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UNC Does NOT Have to be Sentenced to Football Purgatory

From the angry correspondence to the chancellor's office to Deems May's message board monkey flame disguised as an open letter, many fans and pundits have suggested that Holden Thorp's dismissal of Butch Davis so close to the beginning of the season will doom the program to mediocrity or worse for years and that Davis' firing represents a sea change in how UNC views the role of its football program. The problem is that neither of those is necessarily the case now, nor does it have to be the case moving forward.

As a quick aside, I have to say I don't quite get the fawning admiration for Butch Davis by the fan base at large. Is what happened to him pretty bad? Sure it is, but he is getting a $2.7 million consolation prize for his trouble. Davis may have been hired to bring UNC to the BCS promised land but all he brought was the NCAA to the door. He absolutely made spectacular progress in making UNC competitive every Saturday, but let's be real. This is not Jerry Jones buying the Cowboys and firing Tom Landry.

With that said, however, one of Davis' prime accomplishments during his tenure was that the cupboard is stocked with talent at a level not seen since the end of the Mack Brown era. And that is the first reason that UNC does not have to return to the John Bunting days, or even the early 1-10 Mack Brown days. The talent well was dry when Brown replaced Dick Crum because Crum recruited guys like, um, Deems May. Carl Torbush then took what he inherited from Brown and did not re-stock with that kind of talent . Bunting was not able to improve upon Torbush's meager efforts and we all know how that ended.

But that is not the case this time. This is not a situation where Brown came to an empty cupboard in the late 80s, or even Davis reviving a moribund program four years ago. There is talent already in the program and the right coach and staff can re-secure the commitments already made, the fallout from the Davis dismissal can be mitigated.

Then there is the issue of the impending"de-emphasis" of football at UNC that the Butch worshipers and Deems Mays of the world are peddling. There are about a hundred reasons why this is faulty logic. First, to accept the notion that firing Davis is a de-emphasis of football means you have to absolve Davis of any role whatsoever in the football unpleasantness. UNC's firing of Davis does not automatically mean UNC is de-emphasizing football any more than Exxon was de-emphasizing oil tankers when it fired Captain Hazelwood after the Valdez spill. Like it or not, rightly or wrongly, Davis was damaged goods and many of the people so vehemently supporting him now are also of the opinion that he should have been fired, just not now.

The problem is, UNC couldn't de-emphasize football even if they wanted to. The future of college athletics is currently being dictated by football, and, by the way, Carolina has a $70 million stadium upgrade to finish paying for. So while there are a lot of hurt feelings regarding Davis' abrupt dismissal, the landscape of the future does not foretell UNC slipping perennially behind the Dukes and Vanderbilts of BCS leagues.

UNC's next gigantic step is hiring an athletic director. Again, in this case, the issue is larger than just football. Carolina's next AD will, in addition to hiring a football coach and then running one of the country's largest and most successful departments, will in the next 5 years or so have to manage the retirements of UNC legends like Roy Williams, Anson Dorrance, and Karen Shelton. This is a major-league hire for Thorp and the university.

Next down the line will be hiring a football coach. One blogger for a rival team suggested on Twitter that UNC had no choice but to go for a Les Robinson-type hire. I don't think that's the case (I also think Les Robinson gets a raw deal as a coach - he had success prior to State and went to the NCAA tourney with Valvano's players, but could not succeed under the draconian recruiting restrictions that followed NCSU's unpleasantness). Yes, UNC has recent history of lame coaching decisions but that recent history is also rooted in the tenure of one Richard A. Baddour, which is why there was no way in blue blazes he was going to be allowed to conduct this search, thus hastening his retirement.

While it's true UNC will probably not be able to land a fish as big as Davis was supposed to be, neither of the ACC's coaching hires from this past year - Al Golden at Miami and Randy Edsall at Maryland, would be considered a step down in the football commitment if they were hired at UNC. Golden revived a Temple program that was so bad it got the school thrown out of the Big East, and Edsall left a UConn team that had just been to the BCS for a school that could most charitably be described as a lateral move.

Yet that begs another point, which is that Butch Davis was brought to UNC ostensibly to get Carolina a seat at the BCS table. Seems to me that the best way to do that, in a surprisingly weakened post-expansion ACC, is to win the conference title. In the past 5 years, both Wake Forest and Georgia Tech have won ACC titles and played in the BCS, and did so without academic issues or the NCAA knocking at their door (GT's ridiculous handling of their very minor issue that cost them that ACC title not withstanding).

I think the rules for the next head football coach at Carolina will be simple: A) run a clean program; and B) win games. And A and B do not have to be mutually exclusive, despite the Butch worshipers/Thorp haters doom-and-gloom predictions.

Of course, the 800-lb. gorilla in the room can change all of this, and that is what the NCAA decides to do with UNC. If Carolina's penalties are light, solid hires are made in both the AD and head football coach, UNC will not be forced to wander in the wilderness. On the other hand, if the NCAA drops the hammer with bowl bans and significant scholarship reductions, then that will do more lingering damage than Thorp could do.

Nevertheless, assuming the NCAA doesn't cripple the program, it is far from assured that Carolina football will be cursed to irrelevancy once more. And while the anti-Thorp venom is high now, he will ultimately be judged by how the next two hires go.