Questions arise over dismissal

staff writerJuly 28, 2011 

— When Butch Davis was selected as North Carolina's head football coach, questions swirled about whether a man not steeped in Carolina tradition would be as committed to the classroom as the play fields.

More questions arose from faculty, alumni and old-time fans when the UNC-CH trustees gave Davis a bonus after his first season -- one in which he lost more games than he won.

Even more questions surfaced last summer, as NCAA investigators arrived on campus to look into allegations of academic misconduct and improper benefits from agents.

Now new questions arise with the abrupt dismissal of Davis a little more than a week before football practice begins.

Some want to know why now, nearly a year after the NCAA allegations began percolating -- months after top administrators stood behind the coach offering their strong support.

Others ask whether UNC-CH, a school that had long prided itself on having a reputation for a clean and winning athletics program, would ever shine as brightly again after the football program tarnished the image.

Bill Friday, a former UNC system president who long has been an advocate for taking the big-time costs out of big-time college sports, said the decision to dismiss Davis would offer a new beginning.

"This sad story has now come to an end," Friday said. "The university is a resilient institution and can turn this around. The university has suffered from it; there's no doubt about that. But there will come a time when everybody will look back on this and say, 'It's time to lock arms and move ahead.' "

Joseph B. Cheshire V, the Raleigh lawyer representing the tutor in the middle of the academic misconduct allegations, was unhappy with the decision.

"It's a sad day for the university that they would cave in to obviously orchestrated efforts to destroy their football program," said Cheshire, a UNC-CH alumnus, a Tar Heel fan and a lawyer with inside knowledge about the NCAA investigation. "It makes absolutely no sense that this happened now. There's no additional information that justifies this firing of Butch Davis now, and if there is something, they ought to say what it is. This makes no legal sense. This makes no common sense. This makes no institutional sense and no sense for the athletic program or the players in that program."

UNC-CH trustees declined Wednesday to discuss how or why the dismissal came about when it did.

Davis was informed of the decision by Chancellor Holden Thorp and athletic director Richard Baddour.

"What started as a purely athletic issue has begun to chip away at this university's reputation," Thorp said in a prepared statement. "I have been deliberate in my approach to understanding this situation fully, and I have worked to be fair to everyone involved. However, I have lost confidence in our ability to come through this without harming the way people think of this institution. Our academic integrity is paramount and we must work diligently to protect it. The only way to move forward and put this behind us is to make a change."

Though Chapel Hill is in a lull these days with many UNC-CH students and faculty on summer break, alumni and fans on Franklin Street Wednesday evening had mixed reactions to the news.

"I do respect Chancellor Thorp's commitment to maintain the academic reputation of Carolina despite the setback it might cause for the football program," said Greg Carrero, a 2007 graduate and Raleigh resident. "I'm totally a sports fan. I love our athletes. ... I'm just hoping we can get good leadership with the replacement head coach. Let's see what happens."

Peter Ayres, a 1975 graduate who lives in Miami, was visiting Chapel Hill and his alma mater. The timing of the decision on Davis was the biggest surprise, he said.

"He survived way longer than I thought he would," Ayres said Wednesday. "I'm just surprised he was around as long as he was. That's what made today surprising. I thought he survived it."

Ayres added that he thought it was time for Davis to go, that he had become a distraction, that it seemed like no one was minding the program. He recommended a new tack that takes in old traditions -- a "new focus on the Carolina way."

"High integrity and let the football fall where it may," Ayres said.

Staff writer Edward G. Robinson III contributed to this report.

anne.blythe@newsobserver.com or 919 836-4948

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