Details of a widening scandal have been oozing out of North Carolina’s football program like toothpaste from the tube for a solid year.
Tweets from players about champagne flowing like water at a party underwritten by agents. An assistant accused of acting as a runner for another agent. A tutor once employed by head football coach Butch Davis to work with his own teenage son helping players write papers and paying off their parking tickets.
Apparently, none of it bothered UNC chancellor Holden Thorp until he tried brushing his teeth in front of a mirror the other day.
So ask yourself: How is it that the college poobahs are always the last to know?
“What started as a purely athletic issue,” Thorp said when he finally got around to firing Davis, “has begun to chip away at this university’s reputation.”
With all due respect, chancellor, the rest of us are already in the deep-drilling phase. Chipping away is what happened last July, when the aforementioned tweet by Marvin Austin — suspended for all of last season and then scooped up in the NFL Draft — put the NCAA gumshoes on UNC’s trail. Now, instead of being a school that could justifiably boast about doing things “the Carolina way,” North Carolina looks like every other school desperate to grab the handfuls of cash floating around college sports while trying to stay a step ahead of the authorities.
Somehow, running one of the most successful, not to mention cleanest, basketball programs in the land for decades wasn’t enough. UNC wanted to be a football factory, too. It doesn’t take a math major — nor like Thorp a Ph.D in chemistry — to compare the rosters in the two sports and know that the risk to a school’s reputation increases six-fold. Just ask Oregon, where the wheels are already turning furiously.
We’ve been down this road plenty of times before. Ohio State and Tennessee, to name just two, are traveling it even as you read this, eager to persuade the NCAA not to add to the pile of punishments they’ve already heaped on themselves. That’s what axing Davis and the retirement of longtime UNC athletic director Dick Baddour — who like Thorp stood squarely behind the coach until now — were about.
To call what’s happening at North Carolina a mess isn’t forward-looking enough. It won’t be cleaned up for years. The school still owes Davis as much as $2.7 million. As recently as Monday, he was at the Atlantic Coast Conference media day talking about his plans for the coming season. He again said then that he didn’t know about the improprieties, and even in firing him, Thorp said he believed Davis. To be fair, the NCAA’s notice of allegations in June outlined nine potential major violations and none were tied to Davis.
Last year went south after the season-long suspension of seven players — including three who were picked in the first two rounds in the NFL Draft — and this one is heading fast in the same direction. What that means for recruiting efforts in the next few seasons — even if UNC doesn’t lose any scholarships — practically guarantees at least five more years of mediocrity.
Speaking of time, it’s been a dozen years now since university presidents took control of the NCAA with a mandate to clean up the shady dealings in the two big revenue-producing sports and sign a truce on “an athletic arms race.” What they did instead was hide the brooms, ramp up their own budgets and promise to behave better. The scandals look the same now as they did then: academic fraud, cheating coaches, corner-cutting recruiters, athletes devising schemes to get paid and agents hanging around preying on easy marks. The only real difference is that the top college brass now must stand in front of microphones and explain why they didn’t know, let alone act, when they should have.
“We tried to hold things together and restore confidence in the football program, and I felt in order for us to have a fair chance for that, I would have to support coach Davis,” Thorp said. “I’ve come to the conclusion that we’ve given that enough time, and now it’s time for us to take the actions that we’re taking.”
Like everything else about this story from the start, chancellor, too late.