NFL urged to get tough

UNC trustees talk of scandal

Staff WriterDecember 26, 2010 

Though they concede that Head Coach Butch Davis isultimately accountable for problems within UNC-Chapel Hill's football program, several university trustees say the National Football League should take a tougher stance with sports agents who tempt college athletes with the promise ofriches.

"I'm not sure you can absolutely, 100 percent fix the agent thing," said Eddie Smith of Greenville, one of six UNC trustees who agreed to discuss the university's handling of the recent NCAA football investigation. "We can do everything we can on our side of the ball, but I just think that thing is out of control. The NFL and the NCAA and others need to do everything they can to bring that car out of the ditch."

UNC's 2010 football season was in turmoil before it began earlier this summer when allegations surfaced about improper relationships some players had with a sports agent. In investigating, UNC officials found evidence that some players had also cheated on academic work.

A half-year after the allegations emerged, campus trustees are praising the way Chancellor Holden Thorp and Athletic Director Dick Baddour handled the probe. In particular, they like the duo's decision to answer as many questions as possible as the investigation progressed, while also holding players out of games until they were absolutely sure they were eligible.

"I'm glad we didn't rush to judgment," said Sallie Shuping-Russell, a trustee from Chapel Hill. "I'm also glad we didn't just sort of immediately deny that there were any transgressions, that we really tried to get in there and find out what was going on."

The News & Observer contacted all 13 UNC trustees for this article, and six agreed to talk on the record.

The investigation derailed a team that had high preseason hopes. 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 a 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 as his connections to sports agentGary Wichard came to light. In October, a lawyer representing Blake said Wichard had given Blake gifts to help pay for his son's private school tuition. That occurred while Blake was a UNC coach.

NFL asked to do more

In early December, the NFL's players association issued Wichard a nine-month suspension. But some trustees say the NFL needs to do more to keep agents away from college campuses.

"We're not getting any help from the pros at all," said Trustee Don Curtis of Raleigh.

But NFL spokesperson Greg Aiello points to the league's proposed wage scale for rookies, an attempt to reign in their rapidly escalating salaries. Structured pay for rookies would remove much of the incentive agents have to get their hooks into college athletes, the NFL has indicated.

On campus, Davis has publicly pledged to fix holes in his football program, and his bosses, Baddour and Thorp, have backed the coach.

Athletes must answer

Trustee Roger Perry said athletes who broke the rules should be held accountable as well. Too many have led largely bulletproof lives, he said, enabled by sycophantic followers.

"They begin to have a distorted image of their own accountability and the rules they're held accountable for," said Perry, a Chapel Hill developer. "There are clearly some kids who think that because of the attention and pedestal they're put on - and it's the same thing with political leaders and others - you really do get a delusional belief that the rules that apply to every Joe in the street don't apply to you."

In the past couple of months, Thorp has come out strongly in support of Davis, the popular coach whose 2007 hiring signaled UNC's commitment to a higher level of football success.

But Davis hired Blake, a move that eventually proved problematic due to Blake's relationship with Wichard, the sports agent.

Davis has denied knowledge of Blake's relationship with Wichard, and trustees said last week Davis shouldn't be punished for bringing Blake to UNC.

"I think there are just some things you don't ask somebody when you think you know them," said Curtis, the Raleigh trustee. "It's just impossible for me to believe Butch would have taken that kind of a chance on his career if he knew someone had taken money from an agent."

Another trustee, Alston Gardner, said most people who spend a long time in leadership roles make the occasional bad hiring decision.

"As soon as you figure out something's wrong, you get rid of them," said Gardner, a partner with an Atlanta private equity firm. "I think it's unrealistic to expect 100 percent of everyone you hire is going to be great. If you're at 80 percent or 90 percent, you're doing pretty well."

eric.ferreri@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4563

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