North Carolina pounded Duke on Thursday night, a reward in itself, and qualified for a bowl game. There was also the added bonus of knocking Duke out of the ACC title game.
As the Tar Heels celebrated with the Victory Bell and their jubilant fans in Durham, the last thing on anyone’s mind was Kenneth Wainstein or his report.
But now that the Tar Heels have a chance to collect their thoughts, it’s at least worth considering the consequences of Wainstein’s report, which outlined an academic scandal unprecedented in its scope and length, and think about self-imposing a bowl ban this season.
The NCAA had reopened its investigation to the systematic academic fraud in the African and Afro-American studies department before Wainstein published his report in October.
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The NCAA, with its slipshod enforcement and inconsistent record of consistent incompetence, is like a snowflake-covered box of chocolates – no two rulings are the same, and you never know what you’re gonna get.
But the UNC administration finds itself at a crossroads, similar to the one it had in 2011. With the NCAA deliberating over a multi-pronged investigation into impermissible benefits to star players and an assistant coach who worked for an agent, the previous administration chose to send a 7-5 team to the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La.
The outcome, a 41-24 loss to Missouri, which qualified as a soup-to-nuts disaster, paled in comparison to the future cost. The NCAA wound up banning the Tar Heels from the 2012 postseason.
Instead of punting on Shreveport in ’11 with a self-imposed ban, Larry Fedora’s incredibly talented first team in ’12, with generational talents in running back Gio Bernard and tight end Eric Ebron, had to pay the price.
The Heels went 5-3 in the ACC and won the Coastal Division in 2012 but couldn’t play in the ACC championship game.
“That’s one of the things I can’t get over,” said Bryn Renner, the team’s quarterback in 2011 and ’12. “To be honest, I would have loved to have played in the ACC title game and skipped Shreveport.”
But that’s hindsight, Renner said; there’s no way you could have convinced him at the time that the program should have taken a knee and sat out the bowl game.
The circumstances are different this season, Renner pointed out. In 2011, then interim-coach Everett Withers was on his way out. Now, Fedora is entrenched in his third season. There was also a complete changeover with the administration with a new chancellor and athletic director.
Renner said, even knowing his regrets from 2011, he’d want this team to go to a bowl game.
“The best thing for this team is to go 8-5 and let next season take care of itself,” Renner said.
Maybe Renner’s right, but the past two independent reports at major Division I programs – Wainstein’s at Miami in 2013 and Louis Freeh’s at Penn State – ostensibly led to a two-year bowl ban in each case.
In 2011 and 2012, Miami self-imposed a bowl ban. When the NCAA finally ruled on what amounted to a pay-for-play scam by booster Nevin Shapiro in 2013, the Hurricanes got credit for time served and did not get an additional postseason ban.
Penn State was given a four-year bowl ban by NCAA president Mark Emmert in 2012 for the sexual abuse scandal involving former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. In October, that postseason ban was reduced to two years.
UNC’s case is clearly different from Penn State’s or Miami’s, but it would not be unreasonable to predict that the NCAA could make the Tar Heels sit out at least one bowl game.
Like everything else at UNC since the “Summer of Marvin and Greg,” it’s complicated.
On one hand, UNC has the potential to finish the season with back-to-back wins over Duke and N.C. State. No trip to Charlotte, New York, Annapolis, Detroit or (gasp!) Shreveport is going to top that.
And with quarterback Marquise Williams back for his senior season in 2015, and the emergence of running back T.J. Logan, there’s a real chance for the Tar Heels to finally fulfill their potential.
On the other hand, there are no guarantees with the NCAA. The Tar Heels could punt and still not help their future cause.
It’s a tough choice, either way, but it’s a decision that’s looming.