Can UNC play big-time football and preserve its integrity?

Staff WriterJuly 31, 2011 

  • UNC's past three football coaches have been fired.

    Coach

    Tenure

    Record

    Carl Torbush

    1998-2000

    17-18

    John Bunting

    2001-2006

    27-45

    Butch Davis

    2007-2010

    28-23

— Two images symbolize UNC-Chapel Hill's drive to produce a championship football program:

Kenan Stadium's new east end zone addition, a $70 million project adding thousands of seats, luxury boxes and plush athletic training and tutoring facilities.

Butch Davis, the high-profile, high-dollar coach, answering reporters' questions about allegations of NCAA violations, his former associate head coach, a misguided tutor - and his cellphone records.

Davis has departed, fired Wednesday by Chancellor Holden Thorp, who said he could no longer bear the damage to the university's reputation caused by its biggest NCAA troubles in 50 years and other related academic misdeeds.

The east end zone is nearly complete, and this year it will help entertain fans who file into Kenan Stadium to watch what might have been one of Davis' best teams.

But will those fans, for years to come, see a team that contends for championships? Will UNC, stung by agents helping players, an assistant coach helping an agent and an embarrassing case of plagiarism, still seek to play with the big boys of college football?

UNC has struggled to maintain its storied academic reputation and, at the same time, build a modern football program that excites a large enough fan base to fill 63,000 seats and contribute mightily to the big-time costs associated with national championship aspirations.

"I've got an acute sense of the true nature of the tension," Thorp said Thursday. "Nearly every public university, including many, many great public universities, are wrestling with the issues that we're talking about."

The quest for winning football teams can add to the cost of losing. Highly paid coaches must show swift success or be fired; Davis is due a $2.7 million buyout. Seats in expanded stadiums must be sold or other university sports teams feel the pinch.

Thorp likes to say that the university avoids using state tax money to pay for athletics. But that means athletics must pay for itself, adding further to the pressure. The university is still trying to sell naming rights to all sorts of features in the stadium renovation.

Many fans weren't ready to lose Davis.

Fred Pearlman, a 1982 UNC graduate, is disappointed with the chancellor for firing Davis so close to the start of the football season.

"I thought it was terrible," Pearlman said. "The only thing that occurs to me is they wanted to do this after they got most of the ticket sales."

Passion for a title

Wade Hargrove understands the frustration. He wants to win, too, but he wants it done the right way.

Hargrove is a Raleigh lawyer and UNC alumnus who took over as chairman of the board of trustees hours before Davis was dismissed. He replaced Bob Winston of Raleigh, a big supporter of Davis.

"There is no less passion today to win a national championship than there was the day before," Hargrove said after Davis was fired. "Let's get on with playing football and playing by the rules."

Though sports talk radio shows and Web chat boards were lit up initially with fans describing Hargrove as the impetus behind the abrupt dismissal, he said the decision was Thorp's.

"This chancellor is committed to the core mission of the university," Hargrove said. "After all is said and done, this is an educational institution, not an entertainment institution."

Hargrove lamented that three hours of his first meeting as board chairman with three new members was spent talking about football - not the $100 million cut in state funding that could result in employee layoffs and the closing of some campus buildings.

"At some point, the sense was we need to just get this chapter behind us and get on to running the university," Hargrove said. "At the end of the day, the chancellor and the administrators have to make sure their job as educators is not being compromised. We just have to be ever vigilant to make sure we're doing the right thing. It's just not easy."

Though some still wrestle with Thorp's decision to dismiss Davis when he did, administrators familiar with UNC fans expect the loyal blue to rally behind the program.

John Montgomery, head of the Educational Foundation, the athletics booster club, better known as the Rams Club, fielded phone calls much of Thursday. Some callers wanted to talk about the dismissal of Davis. More calls were about the announcement that Dick Baddour, athletics director for 14 years and a university employee for 45, was stepping down earlier than he planned.

"The sense I get is that people care about Carolina football," Montgomery said. "They want the program to succeed. I hope everybody will regroup and renew their support for Carolina and help us achieve the kind of success on the football field and in the classroom that Carolina people have long wanted."

Art Pope, whose family contributed $3 million to the construction of the east end zone from the John William Pope Foundation, said he thought UNC could have a big-time football program and success in the classroom.

"I don't think they're mutually exclusive," Pope said.

Former UNC system President Bill Friday, long a critic of big-time athletics, said the university gets pushed by boosters with deep pockets who want championships.

"We've got work to do, and we've got issues to resolve, but the first one has got to be ferreting out where this pressure comes from," Friday said. "Who is generating it? Why is it this win-at-any-cost mentality?"

28 wins, 9 infractions

Big ambition can lead to large numbers.

UNC spent nearly $15 million on its football program in the year ending June 30, 2010, according to a report the school filed with the federal Department of Education. The program produced revenue of $22 million, part of an athletics budget of more than $67 million.

Davis' four teams produced 28 wins, a far better record than the previous coach's. But another number also stands out: allegations of nine major NCAA infractions. A Google search Friday of "UNC football" and "scandal" brought up about 1.27 million results.

Chris Roush, who teaches business journalism at UNC and directs the Carolina Business News Initiative, came to Chapel Hill by way of two football schools. He did his undergraduate work at Auburn University and his graduate studies at the University of Florida and supports football on campus because the revenue generated by the sport helps pay for other sports.

He was critical of Davis and of university administrators for keeping the coach as long as they did after the NCAA allegations emerged.

"If this had happened to me or any other professor on this campus, if we'd had students on our watch get into trouble, we would not have remained on the faculty," Roush said.

Nevertheless, he said it is possible for a university to try to build a football program that is competitive nationally without compromising a commitment to academic excellence and integrity.

"I do think it's possible because I look at a university like Stanford and see it happening," Roush said.

'More watching'

Jan Boxill, the new faculty chairwoman, is a philosophy professor and director of the UNC-CH Parr Center for Ethics who has long worked alongside many Tar Heels athletes. She has been a public address announcer for the women's basketball and field hockey teams and an academic adviser for the athletics department. She is chairwoman of the 2011 NCAA Scholarly Colloquium and the Education Outreach Program for the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

"There's always going to be a tension, just as the chancellor said," Boxill told reporters after Thorp's news conference Thursday. "It's just going to take more watching and a lot more faculty involvement."

Athletics is an important part of college life, Boxill said. "That's what we have for entertainment," she said.

But she borrowed a metaphor she often heard Baddour use during orientation sessions with new Tar Heels athletes:

"Athletics are your front porch of the university," she said. "So you want it to be clean."

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

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