CHAPEL HILL — Even as embarrassing investigations of UNC-Chapel Hill's football program continue, Chancellor Holden Thorp is defending the school's big athletic ambitions, including the $70 million expansion to Kenan Stadium.
In an opinion column published on Page 11A of today's News & Observer, the chancellor also defends Athletics Director Dick Baddour's handling of the problems related to the football team.
Thorp says the stadium expansion, which in large part will provide luxury seating for deep-pocketed donors, is necessary. The project won't involve public money - private donations will pay half the cost, and sales of the seats and luxury suites in the new section will pay the balance.
"Carolina fans are passionate about athletics and football and will stick with us to make the Blue Zone a success," Thorp writes today. "Better facilities will give us the ability to attract even better recruits who can succeed both in the classroom and on the field."
One piece of the stadium addition will be a new, far larger home for an academic support program for athletes. That, officials have said, was a key selling point for fundraisers soliciting donations.
"We need to strengthen our academic support program for all 700+ student-athletes, and getting new space is critical to our success," Thorp writes. "We also need to secure a long-term revenue stream to support the entire 28-sport athletic program."
Praise for the AD
Thorp gives Baddour a vote of confidence. Lately the two have been on an apology tour of sorts, explaining the football program's situation to various university constituencies such as the UNC system's Board of Governors and the UNC-CH Faculty Council.
"I can't imagine having a better athletic director than Dick Baddour," Thorp writes. "He has experience in compliance, and he values the integrity of the University over winning any game. It is precisely with someone of Dick's experience and love for the university that we have the best opportunity to address the problems before us and ensure that they don't happen again."
The university and the NCAA are investigating possibly impermissible benefits that football players may have received from sports agents, as well as possible academic misconduct involving a former undergraduate tutor.
Thirteen players were held out of the season-opener Sept. 4 against LSU while the university and the NCAA investigated. One of those players has since been reinstated. And on Wednesday, the NCAA ruled that two of the players held out of games so far this season must serve suspensions and must make charitable contributions to repay benefits they received from agents.
Thorp makes several other points, including:
The university has instituted a social media policy to monitor Twitter and other websites popular with college students.
UNC is in the middle of a review of "a number of sports and student-athletes" to see if potential NCAA violations stretch beyond football.
The average SAT score for football players has risen 47 points since Butch Davis became coach in 2007.
Thorp also said it's possible for the university to have a winning football team and to maintain academic standards.
"I really believe that this is a golden opportunity to strengthen the culture in the football program to one with a greater emphasis on academic effort and academic success," he wrote.
The stadium expansion and the football saga have raised some questions about the university's priorities. McKay Coble, UNC-CH's faculty chairwoman, said she'd prefer that the university clean up the current football problems before focusing on the expansion.
'Hard ... to swallow'
The stadium addition will feature suites and other luxury seating. For the first time, fans seated in those high-end sections will be able to buy alcohol - a carrot the university is dangling to sell the seats. In all, 20 luxury suites and about 3,000 seats will be added.
"This is one of the prices you pay for going into big-time football," Coble said of the expansion. "As an academic, it is hard for me to swallow personally, not only our own approach to it but America's addiction to athletics."
But the faculty believes in Thorp - an alumnus who rose quickly through the faculty and administrative ranks before winning the top job two years ago - and in his managing of the situation, Coble said.
"Our respect for him is immense," she said. "We know he's on top of it."
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