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In defense of Larry Fedora and the Tim Beckman situation

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Allowing Tim Beckman to volunteer his time was not UNC’s biggest mistake last week

NCAA Football: ACC Football Championship Game-Clemson vs North Carolina Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

It was an interesting week for UNC and its football program. Just when it looked like fans could make it through the preseason without any notable distractions, word spread that Tim Beckman had joined the Tar Heel football staff as a volunteer assistant. The former Illinois head football coach who was found to have fostered a less than ideal collegiate athletic culture, created quite the distraction. The middle of the week saw a mini-media storm form over Chapel Hill. Questions were asked, answers were given, and indignation and outrage reached a tiny crescendo.

There’s no need to go into the transgressions of Beckman. Those have been covered in depth in various outlets. I don’t begrudge anyone who is turned off, miffed, mad or confused over how he could have ended up at UNC as a volunteer. It can certainly seem like a short sighted decision, especially at the institution that has fought so hard against six years of negative publicity. Criticism is warranted, and there is a reasonable discussion to be had. Unfortunately, nobody was interested in reason. The internet is run by emotion, idealistic notions, and loud noises.

(Full disclosure: I once worked in D-I college athletics for a coach who created a culture much like Tim Beckman allegedly did. Only my boss won just enough games to soften the blow of the rumors of verbal/emotional abuse, the massive amounts of transfers, and the high turnover on the coaching staff year after year. He was exactly like Mike Rice, the former head men’s basketball coach for Robert Morris, only without the physical abuse.

In my mind, my old boss should never be allowed to coach any high school or college athlete ever again, but he continued to get higher profile jobs because he won. (Fedora was 100% accurate with that statement about Beckman). Fortunately, at the time of this writing, my former boss isn’t allowed anywhere near an NCAA institution – but not because of the verbal or emotional abuse he heaped on players and coaches. So, while I may be a little desensitized to some of the salacious details, I have witnessed the effects of a toxic collegiate athletic culture up close and personal).

That being said, I had absolutely no problem whatsoever with Tim Beckman being around the UNC sidelines. None. Nada. Zilch. I raised my eyebrows in surprise. My interest was piqued. After that, I moved on.

This was a much more nuanced situation than most in the media, on twitter, and on the blogosphere would have you believe. People see “coach”, and they instantly think of the men in team polos or jackets, wearing headsets, stomping up and down the sidelines, rallying the troops. It’s easy to lump all positions and titles into one nice, tidy group. Unfortunately, that’s a lazy assessment and doesn’t present a full picture.

As an unpaid volunteer Tim Beckman didn’t pose any threat to any student athlete on that field. He was there, according to Fedora, to essentially scout, scheme, and provide an extra set of eyeballs to the coaching staff. Would he say a couple of words to a player? Yeah sure, I would expect that. Maybe he would help provide some insight into a certain technique here or there. A man with Power 5 experience at multiple schools, as a free consultant to UNC? Sign me up. Every day.

You may ask why I would be ok with this, considering the very brief explanation of my previous experiences in Division-I athletics. It would be a fair question. You see, while I may think that my old boss should never roam a sideline ever again, I’m not blind or stupid. I recognize he would be a tremendous asset to any organization who asked for his knowledge and expertise as it strictly pertains to sports, as long as he had no authority to make decisions about people. Kind of like keeping him in the corner with a coloring book and giving him one crayon to use. Maybe black, like his soul.

At this point in time, there are no indications that Beckman had any decision making authority. He did not have any responsibility in regards to a player’s health, academic, social, or football life. He was not interacting with medical staff. He was not making decisions on the depth chart. Beckman had no power over playing time or scholarships. UNC did not put him on their payroll. In essence, he was doing absolutely nothing similar to what he did at Illinois, Toledo, Oklahoma State, or any other previous coaching stop. I see nothing wrong in any of that.

Which is why I respect and admire Fedora more than ever after he came out swinging to reporters. His answers were truthful, concise, and stripped of any horse manure that coaches sometimes feed us. Fedora was simply helping an old friend out, giving Beckman a different perspective, gaining a little football insight for UNC, and allowing his buddy to see what a positive culture can look like. Fedora legitimately does not care what others think he should do, or what he should say. I respect the hell out of that, even if there will be times I don’t agree with him. I’m ecstatic he is the leader of the young men that run out of the tunnel on Saturdays. The UNC administration could learn a few things from him.

This is a man who took over the program just as it had hit rock bottom. He knowingly faced a bowl ban, probation, and scholarship reductions and still took the job. He steadied the ship, instead of jumping overboard. He stayed through five years of unforeseen hell, when almost any other coach would have left at the first opportunity, a la Bill O’Brien at Penn State. His steadfast loyalty and willingness to dig in his heels at the first signs of a challenge should be recognized and applauded. The football team is active in the community, and largely stays off the police blotters (everyone wave at Notre Dame)! There may even be an argument that he has done a better job than Roy Williams over the same period. Larry Fedora has been that good.

For a head coach who has been better than any UNC fan could have reasonably hoped for since his arrival (except for losing track of a timeout every now and then), I had full trust in Fedora to provide the right guidance and leadership to allow Beckman and the team to appropriately co-exist. He tried to provide his players with a living, breathing example of what it means to give someone a second chance and let them learn from past mistakes. I had faith that he could keep Beckman contained in a corner with a coloring book.

Apparently, other higher powers at UNC thought differently. Instead, the UNC administration took away the coloring book, the crayons, and told Beckman to get out of their house. In doing so, they left Fedora hanging out to dry in a stunning display of poor leadership.

The athletic director, Bubba Cunningham, gave Fedora the green light in the first place. I applaud him for that move. He was obviously comfortable enough with the duties that were explained – in large part, because they were rational and logical. To be fair, if he had nixed the move at the first opportunity, I would have been cool with that as well. Ultimately, Cunningham’s mistake was not choosing one of the three following options-

1) Not having the foresight to get out in front of this when Beckman was first hired

2) Not understanding the optics and allowing it to happen in the first place

3) Not running the idea of hiring such a controversial person by his boss, Chancellor Carol Folt.

By allowing it to become a “surprise” to the media, he allowed UNC to lose control of the narrative. Considering the previous few years and some of the irresponsible reporting by some of the local (what’s up Dan Kane and Luke DeCock!?) and national media, he has to be savvier than that.

However, while I can forgive a minor mistake in judgement on Cunningham’s part, it was Folt’s remarks that I found more embarrassing and self-serving. In an attempt to put her stamp of authority on the University, as though her title wasn’t enough, she unnecessarily inserted herself into the situation. In doing so, she showed unwarranted ineptitude in UNC’s communication channels when she stated that she only found out about Beckman on Wednesday. Her actions were clumsy, selfish, disingenuous, and a great example of why chancellors/presidents should exercise restraint when dealing with issues that are strictly athletic in nature.

To be clear, I do NOT think a chancellor should have to know about the hiring of a volunteer assistant. I don’t fault her for not being aware. I do fault her for publicly getting involved. It was obvious that she put the kibosh on Beckman’s stay. In making her statement, she publicly admonished both Cunningham and Fedora for, in my opinion, a football decision.

No matter how tactfully it may have been done, and no matter if you agree with the end result, it was wholly unnecessary. She undermined her AD and head football coach for the most minor of indiscretions either 1) simply because she could or 2) because she was scared of the surprising scrutiny. Neither should be acceptable.

If Folt was as disappointed as she claimed, a simple call to Bubba and Larry would have sufficed. Beckman could have still “voluntarily” stepped down. Fedora would have thanked him for his time, contributions, and friendship. Bubba could have issued his own statement, taking some blame for mismanaging the situation, while stating he had hoped that UNC could have taught Beckman a few things about building a positive culture amid tough standards.

Then, if Folt still felt so inclined, she could’ve called both of them to the principal’s office to continue discussing it. Quick, clean, concise, and private.

Instead, UNC fans saw a bungled, public, knee jerk reaction over an issue nobody outside of Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill really cared about. We were all witnesses to the exact opposite of the loyalty, steadfastness, and support Fedora has displayed and seemingly instilled in the players he coaches. To say I’m disappointed doesn’t adequately describe my thoughts on the actions by UNC’s administration.

Fortunately, it is now all behind us. Georgia is less than a week away. The focus has shifted. Depth charts are being finalized. And, as Larry Fedora promised us, this will no longer be a story. We all likely learned something from the whole ordeal. I hope the administration learned a few things too. If they have any questions, maybe they can head over to Kenan Memorial Stadium and receive a few free lessons this fall.