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UNC Football At The Crossroads


In 1989 the NC State basketball team under the leadership of the late Jim Valvano came under investigation by the NCAA over the illicit sell of shoes and game tickets by players. Subsequent to that, the UNC Board of Governors launched their own investigation into aspects of academic support at NCSU following various accusations of issues involving basketball players. At the end of the day NCSU found its basketball program on probation(with a postseason ban), Valvano had resigned as both coach and athletic director followed by Chancellor Bruce Poulton. In response to this the administration, led primarily by the faculty, sought tougher restrictions on the academics in the athletic department. The feeling surrounding NCSU hoops, which had won two NCAA titles and finished first in the ACC in 1989 was, apathy towards on the court results as long as the program was clean. In turn NCSU hired Les Robinson to run the basketball program which doomed the Wolfpack to 20 plus years of basketball irrelevancy broken briefly by the waning years of the Herb Sendek era except no one liked him. In short, the administration at NCSU made the choice to throw successful basketball under the bus out of fear the embarrassment of the Valvano scandal might be repeated.

As we look to the opening of the 2011 football season, UNC faces a similar path as the one ultimately taken by NC State. The head football coach has been fired, a new athletic director will be hired and the unfinished business of NCAA penalties due UNC still needs to be resolved. This moment constitutes the critical juncture during which UNC will decide what direction to take the football program. Does the administration turn back the clock to John Bunting and surrender to the notion that winning is not important as long as the program is clean? I am sure that sentiment is filling Chancellor Holden Thorp's ear more and more. In some respects you might call that the easy road since it is the one involving the least risk. On the flip side you have furthering the ambition for football success.

When UNC hired Butch Davis after years of Torbush/Bunting futility it was a clear signal that UNC wanted a successful football team. Davis had the pedigree of being a winner on the college level having put together some of the most talented rosters ever seen in Miami. The only reason a school brings in a coach like Davis is so he can replicate that success. Would it be as easy or even the same? Probably not given UNC's reputation as a basketball school. However Davis was seen as a coach who could build a program to a high standard and lest people forget this, his reputation for cleaning up Miami led us to believe he would run a clean program. As it turns out a bad assistant coach hire, a few players behaving badly and a rogue tutor turned UNC's incursion into so called "big time football" a nightmare. UNC gingerly waded out into the shallow part of the ocean of football success only to step on a jellyfish and get pinched by a crab. Now the administration has coming running out of the water screaming in agony and unsure if going back after the wounds are healed is a good idea. Like NCSU in 1989, UNC is at the crossroads facing hard choices on where to go next.

High Stakes

One noted difference between UNC's situation now and NC State's in 1989 is the financial stakes involved. That is not to say NCSU de-emphasizing basketball wasn't costly but the current climate of college athletics is one where money, especially in football has one through the roof. When you raise the question of how successful you want to be in college football you are essentially asking how much money do you want to bring in?  If your program can win, go to elite bowl games or even the BCS, that is more money for everyone. A successful program can sell tickets and enjoy a hefty flow of cash from donors willing to pay top dollar for game suites. Winning is important by itself. Winning as a means of getting a large slice of the pie makes it an almost paramount endeavor for any athletic department which is required to fund multiple sports.

At UNC, the success of the basketball program and the revenue generated there perhaps serves to mask how acute the need for winning in football might be. Basketball also commands the culture in Chapel Hill. That means the desire for success in football might not be a priority especially given the risk of the kind of shenanigans witnessed over the past 13 months. Granted most of the individuals operating in this train of thought are your old money, Carolina Way, UNC is a basketball school crowd. These are the same people who pays millions into the athletic department for the rights to sit in the lower bowl of the Dean Dome, show up late, discuss their yachts and beach condos then leave early. You know, the people who enrage Roy Williams season in and season out.  It is these folks who wield the power. Their inclination to truly commit beyond basketball is suspect at best.

That makes the task of promoting football more difficult which is probably just as true at Kentucky despite its SEC ties. The relationship between football and basketball at UNC strikes me as similar to the way Denethor views Faramir and Boromir in The Lord of the Rings. Denethor favored Boromir so much that he tells Faramir at one point he wishes he had died instead of his brother. Nothing football can ever do will change the core allegiances to both sports at UNC. When a scandal of this magnitude occurs with the football program it validates those who consider football in the second tier behind basketball. In some ways these people have a point. Basketball is successful and from what we see publicly does it the right way(Note: I am no naive enough to believe any program anywhere is perfect but in the case of UNC basketball, perceptually they are.) On the other hand football tries to be successful and ends up sullying the reputation of the school. I am not sure anyone could really blame UNC from scaling back given the cultural forces involved and the large egg on UNC face right now.

However the financial aspects of college football say otherwise. The landscape of college athletics is changing and the potential rise of superconferences could make setting in football a dangerous proposition.

Dawn of the Superconference Era

Last summer there were major tremors across college athletics. Colorado and Nebraska left the Big 12 with rumors that other schools in that conference would do the same. Discussions were had of the Big Ten moving to 16 teams and the Pac 10(now Pac 12) doing the same followed by the SEC. At one point there was a real possibility the Big 12 would cease to exist. Amid all the possible upheaval Kansas University appeared destined to be left behind by its Big 12 brethren, a breathtaking development to say the least. Kansas has been a perennial basketball power none of which meant anything when conference realignment was happening. Decisions for who came and went in conference realignment were almost completely driven by football.

I bring this up because UNC could find itself in the same predicament. I say could because unlike Kansas, UNC is a little more well rounded as an athletic department. First of all, UNC's rivalry with Duke is a big deal, so much so that the ACC's contract with ESPN was sweetened partly because it included UNC-Duke. Because UNC and Duke make for such a powerful combination in basketball, a conference like the Big Ten or even the SEC might take a flier on inviting them both simply to bolster the basketball side of things. In fact, there was a rumor floating last week that Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney actually had UNC and Duke on his wish list for expansion. The point here is that UNC's academic prowess, basketball program and incredibly popular rivalry with Duke affords them some protection if superconferences become the norm.

That being said, what could have happened to Kansas should still weigh heavily on UNC. While I think the basketball program all by itself makes UNC an enticing target for a conference who would like to beef up hoops play in the league by no means should UNC rest on that alone. First of all, why not present yourself as a balanced athletic program that is competitive across the board? UNC already does a good job in this arena as born out by the average sixth place finish in the Director's Cup. Unfortunately, where football is concerned there is this notion you can let that slip because choosing otherwise is to also put the integrity of the school at risk. I think that is grossly incorrect but again the current scandal muddies the water. The present circumstances validates that thinking and arguing otherwise is difficult. However, the landscape changes in college athletics means laying down when it comes to college football exposes the athletic department financially.

Am I putting big money ahead of school integrity? Of course not, the reputation is always a priority. The key is to give that its proper due while simultaneously supporting football to be clean and successful. For whatever reason this is viewed by some as an all or none proposition. You can have a good reputation but not good football. If you have good football then the reputation will be damaged by illicit behavior in the program. No one stops to ask why you can't have both because the automatic reaction during a scandal is to overcorrect the wheel which almost always puts the car in the ditch or close to it. Which is where UNC is sits now except the overcorrection was Holden Thorp firing Butch Davis. That means the car is not quite in the ditch yet and there is plenty of time to make sure it doesn't end up there.

To do that requires some tough choices and steadfast firmness amid calls from lunatics and lecturers alike and it starts with hiring a new athletic director.

Hiring The Guy Who Will Hire The Guy

While everyone is focused on who UNC might hire as the next football coach, the real question is who will replace Dick Baddour as athletic director. I know talking about ADs is not nearly as exciting as pointless speculation on which coach might take the UNC job when it is actually open five months from now. A new football coach only impacts the football program, which does have a ripple effect on the department as a whole. The athletic director is in charge of the department, coaching fires and hires for all sports, contracts with Nike, Learfield Sports, etc, etc, etc. Hiring a bad coach in football runs the risk of screwing up football with impact on the finances given the money involved. Hire the wrong AD and all the teams in the department suffer. When you also consider the new AD could be at UNC for a decade you realize replacing Roy Williams might be on the menu along with possible others. The naming of an AD has massive repercussions that goes beyond football in case anyone needed the proper motivation to make sure UNC hires the right guy.

The problem facing UNC in the current climate is the fact an NCAA scandal has a way of making everyone nervous. There could be, with Thorp and others, the natural tendency to overreact. By and large the UNC athletic department does not have some sort of festering compliance issue. This might come as a galloping shock to critics out there but the reason UNC largely avoided a lack of institutional control charge is because the athletic department as a whole is run cleanly. The notice of allegations was focused entirely on football and the issues involved highlighted where compliance policy could be improved. At the same time there is an element of individuals going rogue without regard for existing policy which is to say while UNC may have had room for improvement, the place wasn't a cesspool of noncompliance.

What that says is there is no need to do anything excessive when hiring AD. As I alluded to above, this is a little like driving the car on a two lane highway and running off onto the shoulder for a second or two. The natural reaction and one inexperience drivers make is to pull the wheel back the other direction suddenly causing the vehicle to run off the road on the other side. The temptation here is to do the same thing, especially with a chancellor who seems to be a bit green when dealing in athletic department matters. If you pay any attention to the world you know when some major scandal occurs the response to the scandal is often times less measured than it should be out of fear it will happen again. There will be a temptation to hire an AD who can "deal with the NCAA issues" when the NCAA issues are isolated to one sport.

In this case, UNC's focus should be to hire the kind of AD who can be well rounded in all the issues that face the athletic department. Yes, some special attention to the NCAA issues will be required. An outsider's eye will be crucial in making improvements to compliance where they are needed. Needless to say you also want an AD who can make good hires since that shortcoming early on doomed Dick Baddour to eternal wrath from Tar Heel fans. The priority of the new AD should be repairing UNC's image and showing, overtly, how the administration is working to ensure the present scandal is not repeated. In concert with that, the success of the department in general must continue at the present level.

It is possible Thorp is so fed up with this business that he will do all he can to put an AD in place who can run the department so he doesn't have to think about it so much. At this point, most UNC fans would be ecstatic with that if it means less meddling by Thorp in the long run. That is assuming the next AD is good at his job.

Finding The Right Guy

Operating under the assumption UNC makes a good AD hire, the question remains who will that AD hire to lead the football program? Without knowing who the AD is and what he might be looking for in a football coach. We also do not know what the nature of the NCAA penalties will be and how that might affect the attraction of the job. However we do know some of the factors that will be in play and the possible routes a new AD might take in filling the position.

With the introduction of Everett Withers as interim head coach, there is already a sense among some UNC fans that the administration will ultimately remove the interim label. One successful season might be all it takes to win Withers the gig full time since such a move would be cheap and easy whether Withers proved himself or not. Depending on what the job looks like in four months, this might not be the worst idea in the world. One of the possible paths a new AD might take and one UNC fans might want to prepare themselves for is the "transitional coach." There are times when a school might hire someone who will do a good job but not be the kind of guy who can elevate the football program past a certain point. Aftet that the AD then hires that "next level" coach to elevate the program. There are factors that sometimes necessitate settling for a transitional coach. NCAA penalties and money are the two biggest since it might makes the position less enticing. There is no way to gauge the impact of the potential $2.7 million UNC pays Butch Davis which cuts into athletic department funding while simultaneously facing the possibility the football team will produce less revenue. When it becomes purely an accounting exercise, the big wigs get nervous. Going the cheap route will look good so that is what may  happen.

The only thing that might keep the administration from going this direction is the newly finished Blue Zone. UNC invested in Kenan Stadium renovations at the behest of Davis who thought one way to walk the road to big time football was to upgrade the facilities. So that is what UNC did except now Davis is gone and the future is uncertain. One question that will occupy the administration is whether to "eat it" where the Blue Zone is concern and go the low key route with football? At this point there is no way to know but what we do know there is some semblance of a potentially successful program in place NCAA penalties or not. The right guy can do right the ship and put people in the Blue Zone. All UNC has to do is find that right guy.

When the coaching search really gets heated up there will be plenty of talk of who UNC should get from all angles. Fans tend to evaluate coaching searches based on the pursuit of "big names." If any other names get considered the lack of knowledge about them turns into general disapproval of the move. Following an NCAA scandal and the fact Butch Davis was a "big name" coach means I have serious doubts the administration is going to be content to walk down that road again. That means the AD, whoever he is, will be left with two choices: Make a short term hire that will ultimately fail but give UNC distance from the scandal or make a smart hire of an up and coming coach who can quickly build on some the present foundatio. People sometimes forget Mack Brown had been at Tulane prior to UNC hiring him. He came in, went 2-20 during the first two years but put UNC on the map before he left. Given the circumstances that is the kind of hire UNC will need to make. A big name would be great but there are plenty of solid coaches out there, the trick is finding them.

Fear, The Fan Base Is Rank With It

There is a growing trepidation in the Tar Heel fan base that the move by Thorp on Tuesday of last week was the first in a series to reduce the scope of football in Chapel Hill. That trepidation comes from having seen this movie before when Mack Brown left and with what happened at NCSU over twenty years ago. It is also an inescapable conclusion that firing Butch Davis in the manner Thorp did, set in motion a process which will take years, at least, to fully correct. That is the nature of the beast. Program building is rooted in recruiting. Recruiting is rooted in the building of relationships with players that takes time to make happen. When that process is essentially brought to a crawl it takes time to start it back up again. The current recruiting class is essentially a lost cause since no one is going to commit to a coach who might not be there in four months and I have my doubts a new coach can be secured with enough lead time to put a solid class together.

In addition to these football related issues, Thorp pulling the rug out after 13 months of support basically means he cannot be trusted with any public proclamations he makes. If Thorp were to stand up Monday morning wearing a football jersey, face paint and scream to the world he wants UNC to win ACC titles, no one would take him seriously. Among the many signals Thorp sent last week, one was he can be spooked if the right pressures come to bear. The scandal had reached a point where it needed a strong administration figure to hold the line until after the COI hearing and season. Once that was done,  they could get down to the business of making hard choices. Normally you would hope the AD could do it but Baddour is as much weakened by the NCAA allegations as Davis was. That charge to hold the line fell to Thorp and he blinked.

That flinch, in timing and execution, made UNC look clueless and gave Thorp the appearance of a chancellor who is ready to turn enter his destruct code into the Enterprise's main computer. So, anyone who looks at UNC football and believes we are all reliving 1998, I don't blame you. I will say it does not have to be that way and it should not be that way. Looking at NC State's situation it should be noted that not a single one of their fans has ever said "well at least the program is clean" while finishing 11th in the ACC in basketball. Nowhere do you see NCSU fans walking around with shirts celebrating the scandal-free nature of the basketball program. In fact the lack of success weight so heavily on NCSU that five years ago John Calipari was considered for the basketball coaching job.

Integrity is a priority. The school's good name both academically and athletically is a prized possession. However there is nothing that prohibits a school from having the success it craves in competition while doing it the right way. In fact UNC has done that, many times over across multiple sports at the university. The poor choices of several football players, an assistant coach and a tutor should not erase what the other programs at the school do every season. It also should not be seen as a sign that UNC is incapable of fixing the problems at hand.  The most important thing the UNC administration is be surgical in addressing the issues not hacking it up with an axe. To do that, UNC needs a strong AD who can continue to pursuit of success, promotion of the school and all in a way that makes fans and alums proud. It means hiring a football coach who can do the same and embraces Carolina's values while caring deeply about what happens to the school.

Now is not the time to give up on success in football. Now is the time to do what we expect Tar Heel athletes to do when they are knocked down. Get up, get stronger and do it better the next time.