CHAPEL HILL — The newly built "Blue Zone" at Kenan Stadium stood empty Wednesday night, a hollow reminder of the crowds and fan enthusiasm former coach Butch Davis tried to build for the University of North Carolina's football program.
After the announcement of Davis' firing on Wednesday and the bracing for NCAA sanctions following last month's Notice of Allegations detailing nine alleged major violations, it's unclear what will become of the Tar Heels' football program. It had dropped to the bottom of the ACC in the early part of the 2000s but had won eight games in each of the past three seasons under Davis.
Several of Davis' former UNC players were shocked and disappointed by the school's decision to make a coaching change on Wednesday, just nine days before the official start of practice. They expected the program to be worse off without the high-profile coach who had positively remodeled the on-field product of the program but who ran afoul with the NCAA last summer with allegations of academic fraud and players accepting improper agent benefits.
"I think it's going to set the program back 10 years," said Ryan Taylor, a tight end on last year's team and a seventh-round pick of the Green Bay Packers this spring.
Taylor was making a reference to the school's 3-9 and 2-10 finishes in 2002 and 2003 respectively. John Bunting, Davis' predecessor, won eight games in a season only once in his six-year tenure, and the Tar Heels had not been consistently competitive in the ACC or nationally since former coach Mack Brown's exit in 1997.
"It's going to be tough to recover from it, this close to the start of the season," said Taylor, who was second on the team with 36 receptions in 2010.
It remains unclear who will replace Davis as head coach for the interim.
Team spokesman Kevin Best said the next coach would be addressed at today's 11 a.m. news conference.
Ohio State, which was also caught in a damaging NCAA investigation after the 2010 season, replaced Jim Tressel - who resigned under pressure on May 31 - with Luke Fickell, an assistant on staff, on an interim basis without opening up a search for a permanent replacement.
Should UNC choose to do something similar, the candidates currently on the staff include:
Sam Pittman, 49, the offensive line coach who was recently promoted to associate head coach. One of Davis' first hires in Chapel Hill, Pittman was technically second in command with his new title. But if school officials want to break with Davis' decisions, they may opt to go another route.
Everett Withers, 48, defensive coordinator and secondary coach. Entering his fourth season at UNC, he has never been a head coach, but Withers could appeal to fans because he has 24 years of experience and is an in-state product (born in Charlotte, played at Appalachian State).
John Shoop, 41, the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. He's a former NFL assistant and tutored quarterback T.J. Yates, who finished his UNC career with 40 school records before he was drafted into the NFL this spring. Shoop has never been a head coach.
Ken Browning, 65, the running backs coach who begins his 18th season at UNC. Browning, a former high school coach at Northern Durham, has been through multiple coaching changes in Chapel Hill. He is the only assistant left on staff who Davis didn't originally hire. Fans would certainly embrace the move, but it's unclear whether Browning would want the responsibilities of a program under fire - even in an "interim" role.
Whoever the choice, Davis' replacement will have to deal with more than the distraction of looming NCAA sanctions. He'll also have to keep together a team, and a recruiting class, that saw 14 players miss at least one game last season as the NCAA looked into academic misconduct and agent violations.
UNC players, though, seemed to be focused more Wednesday on Davis than on wondering who might replace him.
"He was a great coach and a leader to all of us and truly changed Carolina football for the better," said Yates, who started four seasons under Davis. "I wish him the very best wherever he goes."
Former safety Deunta Williams, who was determined to have received impermissible benefits and was required to sit out four games last season, said it was a sad day for UNC fans.
"Coach D is a players' coach," Williams said. "I hurt for the players and their families, the fans, the program and my coach and his family."
Freshman receiver T.J. Thorpe, from Durham, enrolled in January. He was reached by phone Wednesday night but declined to comment per the university's instructions.
Staff writer Edward G. Robinson III contributed to this report.
firstname.lastname@example.org or 919-829-8944