As he sat in the glass house that is the North Carolina football program Wednesday, interim head coach Everett Withers started throwing stones at N.C. State.
It was a silly, short-sighted move. And it backfired badly.
Withers' verbal jabs Wednesday on a radio show about the Wolfpack's academics were returned with a couple of resounding uppercuts Thursday by fuming N.C. State head coach Tom O'Brien.
We'll dissect the comments in a moment. But first, two quick opinions:
Withers didn't have a leg to stand on when he questioned the "academic environment" at N.C. State, and he made his longshot candidacy for the permanent North Carolina head-coaching job even more unlikely with those ill-considered words. UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp apologized to N.C. State Chancellor Randy Woodson Thursday for what Withers said - this was really a bad career move for Withers.
Saturday's 12:30 p.m. game in Raleigh between these two teams is going to be even juicier than usual.
It started Wednesday in Withers' taped radio interview with Joe Ovies of Raleigh's 99.9 "The Fan." Withers questioned the academics and the graduation rates at N.C. State, which is totally laughable given that the Tar Heels fired coach Butch Davis just before the 2011 season due to the fallout of an academic scandal and an NCAA probe into the football program. In fact, UNC is waiting right now to hear word from the NCAA as to what its punishment is going to be.
Yet Withers said in the radio interview: "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 (N.C. State), graduation rates for athletics, football, you'll see a difference. ... If you look at the educational environment here, I think you'll see a difference."
O'Brien fired back Thursday to reporters, saying of Withers: "Here is a guy that's on a football staff that ends up in Indianapolis (at a Committee on Infractions hearing to determine the Tar Heels' penalties) ... 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 painting with a broad brush there, but his points were basically valid. And while N.C. State's player graduation rate isn't where O'Brien wants it to be, his team is not the one that has been accused of nine major NCAA violations and that has been in turmoil for more than a year.
Withers was apparently referring to the fact that, according to data provided by the NCAA for the freshman class of 2004, UNC's football team had a graduation success rate of 75 percent compared to 56 percent for N.C. State. UNC's federal graduation rate, which doesn't count transfers or players who left early, was at 58 percent compared to 50 percent for N.C. State.
O'Brien said Thursday his school's academic progress had "bottomed out" but is "heading back up to where it should be." He also fired this shot: "At our school, A number one, all classes have a syllabus... 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."
Read O'Brien's words and you can feel the fury behind them. This was never a fight Withers should have picked.
Withers said Thursday he was only trying to express his pride in North Carolina with his original comments, but by then it was too late - the eggs could not be unscrambled.
North Carolina has for years claimed the academic high ground. But that reputation has been tarnished in a number of ways - academic exceptions, the plagiarism of Michael McAdoo, the actions of former university tutor Jennifer Wiley - and was a primary reason Davis got fired.
It's fine for Withers to embrace the importance of this rivalry. But in this case it's Withers' judgment - not the academic environment at N.C. State - that is most called into question and is most found wanting.
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