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Has Holden Thorp Been Vindicated?

On July 28, UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp took a torch to the Butch Davis era at Carolina, firing the coach after the NCAA levied charges of nine major infractions against the football program and the previously unrevealed plagiarism of work produced by Michael McAdoo came to the forefront. Now, barely 4 1/2 months after that bombshell, the football team posted another winning season and will go to a fourth-straight bowl game, UNC has a new, seemingly remarkably competent athletic director, and Carolina emerged the victor over a couple of prominent suitors for one of this season's hottest coaching commodities. From the ashes of that midsummer day, both the football program and athletic department in general seem on much more solid footing than they did in late July, which begs the question, have Holden Thorp's actions been vindicated by the way things have turned out?

Now let's be perfectly clear about something up front: the point of this discussion is not to debate the merits of Thorp's dismissal of Davis, nor the timing of it. Frankly, that ship has already sailed and no amount of deceased equine abuse can un-ring that bell. But I think it is within reason to debate the results and outcomes of the decision so far, and in that regard, I believe it is clear that, at least in the short term, Thorp has been completely vindicated by the way things have turned out.

Those who predicted doom and gloom for the football program after Davis' firing specifically cited what they believed would be three results: 1) this year's team would fail miserably (Deems May's 3-9 prediction infamously among them); 2) the UNC administration, namely Thorp, would seek to de-emphasize football; and 3) the firing of Davis would create a situation that would take 5-10 years from which to recover. At first glance, it would appear none of those things have come to pass.

As has been said here previously, much credit for holding the season in the road goes to Everett Withers and his staff. The Tar Heels opened strongly and survived a brutal back half of the season to finish 7-5 and with a win over Missouri in the Independence Bowl, the team will match the high-water mark of 8 wins in the Davis era. Again, whether or not the team would have won more than seven games with Davis is debatable, but the season certainly did not implode as some predicted.

As for a de-emphasis of football, nothing that has transpired in the program since then would support that idea. The hiring of Bubba Cunningham as athletic director seemed to have much of its root in Cunningham's eye for identifying football coaching talent based on his results at Tulsa. Likewise, the pursuit of Chris Petersen and subsequent hiring of Larry Fedora when he was being recruited by other attractive jobs would not suggest a reduction in emphasis on football by UNC. And while it is far too early to predict the state of Carolina football five or ten years in the future, I think it will not be impacted much either way, good or bad, by the firing of Butch Davis in 2011.

A point I think a lot of Butch supporters miss, or refuse to consider, is that there was no way Butch Davis was going to be the coach of the Tar Heels in 2012. Whether or not he was named in the notice of allegations, a coach simply does not survive nine major infractions on his watch, particularly at a place like UNC who only had run afoul of the NCAA once, and that a half-century ago. So from that point, the only question becomes, when does Thorp fire Davis? Conventional wisdom says you either fire Davis at the end of last season, or wait and fire him at the end of this season. Again, the point is not to debate the timing, but to point out that by defying conventional wisdom, Thorp's firing of Davis in July allowed three things to occur that otherwise would not have happened.

First, the timing of Davis' firing accelerated the exit of Dick Baddour and allowed for the hiring of Bubba Cunningham - and more importantly, allowed Cunningham to be on board to conduct the coaching search. Baddour was in the final year of his contract anyway and was unlikely to be renewed. And given some of his disastrous results in hiring previously (see Beamer, Doherty, Roy part I, Torbush, and Bunting) there is no way Baddour was going to be allowed to run a football search, especially as a lame duck. So the timing of the firing of Davis and retirement of Baddour bought UNC three months to get a new AD in place and be out front in the football search. If Thorp fires Davis last December, Baddour is at least the de facto leader of the new football search. If Thorp waits until after the 2011 season, there is a good chance Baddour is still in place and again has to lead the search by default.

Second, firing Davis in July ensured that the 2011 season would not be a referendum on the future of Butch Davis. Davis' continued employment at UNC would be the 800-lb. gorilla in the room and would hang over the team and the program all season. The media theme every week would be, "Can Butch survive?" or "How many games does Butch Davis have to win to keep his job?" or "Will Thorp fire Davis or wait for the NCAA penalties?" It is possible these questions would be amplified as the circuses that were Miami, and later Penn State (for a different reason) exploded over the course of the season.

Third, by dismissing Davis before the season, the coach for 2012 would be replacing Everett Withers, not Butch Davis. Fanbase animosity and the inherent comparisons are dampened by having a year removed from Davis' tenure and the new coach. In addition, as with the firing of John Bunting before the end of the 2006 season, UNC was out front in having a job opening and was able to be vetting candidates and crafting a search before the season was over, so that a new coach was able to be named less than one week after the end of the conference championship games.

This is not in any way to suggest that Holden Thorp had any or all of these consequences in mind when he chose to drop the hammer on Davis (although I have to laugh when message board monkeys alternately portray Thorp as an evil mastermind with a master plan to blow up football while at the same time being a bumbling stooge who can't lead his way out of a wet paper bag. Which is it? Can't be both). The point is, since that fateful July day, Carolina has landed an AD who passed his first test with flying colors and has hired maybe the hottest available coach of this hiring season not named Urban Meyer. In other words, Thorp took a big gamble in letting Davis go when he did, and the bet appears to have paid off huge.

For all the public relations foibles in the NCAA unpleasantness, the proof is in whether or not the school and the program are in better shape now than before. While the coaching side will remain to be seen, the athletic department would seem to be in very good hands. Thorp is like nearly any other university president in that he probably doesn't know much about athletics and doesn't care to. University presidents and chancellors hope to hire competent athletics administrators, just as they hope to hire competent administrators in all facets of the school's operations. From this point forward, the less Thorp is seen on the dais at the Loudermilk Center, the better - and I'll bet that is what he wants as well.

Hopefully Larry Fedora will make UNC fans and recruits forget about Butch Davis, Roy Williams will hoist a trophy in April, Mike Fox will have the Diamond Heels back in Omaha in June, and Bubba Cunningham can smile as he surveys his new kingdom. But the football program has neither been destroyed nor de-emphasized and at least for now, Thorp's decision to sack Butch Davis appears to be the right one.