UNC's Thorp calls NCAA penalties 'painful'

The sanctions against the Heels include a one-year postseason ban.

acarter@newsobserver.comMarch 13, 2012 

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UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor Holden Thorp leaves his office in the South Building on campus on March 12, 2012, after a day that saw the university's football team banned by the NCAA from competing in the 2012 postseason.

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  • The NCAA found the case against the North Carolina football program involved major violations. Penalties added Monday include:

    -- Three years probation.

    -- A ban from postseason play in 2012, including the ACC championship and a bowl game.

    -- Loss of 15 scholarships over three years.

    North Carolina previously vacated all football victories in the 2008 and 2009 seasons and self-imposed a $50,000 fine.

    Also, the NCAA imposed a three-year show-clause on John Blake, a former assistant coach, banning him from recruiting and likely from coaching for three years.

The University of North Carolina’s NCAA troubles began in summer 2010 with an early-morning tweet from Marvin Austin, then a star UNC football player who wrote of a night of partying at a lavish club in South Florida. Twenty months later, the university hopes its NCAA problems have come to an end for good.

The NCAA’s Committee on Infractions on Monday released its final verdict in a case that embarrassed the Tar Heels’ football program, tarnished UNC’s academic reputation and led to early retirement of former athletic director Dick Baddour and the firing of former football coach Butch Davis.

The committee ruled the UNC football team must serve a one-year postseason ban in 2012 and eliminate five football scholarships per year in each of the next three academic years. The committee also increased UNC’s self-imposed probationary period from two years to three.

In its report, the committee wrote that the improprieties that took place within the UNC football program “serve as a cautionary tale to all institutions to vigilantly monitor the activities of those student-athletes who possess the potential to be top professional prospects.”

Austin was considered an elite professional prospect when in the early-morning hours of May 18, 2010, he wrote on Twitter, “I live In club LIV so I get the tenant rate. bottles comin (sic) like its (sic) a giveaway.”

That message, a reference to a song by hip-hop artist Rick Ross, ignited an NCAA investigation that determined Austin received impermissible benefits from an agent. The investigation expanded as the weeks and months passed, and it eventually uncovered several major violations within the UNC football program.

In its report, the infractions committee detailed seven of those major violations, which included academic fraud, impermissible benefits from agents, and a failure to monitor the football program.

The NCAA’s investigation found six UNC football players over three seasons competed while ineligible because of those violations, and that multiple football players received impermissible benefits amounting to more than $31,000.

“At the end of the day, the report speaks for itself,” said Britton Banowsky, the chairman of the infractions committee who is also the commissioner of Conference USA. “It’s also important to note at the outset that the enforcement staff and university were in substantial agreement on virtually every allegation in this case.”

Banowsky praised UNC’s cooperation and participation in the NCAA’s investigation but said those mitigating factors didn’t outweigh the egregious nature of the misdeeds.

An appeal ‘didn’t make sense’

Holden Thorp, the UNC chancellor, said Monday the university considered appealing the sanctions but decided against it.

“We decided that it didn’t make sense to appeal,” Thorp said, “given how long the appeal would take, given the (lack of) success other schools have had with appeals and, perhaps most importantly, the fact that the penalties would be suspended during the appeal. … So we decided it’s best to accept our sanctions and move forward.”

All along, UNC’s NCAA woes centered on the relationship between football players and agents. And the NCAA’s report reflected those issues.

Many of the violations the NCAA uncovered at UNC involved John Blake, the former assistant coach who was found to have close ties with Gary Wichard, a prolific sports agent who died of cancer in 2011. The committee found Blake received payment from an agent for access to football players.

For his involvement in the scandal, the committee gave Blake a three-year “show-cause” penalty, which essentially bans him from coaching at an NCAA-affiliated school during the next three years. The committee also noted that Jennifer Wiley, the former tutor who played a central role in the academic fraud side of the case, remained uncooperative throughout the investigation.

Davis, the Tar Heels’ former head coach, was not named in final NCAA report, and the NCAA never accused him of wrongdoing. In a statement he released through one of his lawyers Monday night, Davis said he was “saddened.”

“It has been a difficult process for everyone,” he said in the statement. “… I cooperated fully with the proper entities throughout this entire investigation. I felt that my staff and I implemented many practices into the program to try to prevent these types of issues.”

Committee stands by ruling

In addition to the penalties the NCAA levied, the university previously announced it would vacate the 16 games the football team won during the 2008 and 2009 seasons. The university also fined itself $50,000.

After UNC officials appeared in Indianapolis before the infractions committee Oct. 28, the university waited to learn its fate. Thorp said he received the NCAA’s ruling at 9 a.m. Monday, and the sanctions became public that afternoon. They were more severe than UNC expected.

“When you get news that is a little bit different than what you anticipated, you run a range of emotions,” UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham said. “You have some frustration, some disappointment, some angst. … We’ve chosen to respond to it in a very positive way.”

Cunningham was among those who met Monday to decide whether to appeal the sanctions. Larry Fedora, the football coach whom the university hired in mid-December, also was part of that discussion.

After officials weighed the benefits and costs of an appeal, they decided it wouldn’t be worth it, Thorp said. Members of the committee on infractions, meanwhile, stood by the sanctions and dismissed the notion that they hadn’t been stern enough.

“Losing a postseason opportunity, I think everyone would agree, is significant,” said Greg Sankey, an associate commissioner of the Southeastern Conference and a member of the infractions committee. “Show-cause orders have significance. The loss of scholarships in any program are significant.”

A sense of closure

When UNC hired Davis to coach the Tar Heels in November 2006, the news created considerable excitement. Known for his successful seasons at the University of Miami, where Davis rebuilt the Hurricanes into a national power, his supporters at UNC expected him to build the Tar Heels into a consistent winner.

Instead, Thorp fired him in the wake of the scandal, just days before the start of practice for the 2011 season. That was but one dark day amid many for UNC and its football team since the summer of 2010.

That the committee on infractions released its findings Monday created a sense of closure, but it also brought mistakes of the past back into light.

“It’s definitely a tough time,” former UNC player Robert Quinn said Monday. “I wouldn’t have wished that on anybody. I know some of the younger guys who still go there and I know they will continue to fight. They do have an opportunity to play and win games.”

Quinn, now a defensive end for the St. Louis Rams, was one of seven players who in 2010 served season-long suspensions for their role in the scandal. Fourteen UNC players sat out at least one game that season because of suspension. Austin, Quinn and former receiver Greg Little were central figures in the investigation.

The future

The Tar Heels’ postseason ban will keep them out of a bowl game next season, and out of the ACC championship game should they win the ACC’s Coastal Division. Baddour, the former athletic director, said university officials considered including a bowl ban as part of the self-imposed penalties but decided against it.

Baddour also defended “the Carolina way,” even after the football program lost its way under Davis.

“There’s still a Carolina way,” Baddour said. “And the way we did this investigation – it’s my strong belief it was the Carolina way. We set out four guiding principles when we started.

“And number four was we would be better as a result of this.”

Because of the bowl ban, UNC senior football players who wish to transfer can do so without penalty, and they would be able to play immediately at their new school.

Those who remain, though, will be part of a recovery process that began Monday.

Staff writer Chip Alexander contributed to this story.

Carter: 919-829-8944

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