Rocked by scandal, the UNC football program has pledged a return to its core values
For North Carolina, the 2010 football season ended in fitting fashion — with a bizarre mix of chaos, confusion and perseverance swirling together and leaving everyone puzzled.
In the final seconds of regulation in the Music City Bowl, with the Tar Heels trailing Tennessee 20–17 and scrambling to get into field goal range, disorder reigned.
Summoned by several panicked coaches, the Tar Heels’ field goal unit began sprinting onto the field. Simultaneously, quarterback T.J. Yates readied the offense for a clock-killing spike. As the time ticked below two seconds and Yates downed the ball, UNC had 16 players on the field. Once again, it seemed, the Tar Heels’ efforts at capturing glory had been thwarted by an untimely rules violation.
Only this time, ironically, their misconduct was rewarded. Yates’ spike — with five Tar Heels too many on the field — earned Carolina a five-yard penalty. But it also stopped the clock and gave the Heels one final play, one they used to send the game into overtime with a 39-yard field goal.
The Tar Heels later captured a 30–27 double-overtime victory, writing an appropriately odd ending to a season that will always carry a “Choose Your Own Adventure” dynamic for how it’s remembered.
Many will look back and be fixated on the numerous missteps that spawned a campus-shaking NCAA investigation — the improper benefits received by star players, the eye-opening academic improprieties and the litany of suspensions that left Carolina short-handed all season. Those transgressions shackled the Tar Heels from the early stages of fall camp, leaving 13 players out of action for significant stretches and permanently ending the careers of spotlight stars Robert Quinn, Marvin Austin and Greg Little.
Yet others will remember the Tar Heels’ 2010 run as a testament to their resolve, with so many players who had never run afoul of the rules rallying to win eight games and preventing a season with so many debilitating distractions from becoming an unmitigated disaster.
But now what? Where do the Tar Heels go from here? How does coach Butch Davis establish direction within the program and build upon the success of 2010 while also learning from all the wrongdoing?
“Like I’ve always said, man, one play can cost you the game,” says Austin, a central figure in the NCAA probe. “Everybody has to be extra careful to make sure they’re doing exactly what they’re supposed to be doing.”
There are those who wonder if, in some symbolic way, this has now become a battle for the program’s soul, with those in power needing to decide what’s more important — attempting to have high-level success or maintaining the school’s oft-promoted squeaky-clean, integrity-overall-else reputation.
Perhaps both can be achieved. But in the wake of recent scandals at USC and now, to some extent, Auburn and Ohio State, there’s a widespread belief that to become a true college football power, a program has to be willing to at least tiptoe into certain shady territories.
In Chapel Hill, they preach endlessly about “The Carolina Way.” And while there is no official definition, those who worship in the churches of the Dean E. Smith Center and Kenan Stadium see it as a way of life, a philosophy that encourages the pursuit of excellence through teamwork and dedication with the highest moral and ethical values always upheld.
Those standards were violated by prominent members of Davis’ UNC football squad. Now the cocksure coach has to tidy up and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that he has the scruples to represent a university that wants itself represented in a very specific manner.
“It’s a pretty straightforward debate for the University of North Carolina right now,” says David Glenn, a syndicated sports talk radio host based in Raleigh, N.C., and also the owner of the ACC Sports Journal. “Can you have the great things that Butch Davis brings to the table, meaning unbelievably high recruiting and consistent winning teams, without also having all those incredibly bad things that just happened under Butch Davis’ watch? That is literally a multimillion dollar question.”
That Davis kept his job through last season’s storm is, in itself, a minor miracle. The tutor at the epicenter of UNC’s academic fraud issues was a young woman whom Davis himself had employed independently to advise his teenage son.
And the North Carolina coach most closely linked to the improper benefits prong of the NCAA investigation? That was John Blake, Davis’ longtime friend, associate head coach and recruiting coordinator.
Yet somehow the detail-oriented Davis was convincing enough in his claims of ignorance to keep his job, insisting that he knew little about Blake’s improper relationship with agent Gary Wichard and that he was similarly unaware of the gifts several of his players had received or the corners some were cutting academically. “I’m sorry it has affected the football program,” Davis said last October. “But I’m going to tell you what I’m more sorry about. I’m sorry I trusted John Blake.”
In some ways, that too speaks to “The Carolina Way,” which, at times, can foster and reward blind allegiance. That would help explain why so many fans at Kenan Stadium last season sported baby blue “I Support Butch” T-shirts, long before enough evidence had surfaced for an informed verdict to be cast either way.
“I’ll tell you, ‘The Carolina Way’ is very real,” says one former Tar Heel All-American. “The way Chapel Hill is, there’s a small-town feel and this great pride in what Carolina represents as a great academic school that also excels athletically. That’s real. But with that, people invest emotionally so much that they back the university, almost blindly, regardless of what happens. Think about it. Rarely at UNC will someone ever say anything bad about Lawrence Taylor, who obviously has had some very serious problems. To a lesser extent, same with Phil Ford. But I think, at Carolina, they remember everybody like they’re 19 years old. There’s a romanticized view that everything is pure.”
The former All-American laughs.
“When you really break it down, that may be ‘The Carolina Way.’ It’s this instinct to rally behind and support your program like you would a family member. You may even know what the dirty truth is. But you’ve already made the conscious decision to support your university first.”
Measuring the success of Davis’ four-season tenure to this point depends on the vantage point. UNC’s 24 victories since 2008 are the program’s most in a three-year span since Mack Brown was leading the charge in the late 1990s. But it’s also safe to assume North Carolina didn’t break into its cash vault — Davis makes more than $2 million per year — to average seven victories per season, finish third in the ACC’s Coastal Division and lead the Tar Heels to the Music City Bowl and the Meineke Car Care Bowl, respectively. Especially when that success comes with scandal.
So now the dilemma has come to center stage. If UNC had to choose, would the administration, the players, the fans rather go all out to chase BCS bids; or would they much rather embrace and endorse “The Carolina Way” in its purest form?
“This is the perfect opportunity for UNC to look itself in the mirror and ask itself how it wants to view football moving forward,” Glenn says. “You couldn’t have a better crossroads, a better inspiration for that sort of internal debate than what just occurred over the past year.”
So many of the characters that defined last season, for worse or for better, have exited the stage. Quinn, Austin and Little, who together accepted more than $20,000 in illegal outside benefits, have all gone to the NFL. Blake was cut free from the program after last year’s opener.
Meanwhile, so many resilient seniors who kept the program afloat in 2010, guys like Yates, running back Johnny White and tight ends Zack Pianalto and Ryan Taylor, have also moved on.
But in which direction will the program head? The NCAA’s thorough investigation into all the wrongdoing has left many outsiders to wonder how the final ruling will impact Carolina football in the long run.
Yet in Chapel Hill, in many ways, there are few obvious signs that a twister of transgression shook the program’s foundation. When Davis, for example, signed 25 players in February to give UNC a recruiting class widely believed to be among the top 20 nationally, he was lauded by Tar Heel backers for his hustle and shrewd salesmanship.
At Kenan Stadium, expensive renovations and overhauls that Davis lobbied for to boost the program’s stature are nearing completion, obvious signs that the program is in an upgrading mindset.
And when spring practice ended in April, the interrogative environment that had prevailed throughout 2010 had seemingly blown away with the spring pollen, replaced now by a surge of eagerness. Davis had stopped looking in his rearview mirror at the broken glass and detached fenders that had been swept to the shoulder. Instead, he was looking ahead at the improvement he hopes his young team can make to propel the program forward.
“We can’t empower these kids with experience,” he says. “They’re going to have to gain it on their own through every single game through the early part of the season, gaining experience and gaining confidence. But if they’ll work hard enough, we’ll have a chance to have a good football team.”
But how good is good enough? That remains to be seen.
After all that North Carolina invested in Davis and his grand vision from the day of his hiring in 2006, it’s hard for anyone to quantify just what will make it all worth it in the end.
Making a splash nationally is the quest. But despite belief inside the program that that may happen soon, the reasons for skepticism continue to lurk. After four seasons with Davis in charge, Carolina has posted a middling 15–17 record in ACC play and has now gone 30 years without winning a conference title.
And if the Heels get off to a slow start here in 2011? Well, heck, we’re merely weeks away from the start of basketball practice, a sport where Roy Williams’ Carolina kids are an undeniable national championship favorite with so much tradition and so little dirt in the program’s history book.
On a campus where basketball will always be king, a football program must now determine just how seriously it wants to take itself.
Says Glenn: “I think the fact that Butch Davis is still the head coach and that his chancellor and athletic director have settled on the idea that he, in their eyes, understands the culture of Carolina athletics, says that they are not ready to give up on the idea of big-time football. UNC could have easily concluded that it’s not possible to win at the highest level without cutting corners ethically or academically. They obviously came to a different conclusion.”