But if Davis was not going to be the coach beyond this season, and speculation was increasing that he would not be, then there was no reason to retain him for this season.
There is a great debate over why, if Thorp thought Davis needed to go, he did not pull the trigger last fall when the allegations first arose, or at least at the end of last season. Of course that would have been the optimum time to fire Davis, but much of the sordid mess came to light this spring and summer. The past few months have revealed the parking ticket follies, the McAdoo plagiarism mess, and a 9-barreled notice of allegations from the NCAA. While Davis not being named in the NOA probably kept his seat from reaching the full 212°, the depth of the allegations plus the ancillary issues of McAdoo and the parking tickets certainly didn't help.
The larger issue as it relates to timing, however, is that if UNC didn't fire Davis during or immediately after last season, then there is no functional difference when they fired him after signing day. Other than the chaos of having to name an interim coach and redefine roles a week before the beginning of practice, it really would not matter for the upcoming season if Davis had been fired when the NOA came out in June, or Memorial Day (when Jim Tressel was sacked), or any other time this spring or summer. The process of moving forward would be the same.
There is a belief among some supporters of the football program and among some pundits that UNC's season will now go in the tank, certainly for this year, and that the program may be crippled for a number of years beyond because of this decision and its timing. The head coach is the CEO of a football program and his mark and influence are everywhere on that program. But in football, the division of labor and preparation is unlike many other sports. Position coaches and coordinators are so important and do much of the everyday coaching and preparation. Davis was not calling plays on either side of the ball and was not renowned for his game-day prowess in the first place.
It is also important to note this is not an Ohio State-type situation where not only was the head coach lost, but five crucial players. All of Carolina's players and coaches except Davis will be in place so it will essentially be the same team made of the same players and the same position coaches and coordinators. Again, not to minimize the importance of the head coach, but this is not a Pete Gaudet replaces Coach K scenario because football doesn't work like that.
In fact, there are a couple of reasons why letting Butch Davis go now might be a good thing:
First, it removes the distraction of what would have become the weekly question of Davis' job status. Already a key topic, the temperature of his coaching seat would have been measured weekly, not to mention the committee on infractions hearing in October and the penalty phase in December.
Second, it gives UNC a head start in finding a new coach. Depending on who is named interim coach, Carolina could be feeling out coaches the entire fall and be first on the list when the dominoes start falling at the end of the season. Of course the outcome of the COI hearing comes into play, but again the drama of "will UNC fire Butch Davis" is off the table.
Third, this is a bone that UNC can throw to the NCAA by saying the "Tresseled" Butch. By the time UNC has the COI hearing, practically everyone associated with any of the football unpleasantness will have been fired, graduated, disassociated, or otherwise shown the door.
And finally, in a weird way it might actually rally the troops even more and provide greater focus and intensity in how they approach the season. The "us against the world" mentality is an overplayed cliche but if the team comes together through this adversity then they might be better for it.
Ultimately, however, it comes down to this: at this point, UNC had to either be all-in with Davis as head coach, possibly for years to come, or they had to make a significant move in another direction. For whatever reason, Holden Thorp decided that, in spite of his earlier statements, Butch Davis was not the person to lead UNC football through this unpleasantness. If he reached that conclusion, then no possible good could come from having Davis serve a season as a lame duck, dead coach walking.What happens from here is what is paramount. If sound, decisive decisions are made going forward, then the damage is minimal and repaired quickly. If not, who knows.
But one thing is for sure - there is never a wrong time to do the right thing.