Outsider managed UNC football crisis

A PR expert was paid $14,000 from private funds during the football scandal.

Staff WriterDecember 15, 2010 

— With the NCAA's investigation into its football program escalating, UNC-Chapel Hill turned for help in late August to a national public relations firm skilled at crisis management.

UNC-CH hired New York-based Hill & Knowlton on Aug. 25. The next day, the university announced that the probe, which until then centered on improper relationships between athletes and sports agents, had taken a new turn. New evidence suggested some athletes might have cheated on course work.

Though UNC-CH is a high-profile university accustomed to the spotlight and scrutiny, the football investigation proved foreign territory for campus communications experts.

"An NCAA investigation is just so different than anything we'd dealt with before," said Nancy Davis, UNC-CH's associate vice chancellor for university relations.

"It was really the outside perspective we were looking for," she said.

Hill & Knowlton is a communications firm with offices in 44 countries. One of itsareas of expertise is in managing crisis situations. It "advises clients on how best to navigate serious or complex issues while keeping their reputations intact," according to its website.

The consultant the firm deployed, Michael Kontos, worked with university officials prior to that Aug. 26 news conference and in the subsequent months. He consulted largely through phone calls but did come to Chapel Hill once for a daylong meeting, Davis said. UNC-CH paid the firm $14,092 and severed ties Nov. 30, Davis said.

The firm was paid from private foundation funds, not taxpayer dollars, she said.

The investigation derailed a team with high hopes in the preseason. Two seniors, defensive lineman Marvin Austin and receiver Greg Little, never played. Neither did junior defensive end standout Robert Quinn.

In all, 14 players missed games as the result of investigations by the school and NCAA into off-field issues. Seven missed the entire season, and four players were ruled permanently ineligible by the NCAA.

The program's second-in-command, top recruiter and associate head coach John Blake, resigned amid questions about receiving money from an agent.

Overwhelmed

As the NCAA and the university investigated, tidbits of news trickled out all fall. They made headlines each time and often prompted questions the university could not answer.

Kontos is a senior vice president with Hill & Knowlton. His previous clients include the International Olympic Committee, which enlisted his firm's help following irregularities with Salt Lake City's bid for the Winter Olympics. He has also worked with several cities bidding for the Olympics, as well as the Big Ten Conference and the World Anti-Doping Agency.

In Chapel Hill, he helped a university very cognizant that its handling of the situation was being scrutinized, said Steve Kirschner, director of athletic communications.

'This was a big deal'

"The reputation of the University of North Carolina is paramount," Kirschner said. "Those of us who work in communications and public relations are caretakers of that. This was a big deal."

Erskine Bowles, president of the UNC system, endorsed the hire.

"You need outside help when you get into something like this," Bowles said. "You had a crisis. You want to make sure you're able to run the university but you want to still manage the crisis. [Chancellor Holden Thorp] couldn't spend full time on football. He has a multibillion dollar operation to manage and 30,000 kids he's responsible for."

eric.ferreri@newsobserver.com or 919-932-2008

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