Regardless of how and when the NCAA investigation into North Carolina's football program concludes, the tone of its season has changed radically during the past week.
At a time when the school is in the midst of yet another bells and whistles addition to Kenan Stadium - this one at a price tag of $70 million - the program is showing signs of venturing in a clearly marked danger zone.
The NCAA, at the very least, has reason to think members of the team knowingly crossed the line of innocent flirtation with agents.
At best, the probe could turn out to be a case of smoke without fire for a couple (or more) of Butch Davis' top-rated players.
But at worst, players could be suspended while the program's image takes an unsightly hit.
Obviously, it didn't help that news of the investigation surfaced during the same week that standout defender Quan Sturdivant was arrested on a misdemeanor charge for marijuana possession.
Keep in mind that former star recruit Donte Moss was suspended from the 2009 bowl game after an incident that occurred on the field following the team's loss at N.C. State to end regular season.
It's ironic that Davis is credited for having cleaned up program problems at Miami in the mid-1990s.
In defense of the coach and Carolina, both have had clean records with the NCAA and there is certainly no evidence that Davis and his staff broke rules.
But none of that changes the fact that 2010 now is beginning to look like an adventure into the unknown when most expectations were for a corner-turning season that would propel the Tar Heels into a phase of contention for ACC championships and upper-echelon bowl bids.
The subject of coaching oversight has to be addressed even if the players are cleared.
It's easy to rationalize that no one is capable of baby-sitting almost 100 football players 24/7, but that's really not the essence of the matter.
At most, Davis and his aides have four or five high-profile NFL prospects. That's roughly the same number of pros in waiting that Roy Williams and his basketball staff have on campus at any given time.
It's not as though ruthless sports agents are constantly hawking and hounding 50 Carolina football players.
The agents have nothing to lose by signing as many clients as humanly possible, but the program's top priority has to be keeping the likely first and second-rounders under its thumb.
Davis and his staff should understand that fact a lot better than most college coaches.
With the heavily publicized opener against LSU in Atlanta about six weeks away, the Tar Heels can count on beginning this long-ago circled season under a thick blanket of pressure, suspicion and apprehension.
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