You have to hand it to Holden Thorp and the UNC Board of Trustees. They stood behind Butch Davis for months, passing on every opportunity to fire him, then pulled the trigger only days before practice for the new season begins. It's the right move, but at the wrong time.
Davis had to go. That much had been obvious to neutral-minded people for months. When an oil tanker runs aground, they don't put the captain in charge of the cleanup. If Davis knew what was going on in his program, with John Blake and Jennifer Wiley and all the agents handing out goodies, that would obviously be bad enough. It's no better that all of this was going on under his nose, with Davis claiming to be impervious and oblivious.
By firing Davis now, Thorp and the trustees put the players on their football team who didn't do a thing wrong - the vast majority of the players on this year's roster - in an almost impossible position going forward. After waiting this long, after Thorp declared last November that Davis and athletic director Dick Baddour would return for the 2011 season, what was the harm in letting the NCAA process and the football season run their course?
A coaching change a week before the start of training camp is about as big a negative as you can slap onto a team's season. It's an uphill climb for the Tar Heels now, a season in purgatory, and there are a lot of innocent players who already saw last season diminished by the misdeeds of their teammates.
Thorp has had ample reason to cut Davis loose for almost a year, ever since that awkward night he apologized to fans because the investigation had uncovered possible academic fraud and, oh by the way, the tutor we would soon know as the mysterious Wiley just happened to have worked in the Davis household. Even the day last month when the NCAA finally got around to handing down its Notice of Allegations would have been a better day.
Instead, the UNC chancellor let Davis represent the university last Thursday at the Pigskin Preview and then again Monday at ACC media days, talking endlessly about the university's support for him.
Having stuck with Davis for so long, nothing obvious has changed to make this firing imperative. Did the university note the NCAA's leniency with Ohio State once Jim Tressel was cut out of the picture? Was the rank embarrassment of defending the authenticity of Michael McAdoo's term paper in court documents only to find it was thoroughly plagiarized the final straw?
It would make more sense if there were some new information that justified an immediate dismissal, but the university quickly ruled that out in the press release announcing the firing.
Given the timing, coming on the day of a Board of Trustees meeting, it's entirely possible this has something to do with trustee politics, with Wade Hargrove taking over for Bob Winston as board chairman. Hargrove may have seen the football scandal more clearly and forced Thorp's heretofore-unwilling hand.
Whether it was the internal dynamics of the board of trustees or merely the accumulation of embarrassment to the university that finally prompted the move, the timing of Davis' firing is as baffling as the long delay in getting to this point in the first place.