UNC, NCSU rivalry boils as game nears

Chancellors apologize as O'Brien fires back at Withers

ktysiac@charlotteobserver.comNovember 4, 2011 

The field is prepared at N.C. State University Thursday where the rival football teams will battle on Saturday.

CHRIS SEWARD - CSEWARD@NEWSOBSERVER.COM

  • UNC interim coach Everett Withers and N.C. State coach Tom O'Brien traded barbs about each other's schools this week. Here is what they said and whether it was true.

    1 UNC interim coach Everett Withers: ""When you have as many schools in this state as we have, and the recruiting base gets watered down a bit, I think the kids in this state need to know the flagship school in this state. They need to know it academically. If you look at our graduation rates, as opposed to our opponent's this week, graduation rates for athletics, for football, you'll see a difference."

    True with regard to the graduation rates. UNC's football team had a graduation success rate of 75 percent for the freshman class of 2004, compared to 56 percent for N.C. State. North Carolina's federalgraduation rate, which does not count transfers or players who left early, was 58 percent compared to 50 percent for N.C. State.

    2 N.C. State coach Tom O'Brien: "If you take three things that you can't do in college football, you have an agent on your staff. You're paying your players. And you have academic fraud. That's a triple play as far as the NCAA goes. So I don't know that he has anything to talk about or they have anything to talk about. If that's what people want in their flagship university in North Carolina, then so be it."

    Mostly true. The NCAA has accused former UNC associate head coach John Blake of working while he was with the Tar Heels for the late sports agent Gary Wichard. UNC has admitted academic fraud in the NCAA investigation. UNC has not been accused of paying players, but O'Brien later clarified his comments to say players were receiving impermissible payments from somebody, which is true.

Even by the standards of the often-heated rivalry between UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State, Thursday was an eye-popper.

N.C. State coach Tom O'Brien became so angry that he was shaking after hearing UNC interim coach Everett Withers' comments about N.C. State's academics, responding that UNC had committed a "triple play" of NCAA violations.

UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor Holden Thorp and N.C. State chancellor Randy Woodson exchanged apologies.

And Withers tried to explain his original remarks. He said Thursday he was merely trying to express his pride in UNC and wasn't talking about N.C. State when he compared graduation rates and said there's a "difference" in the schools' academic environments during a taped interview that aired Wednesday.

North Carolina (6-3, 2-3 ACC) will visit N.C. State (4-4, 1-3) at 12:30 p.m. Saturday, with the Tar Heels trying to win after losing the last four matchups.

Withers started the controversy with comments on 99.9 The Fan radio that aired Wednesday night. He took jabs at N.C. State's academics and said recruits in the state need to know that UNC is the flagship university in North Carolina.

Visibly furious, O'Brien responded Thursday morning when he was told about Withers' original comments. O'Brien referred to UNC officials' Oct. 28 trip to Indianapolis to appear in front of the Committee on Infractions to answer charges of nine major violations in an ongoing NCAA investigation of impermissible benefits and academic fraud

"Here is a guy that's on a football staff that ends up in Indianapolis," O'Brien said at his regularly scheduled post-practice media session. ". . .If you take three things that you can't do in college football, you have an agent on your staff. You're paying your players. And you have academic fraud. That's a triple play as far as the NCAA goes. So I don't know that he has anything to talk about or they have anything to talk about. If that's what people want in their flagship university in North Carolina, then so be it."

O'Brien was asked what he meant by "paying your players." He indicated that he was referring to the impermissible benefits players received.

"They had players accepting money from somebody," O'Brien said. "I mean, money is being given from someone to somebody, that's been documented, right? I don't know how it got there. Maybe I'm wrong saying that. But those are no-nos as far as the NCAA goes."

Thorp apparently tried to smooth things over between the schools by reaching out to Woodson. Thorp called and left Woodson a message, and the two spoke later, according to UNC spokeswoman Nancy Davis.

"Chancellor Thorp apologized, and they had a good conversation," Davis said in an e-mail.

"They're good friends, and they respect each other and their institutions."

N.C. State spokesman Keith Nichols confirmed that the chancellors exchanged apologies.

"Holden and I have a great relationship," Woodson said in a statement emailed by Nichols.

"We talked this morning, exchanged apologies and we're moving on."

Withers' explanation

Withers addressed his controversial radio remarks Thursday.

"My statement didn't have anything to do with really North Carolina State's academics," Withers said Thursday afternoon. "It's about my pride in the University of North Carolina, what our faculty and our administration have done here, and I have a lot of pride for what this school stands for academically. That's part of the whole student-athlete experience."

Withers, a lifelong UNC fan, has spoken passionately about his appreciation for the rivalry this week. In the radio interview, he said recruits need to look at UNC's graduation rates for football players compared to N.C. State's.

"You'll see a difference," Withers said. ". . .If you look at the educational environment here, I think you'll see a difference."

According to data provided by the NCAA, UNC's football team had a graduation success rate of 75 percent for the freshman class of 2004, compared to 56 percent for N.C. State.

UNC's federal graduation rate, which does not count transfers or players who left early, was 58 percent compared to 50 percent for N.C. State.

UNC's NCAA troubles

UNC's academic reputation has been under fire, though, as a result of the NCAA investigation. Tutor Jennifer Wiley provided inappropriate academic assistance to multiple players, and former defensive lineman Michael McAdoo was found to have committed plagiarism that wasn't caught by UNC officials.

UNC also is investigating irregularities in the school's African and Afro-American Studies program that came to light after McAdoo's plagiarism was exposed. UNC officials still have not been able to produce a syllabus for McAdoo's class and others taught by Julius Nyang'oro, who surrendered his African and Afro-American Studies program chairmanship in September.

O'Brien said N.C. State's graduation rate is improving and applauded the school's academic-support program for athletes for getting certified in 2010 by the National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletics.

"At our school, A-number one, all classes have a syllabus," O'Brien said. "Our guys go to school. They're not given grades, and they graduate. It's a little tougher here, if you have to go to school and you're expected to have a syllabus and go to class. So I think all our guys earn everything they get here. Certainly our graduates earn everything at this university."

On Thursday, Withers said he had talked to UNC athletic director Dick Baddour about his original comments, but again said his only intent was to express pride in UNC.

Staff writer Caulton Tudor contributed to this story.

Tysiac: 919-829-8942

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