Davis, UNC aimed high, but scandal took school low

Problems surfaced with a tweet, but more had been brewing

dkane@newsobserver.comOctober 23, 2011 

The mess that will bring UNC-Chapel Hill's football program before the NCAA's sanctions committee Friday went public with a tweet from a star athlete who couldn't wait for an NFL contract to enjoy the good life.

But it started five years ago with a quiet campaign to replace an earnest but unsuccessful coach with another who had been a winner at a college football powerhouse.

The architects of Carolina's plan thought Butch Davis would bring top recruits, more money for a long-planned expansion of Kenan Stadium, ACC championships and perhaps even a shot at a national title. They also thought Davis could do it without sullying Carolina's reputation as one of the nation's elite public universities.

But Davis increased the emphasis on preparing for games outside of practice. Cynthia Reynolds, the former academic coordinator for the football team, says the players faced so much pressure that they found it hard to focus on classwork.

One tutor gave players too much assistance, but problems stretched beyond study hall. Davis had hired John Blake, an assistant coach and top recruiter who had an undisclosed financial relationship with a prominent agent. Before long, players took thousands of dollars in trips, jewelry and other perks from agents and their go-betweens.

This summer, Davis was fired. Athletic Director Dick Baddour is retiring earlier than planned. Several top players previously were banned from the team. An academic department chairman who seemed too eager to help athletes resigned his post.

UNC officials have already agreed to toss away the wins, give up scholarships and pay a $50,000 fine. But they hope the NCAA will allow the school to continue competing in bowl games; the NCAA could impose further sanctions in the coming months.

Records and interviews with key people during Carolina's rise and fall show what can happen when universities reach for success in football. It is the most lucrative sport in college athletics, thanks to lavish TV contracts, high-priced corporate suites and merchandise sales to fan bases that extend well beyond alumni and students. The money supports sports that don't generate as much revenue.

Many of those most closely involved aren't talking. But university leaders insist they weren't trying to turn Carolina into a football factory such as Texas or Alabama. They say they would have been happy with winning seasons.

"I take tremendous exception to the notion that in having Butch Davis here meant the institution was going to loosen its academic standards," Baddour said. "That is simply not the case."

Davis has previously said he learned the value of education after a knee injury ended his college football career.

"In every single individual time that I have spoken with students and spoken with parents the number one thing that I have requested for them is that although the NFL is a glorious dream ... the most important single thing you can do is get a college education," Davis told the UNC board of trustees in November.

Seeking Davis early

But the way UNC landed Davis shows how serious it was about being more than a basketball powerhouse.

In the fall of 2006, several mediocre football seasons prompted then-Chancellor James Moeser, Baddour and three trustees to hop on a plane to Fort Lauderdale to meet with Davis, a former college and NFL coach who had the kind of success that would make everyone take notice.

Davis wanted to get back into coaching, and because he was between gridiron jobs, Baddour and the group could talk to him. They wanted to settle on a coach before the end of the season, when more schools might also be in the hunt.

For nearly half a day, the men interviewed Davis.

They spent a lot of time on what Davis had done to help turn around the University of Miami, which was hit with major NCAA sanctions stemming from his predecessor's tenure. Undeterred, Davis took the team to an 8-3 record that first year. Four seasons later, Davis' team went 11-1 and ranked second in the final coaches' poll. And the team did not get into trouble with the NCAA.

That record appealed to Moeser, who came to Carolina from the University of Nebraska, another school with a rich football history. He had made it known his first six months on the Chapel Hill campus that he wanted excellence in academics and sports.

In that initial interview with Davis, Moeser, Baddour and the trustees asked him about the role of the classroom in college sports. They asked him about his philosophies on recruiting, managing and putting a staff together.

Davis asked how much independence he would have in assembling his staff. He did not ask about any academic waivers or exceptions for talented players who had not performed well in the classroom.

Nor did he ask to see the athletics facilities at UNC.

"He said he didn't need to," Baddour recalled.

Moeser, trustees and others left that meeting thinking they had the coach they needed. They didn't strike a deal, but both sides agreed to stop their respective searches.

Baddour met with Davis again in a Chicago hotel after UNC played Notre Dame. Nine days later, on Nov. 13, 2006, Baddour announced Davis would replace John Bunting as head coach. Davis would make $1.86 million a year, roughly double Bunting's salary.

"One of the main reasons Butch was hired," said Roger Perry, then a UNC trustee, "was he came back after all the problems at Miami and he helped clean it up."

Hiring an old friend

But Davis was also known as a winner, and his signing helped push through a $70 million expansion of Kenan Stadium that added 3,000 more seats, 20 corporate suites and a top-of-the-line academic support center for athletes. He wooed donors such as discount retailer Art Pope and rent-to-own king Charlie Loudermilk to kick in millions of dollars toward the expansion by linking the academic preparation of football players with success on the field.

One of Davis' first hires was a crack recruiter, John Blake. The two men had known each other for more than 30 years, when Blake played for Davis, then a high school coach.

They had both worked as assistant coaches for the Dallas Cowboys, and Blake had moved on to the head coaching job at the University of Oklahoma. It was the pinnacle of his career, but it was short-lived. The university sent him packing after three straight losing seasons.

Blake had two assistant jobs, at Mississippi State and Nebraska, where he bolstered his reputation as a recruiter. At Carolina, his hot streak continued. To many experts' surprise, he landed one of the nation's top prospects, Marvin Austin, a defensive lineman from Washington, D.C. Austin had been expected to sign with Tennessee.

Austin had a larger-than-life personality to go with his 6-foot-3 , 295-pound frame. Austin told USA Today he connected with Blake's spirituality.

"He quoted Bible verses, spoke about how to invest money and knew I'd learn a lot about life and football," Austin said. "We have a father-son relationship."

'Enough is not enough'

By the end of the 2009 season, Davis was on the verge of fulfilling the ambitions of the university leaders who snapped him up. Austin and four other defensive standouts were returning, despite indications all would be draft picks had they opted to go pro, and Blake was continuing to bring in top recruits. Carolina looked like a legitimate contender to win the ACC.

But amid that success were signs the football program was struggling to meet the university's academic standards.

Cynthia Reynolds, the former academic coordinator, never heard Davis say academics weren't important. And he wanted his players in the academic support center, which was for athletes only, to spend two hours a night on classwork. But Davis was adamant, and publicly so, about the need for his players to spend every available hour watching game films and studying their playbooks.

Here's what he told tarheelblue.com, Carolina's official website, in 2007:

"Preparation isn't just solely confined to the 1 hour 55 minutes that we go on the practice field from 3:30 to 5:30 in the afternoon. It's studying notes, it's watching tapes, it's taking the DVDs back to your room and (watch them) when you've got some spare time at night right before you go to bed. There is just a whole mentality and whole culture that young kids have to learn that. They think they're preparing enough. Enough is not enough. When you think that you've done enough, you've probably only done half enough."

Davis said in a statement Friday the staff "stopped the practice of regular distribution of DVDs in 2007."

Deunta Williams, a defensive back who had to sit out four games because of a rules infraction, confirmed he was spending plenty of hours beyond the normal practice time preparing for games. To him, the additional time in the weight room or watching game films was the difference between being a good college football player and an NFL draft pick.

The academic staff worked to keep the players on track to receive degrees and their grades up. The NCAA requires a minimum 2.0 grade point average for athletes to compete, and they must show progress toward a degree.

The average SAT scores for the recruits Davis brought in were slightly higher than Bunting's. But the team's academic profile suffered during Davis' tenure.

Over those four years, an average of eight students made the annual ACC honor roll, which requires a 3.0 grade point average. During the previous five years under Bunting, a Carolina graduate, the average was 17 students.

Reynolds, 57, was let go by the athletic department last year. She contended in an unsuccessful legal complaint it was age discrimination; the university says she made mistakes that threatened some athletes' eligibility.

Reynolds said it was typical to find and recommend classes advisers thought athletes could pass. If an athlete cast an eye toward a degree program that conflicted with the heavy athletic load, advisers warned them they could be risking their eligibility. They were often guided to disciplines that seemed a good fit for their abilities. Communications was one such degree program, exercise and sports science another.

The advisers also knew which professors were more inclined to work with athletes. Reynolds said one was Julius Nyang'oro, chairman of the African and Afro-American Studies Department. She said Nyang'oro did not give the athletes an easy ride. Rather, he sought guarantees from advisers that the athletes would be matched with tutors committed to helping them.

One tutor who seemed up to the challenge was Jennifer Wiley, an undergraduate student majoring in education. She was bright, energetic and attractive. Football players sought her out for help in their studies. In 2008, she was one of four athletic tutors who won the center's top honor for outstanding work. She also had another side job: tutoring Davis' teenage son.

Improper help

With another football season and academic year behind him, Austin hopped on his Twitter account and tapped out a short message. Austin was a regular "tweeter" on the relatively new social network, which limits postings to 140 characters or fewer.

The message, at 3:07 a.m., May 18, 2010, said: "I live In club LIV so I get the tenant rate. bottles comin (sic) like its (sic) a giveaway."

That posting mirrors a lyric from a song by a popular hip hop artist, Rick Ross. But Austin had indeed been partying in south Florida, on a sports agent's tab. Within weeks, NCAA investigators were in Chapel Hill to talk to Austin and wide receiver Greg Little, who also had received gifts from agents.

The ensuing investigation by the NCAA, along with additional probing by the media and fans of rival N.C. State, produced a series of tarnishing revelations that hit the university at its core.

Blake, the recruiter and assistant coach, was receiving money from a sports agent, Gary Wichard, and an archived page from Wichard's website showed Blake had been listed as a vice president. Blake's lawyers say the money represented gifts or loans to pay for Blake's son's private school tuition. Wichard died of cancer this year.

The NCAA alleges Blake was serving as a partner with Wichard, attempting to steer players toward his firm. Football players deny this, but Williams said he was aware Blake and Wichard were longtime friends. Meanwhile, other sports agents and businessmen seeking to capitalize on the NFL futures of star football players were found to have given them free trips, jewelry and other perks.

Wiley, the tutor, had been let go from the academic support center in July 2009 because she had gotten too close to players. But she continued to help them, prompting a letter the following September from the university telling her to stop. Baddour later admitted to NCAA officials that players had not been warned to stay away from her. As late as August 2010, Wiley paid $1,789 of Little's parking tickets at UNC.

Despite the raised flags, university athletics compliance officials did not search her emails until the NCAA investigation began. They found emails showing Wiley had prepared the footnotes and bibliography for a paper that football player Michael McAdoo had been assigned for a Swahili language class. That was impermissible help under NCAA rules, and the school notified the association.

Touting reforms

But university officials never looked closely at the paper, or the class, which was taught by Nyang'oro. If they had, they would have found the paper was largely plagiarized. NCSU fans discovered it after McAdoo made it public in an attempt to return to the team.

University officials also might have questioned why McAdoo was assigned an end-of-term paper in English for an intermediate class on speaking and writing in Swahili. Syllabi from two other professors who taught the Swahili class show the assignments and exams were geared toward building language skills.

Nyang'oro has yet to produce a syllabus for the summer class. University records show he is not a regular teacher of the language, though he hails from Tanzania, where Swahili is widely spoken.

On Friday, UNC officials will tell the NCAA's infractions committee all the things the university is doing to clean up the athletics program: scaling back on undergraduate tutors; restarting a faculty advisory council on athletics; requiring new athletic hires to disclose more about their pasts.

Thorp will represent the university before the NCAA on Friday. He says UNC is fixing its problems, and he is confident the NCAA will produce reforms that can rein in the misconduct. He is serving on an NCAA committee that is recommending higher admission standards.

"It's clear that public universities need intercollegiate athletics to raise awareness of their university and to build enthusiasm and get people back to campus," Thorp said. "And those are things that Carolina needs in order to succeed on all of our objectives. We need to succeed in football because it's critical to the success of the 28 sports programs."

Kane: 919-829-4861

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