UNC's Holden Thorp: Rough lessons in athletics

acarter@newsobserver.comApril 19, 2013 

— Before becoming the chancellor at the University of North Carolina, Holden Thorp’s most significant experience in athletics might have come from his time on his middle school football team.

“And I started,” he said here on Friday, “but only because we had 22 people on our team.”

Later, after a lifetime dedicated to science and research and the world of academia, Thorp became UNC’s most senior leader. He recounted the story during a panel discussion of the role of athletics on college campuses, and Thorp spent most of his time denouncing the idea that university chancellors and presidents – those like him – should be most responsible for the direction of college athletics.

“One day I woke up and Roy Williams, Anson Dorrance, Sylvia Hatchell, Mike Fox and so many other great coaches were all working for me,” said Thorp, the outgoing chancellor whose time at UNC has been marred by high-profile scandals and an NCAA investigation that led to sanctions against the football program. “After five years and all that I’ve been through, I know enough to run college sports now.

“But I think we can all agree that it wasn’t exactly a smooth road to enlightenment.”

Thorp’s assertion that he was powerless to fix many of the problems that erupted into scandals at UNC was perhaps the most powerful commentary during a two-hour discussion that also included scathing remarks from Jay Bilas, the ESPN college basketball analyst, and Jay Smith, the outspoken UNC history professor.

Bilas, who from 1982-86 played basketball at Duke, scoffed at the notion of amateurism in college sports and described the NCAA rulebook as “a joke.” He called for college athletes to be paid and said the only amateur part about major college athletics “is the structure and the leadership.”

Smith, meanwhile, derided the term “student-athlete” and called for an end of its use at UNC.

“The prevailing term of choice (to describe athletes), ‘student-athlete,’ is a mythical one,” said Smith, a history professor who has been outspokenly critical of the role of athletics on campus, and the disconnect between the athletic and academic sides of the university.

It was Thorp’s comments, though, that might have been the most thought-provoking given the recent struggles of people in his position to lead colleges and universities through an ever-changing college sports landscape. Discussions of conference realignment and rules changes – such as the proposal of various pay-for-play models – have gripped major college sports in recent years.

So, too, have several scandals – like the one involving academic fraud and impermissible benefits that erupted in the summer of 2010 at UNC, and like others since at Ohio State, Auburn and Rutgers. The problems at UNC led Thorp to convene a five-member panel led by Hunter Rawlings, the president of the Association of American Universities.

Rawlings and others on the panel, including Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany and Amy Perko, the executive director of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, listened on Friday while Thorp, Bilas, Smith and others spoke about challenges facing college sports.

Thorp asked the Rawlings panel to make recommendations to address some of those problems – the deficiencies in leadership among chancellors and presidents, for instance, and cultural divide between the athletic and academic missions of a university.

“I’m pretty optimistic that we will make some bold recommendations,” Rawlings said. “Whether they can be implemented is up to (UNC). How well they’ll be received across the country, we’ll have to see. But we don’t want to make little tweaks. That’s not why I think we were asked to do this.”

The panel will make recommendations only to UNC, though Thorp hopes they can be applied nationally. Rawlings made it clear, though, that the panel would not delve too deep into UNC’s problems of the past.

“We want to look forward, not back,” he said. “We’re not here to investigate anything. All that’s been done. We want to make some positive recommendations going forward.”

That was part of the reason, Thorp said, why he was so forthcoming – because of a desire to help Carol Folt, UNC’s incoming chancellor. Thorp said he has told Folt that, “For right now, sports is the most important part of her job.”

“And I don’t agree that that’s a good thing,” Thorp said. “But I think for those of us who are in these positions, because of the attention and because of how hard these problems are to solve, that’s something that people need to be frank with each other about.”

Thorp acknowledged chancellors and presidents should take ultimate responsibility for all aspects of a university – athletics included. But he called for an end to the “presidential control” model over athletics for three reasons:

The lack of experience presidents and chancellors have in athletics, the lack of time they have to confront problems and that the rest of the academic administration tends to “check out,” he said, if a chancellor or president is the only academic administrator accountable for athletics.

“We need to be more realistic about what powers we do and don’t have,” Thorp said. “… I’m just saying that we need to develop this thing that says if something goes wrong in athletics, it’s an athletics problem – just the same way we would about other things that go wrong in the university, or go right.”

Bubba Cunningham, who in the fall of 2011 became UNC’s athletic director, said he wanted to take on greater responsibility in running the athletic department. He called Thorp’s comments “appropriate,” and noted they came after “a lot of turmoil.”

“Accountability for behavior and actions need to rest with the department head,” Cunningham said. “And not the university chancellor or president.”

Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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