When Charlotte hosted the 1994 Final Four, the city put up phony storefronts to make the downtown look more prosperous than it was. College athletics can be like that, displaying a solid, earnest façade that masks the cold calculations of a bottom-line business.
Sometimes, though, the calculations go awry, laying bare pretentions about appropriate values and responsible leadership. In essence that’s what just happened at Maryland with the university hierarchy’s response to the June death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair, a tragedy that revealed an abusive atmosphere enveloping the football program.
Luckily for the ACC, founding-member Maryland now belongs to another league, so folks in our neck of the woods can avert our eyes and ignore the ugliness.
Maryland, you’ll recall, surprisingly announced in Nov. 2012 it was leaving the ACC for a bigger payday in the Big 10. Less than two weeks later the jilted ACC responded by adding Louisville, a seventh 21st-century pelt collected from the Big East. Both took up residence in their new surroundings in 2014.
Some swaps benefit everyone involved. Others are so one-sided they endure as cautionary tales, none more than Red Sox owner Harry Frazee accepting cash and financing for the musical “No, No, Nanette” from the N.Y. Yankees in exchange for Babe Ruth. And sometimes trades like Maryland for Louisville come with a hidden price both sides pay.
True, leagues don’t actually swap members when one leaves and is quickly replaced by another. But as whispers arise again about potential conference realignments – a fever that abates but won’t quit – folks in college athletics should take pause watching how Louisville and now Maryland attempt to repair deep, self-inflicted wounds.
Wallace Loh, the president who guided the Terrapins’ ACC exit, wound up being a fall guy for execrable on-field oversight that cost McNair’s life. Football coach D.J. Durkin was reluctantly axed too, after first being inexplicably embraced by the university’s trustees. (Durkin reportedly gets $5.5 million to “part ways” with financially strapped Maryland, as Loh put it.) On the single day Durkin was reinstated, several players walked out of a team meeting, echoing the fate of Terp football coach Bob Ward, an intense sort who resigned in 1969 after 115 players signed a petition urging his removal.
Meanwhile, don’t forget Louisville, still recovering from an NCAA probation for supplying sex workers to recruits; the decisive firings of errant basketball coach Rick Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich; and the disavowal of Papa John’s founder John Schnatter, formerly among the school’s most generous sports boosters and a university trustee.
Speculation has it the Cardinals may soon be dealing with their own, more mundane football dilemma – the continued employment of Bobby Petrino, their ethically challenged head coach.
Performance might protect Petrino, given that Louisville won at least eight games in each of his first three ACC seasons and boasted 2016 Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson. But, expectations elevated, the 2018 Cards are floundering, miserable defensively and courting a winless league season. Petrino now lacks protection from Jurich, who went out on a limb to hire him, and invites criticism with two sons-in-law on his defensive coaching staff.
But the ACC coach most often cited on websites like “Coaches Hot Seat” is North Carolina’s Larry Fedora. Not only are the Tar Heels enduring a second straight losing season, but their win total is on the decline for the third year in a row. An in-state loss to struggling East Carolina (and hot seat occupant Scottie Montgomery) didn’t help; a hurricane-canceled contest against powerful Central Florida probably did.
UNC football players’ preseason sneaker sales drew unwelcome attention, coming on the heels of extended controversy over the school’s low-effort class offerings. The shoe story broke shortly after Fedora gratuitously challenged research linking brain injuries and football, a sport he near-sightedly described as essential to the national welfare.
Oddly, Fedora’s longevity at Kenan Stadium is more a topic of national and regional conversation – mentioned on a recent, usually sanitized telecast of a Tar Heels game – than it is in his own neighborhood.
A Yahoo Sports story about inhibitions imposed on jettisoning coaches due to large buyout clauses was less generous in its appraisal, almost daring the Tar Heels to pony up. Noting the $12 million severance payment in Fedora’s contract, an amount that decreases annually, the story stated, “This will be a test of how much Carolina cares about football. Moving on is expensive, but can UNC afford to stay in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons?”
High profile decisions
The notion that a measure of Carolina’s commitment is how much it’s willing to bend, and spend, for football is the same trap some UNC leaders have tried to avoid for more than a half-century.
William Friday described heated internal debates over hiring high-profile coach Jim Tatum in the 1950s, for fear it meant an embrace of corrupting, big-time sports. A similar discussion reportedly occurred before unsavory Butch Davis was hired a little more than a decade ago, a move that brought three 8-win seasons in four years and an NCAA probation.
If Fedora’s team continues to demonstrate effort and discipline despite adverse results, presumably he’ll secure another chance to redirect his program toward the heights of 2015, when Carolina reached the ACC championship game and went 8-0 in the conference. Whether he earns that opportunity will be a telling gauge of UNC’s leadership. Or at least a better measure of the depths of boosters’ pockets, which yielded the Ram’s Club a whopping $62.2 million in 2017-18.