North Carolina

Jacobs: Athletics a pressure point for university leaders

There’s no surefire way to prepare, no tutorial or textbook laying out the pitfalls and pressure points. University presidents and chancellors, the NCAA’s putative leaders, reportedly don’t even like to discuss athletics among themselves. Most will survive averting their gaze – “involuntary transitions” due to athletics scandal are surprisingly uncommon, according to a yet-to-be-published working paper on turnover among university presidents.

“The struggles with athletics may be the most prominent, but I don’t know that it’s the most threatening to a presidency, by and large,” says Michael Harris, the Southern Methodist University professor who co-authored the study. Firings and resignations, particularly at public universities, are more likely due to “loss of board confidence” and “financial improprieties.”

But there are always outliers, among them Holden Thorp and Paul Hardin III, recent chancellors at the University of North Carolina who encountered the dark side of athletics and paid a price. Or perhaps, if you take a longer view, Thorp and Harden were fortunate, their temporary derailments leading to fresher, perhaps better opportunities.

“I’m very happy that I’m here,” says Thorp, 50, provost at Washington University in St. Louis. “In a sense, things have certainly worked out for me to be here.”

As for the 83-year-old Hardin, these days residing in a retirement community near Chapel Hill, his reaction to malfeasance while president at SMU indirectly landed him at UNC 14 years later.

Hardin, a Charlotte native, was hired at the Dallas school in 1972 after four years as president of Wofford College in South Carolina. He was at football-besotted SMU only two years before receiving a phone call from the father of a football team member. “My boy is bringing home money,” the parent said. Upon investigation, Hardin uncovered what he calls a “prize arrangement” paying players small bonuses – $25 for a shared tackle, $50 for a solo takedown and so on – with money donated by boosters for the purpose. Performance bonuses are illegal under NCAA rules.

The son of a Methodist bishop responded quickly, removing the complicit football coach from his dual role as athletics director and significantly shortening his contract. Hardin also unilaterally brought the cheating to the attention of the NCAA, which ultimately leveled a punishment lightened due to his cooperation.

Hardin was widely praised for his principled stand and his employment was extended. Yet five months after he turned the school in, a powerful member of SMU’s board of governors forced him to leave office anyway.

“When the board had its fateful meeting to determine my future,” Hardin says his chief antagonist “told the board, ‘We promised these boys that we were going to pay for these big plays, and we’re going to keep our promise.’ ” That same culture led SMU to incur the first and only death penalty in NCAA history – its football program shut down entirely for the 1987 season and limited in 1988, among other sanctions – for maintaining a large slush fund to pay football players.

‘Do what’s right’

Meanwhile Hardin moved to New Jersey’s Drew University, a Manhattan-area school “without a football in sight.” It was there he was approached about becoming the new chancellor at North Carolina. Here the tale of virtue reaches its happy reward. When Hardin asked why he was being considered to run UNC, given that “all my earned degrees are from Duke,” the head hunter replied, “Because the search committee liked the way you handled the SMU situation.”

That experience ratified Hardin’s conviction he acted properly to confront corruption regardless of powerful resistance, a message he would willingly share with any inexperienced college president.

“ ‘Daggum it, do what’s right and the devil take the hind part,’ ” he says, talking through the hypothetical conversation. “And they’d say, ‘Sure, it’s easy for you to say.’ ‘Well, wait a minute, I’m the guy that got to go home to North Carolina and to be chancellor of the archrival of Duke University. How could I say I was taking some kind of reckless chance, or being rash or stupid? I was doing what my daddy taught me.’ ”

Hardin imparted those lessons to Thorp; the former UNC chemistry professor and dean found the older man to be “a great mentor.” Still, as a first-time university leader, Thorp seemed overwhelmed at times by the athletics mess that emerged during his tenure at North Carolina. Now he wishes he had devoted six months to shadowing an athletics director at a university with big-time sports “to get my eyes opened” before assuming the chancellor’s duties in 2008.

Once Thorp was on the job, he was awakening to indulgent admissions standards for athletes and shenanigans that produced a scandal over agent payments to Tar Heels football players seeking a piece of the revenue pie. “When it all started in 2010,” Thorp says, “that was the first time I’d really started looking at a lot of that stuff. I was pretty surprised that it was as hard as it is to get student-athletes who can succeed and have them have a meaningful educational experience.”

Like countless others, Thorp had believed North Carolina stood a cut above most major universities in maintaining the proper balance between sports and academics, values frequently articulated by former Tar Heels basketball coach Dean Smith and ex-university system president William Friday.

‘We thought we were different’

The removal of football coach Butch Davis and an NCAA probation, the first at Chapel Hill since 1961, was bad enough. Later, when phantom independent study classes were uncovered in a separate series of revelations, Thorp realized he had not only been misled, but had trusted too blindly.

“I think in some ways it was hard for me because I had been part of Carolina for so long,” the Fayetteville native says of his allegiance. “Whenever I tell my wife I wish I had been more skeptical, she reminds me that I started being told Carolina basketball was special probably before I remember, but certainly by the time of the soonest conversation I can remember with my father.”

Popular with faculty, staff and many university trustees, Thorp nevertheless felt compelled to resign in 2013.

Neither Thorp nor Hardin care to comment on the specifics of what’s currently taking place at Chapel Hill. But Hardin does admit, “I’m irate at people who let down the side and did things we shouldn’t have done, or failed to do things we should have done.”

It’s difficult to imagine UNC avoiding stiff NCAA punishment for the systematic and enduring academic fraud outlined in last year’s Weinstein report. Already the school has become an exemplar of breaking faith with its basic educational mission in order to maintain athletes’ eligibility to compete. “We thought we were different from Auburn, but now we know that we’re not,” says Thorp. “That’s a hard thing for some people to absorb.”

For others, emulating an SEC football power is a welcome development. Ready to turn the page on the recent unpleasantness over academics, those fans were heartened by the January hire of defensive coordinator Gene Chizik, who left Auburn with a compromised reputation off the field but an impressive record on it.

And so continue the tensions that make college sports so problematic, and occasionally painful, for the university chief executives who oversee them.