ATLANTA -- In 1962, University of North Carolina basketball coach Frank McGuire left for the NBA after investigations into a point-shaving scandal and other possible transgressions in the program. Feeling strongly that the colorful McGuire, who had won an NCAA championship in 1957, had compromised the integrity of the institution, Chancellor William Aycock hired 30-year-old Dean Smith as the Tar Heels' head coach.
|Butch Davis knows how to build champions. But it won't be so easy if an investigation uncovers more bad news for UNC. (AP)|
And Smith never did, winning 879 games and graduating over 96 percent of his players in 36 seasons as head coach. In fact, for the past 50 years North Carolina has avoided a major academic or legal scandal that today seems to be an inevitable part of doing business at the highest level of intercollegiate athletics.
A total of 13 players, including five starters off what was supposed to be one of the best defenses in the country, were left at home in the wake of an ongoing investigation into possible academic misconduct in the football program at North Carolina. Media reports have tied the investigation to one tutor, who was formerly employed by head coach Butch Davis. University officials, led by Chancellor Holden Thorp, have vowed that no stone will be left unturned in the investigation.
One player suspended for this game, defensive tackle Marvin Austin, has also been subpoenaed by North Carolina's Secretary of State in an ongoing investigation into whether or not the state's laws on agents were broken. The public fallout has been significant. North Carolina officials and alumni have long prided themselves on competing at the highest level of athletics but doing it the "right way." Members of the University's Board of Governors have called the episode "sad and humiliating." I have personally heard from UNC alumni and to say they are mad would be an understatement. If I can paraphrase their feelings it was "this is not who we are."
So while the rest of the nation celebrated the first Saturday of another season, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill was not trying to win a college football game Saturday night against LSU at the Georgia Dome. It was trying to win back its reputation.
North Carolina felt it made a big step in that direction as the Tar Heels, thought to be out of it at halftime trailing 30-10, refused to quit. They rallied to within six points, 30-24, and when the game ended, the Tar Heels were on the LSU 6-yard line. Given the circumstances, said quarterback T.J. Yates, it was a remarkable performance for North Carolina.
"Nobody gave us a chance to even come down here and compete after losing all those players," said Yates, who grew up nearby in Marietta and threw for 412 yards, including a 97-yard touchdown pass, the longest in school history. "This team was not going to quit because we can't quit. That just was not going to happen."
It has been quite a month for North Carolina coach Butch Davis. First came the investigation into defensive tackle Marvin Austin and his possible involvement with agents. Then came the academic investigation. He was obviously drained after the game.
"I told the players that I have never been more proud of a group of guys in my life," Davis said. "We didn't come down here looking for moral victories. We played to win and we fought back and put ourselves in position to do that against a very good team."
It was even a bizarre game for LSU coach Les Miles, who has problems of his own after going 8-8 in the SEC the past two seasons. Because his name and the phrase "hot seat" has appeared in so many sentences this summer, Miles was in no position to offer a lot of sympathy. And none was given. Almost losing to a team whose roster was depleted will not help Miles with the critics back in the Bayou.
"We did not play well and did not put the game away and our team understands that," Miles said. "If we make two or three fewer mistakes then we are able to finish off the game like we should. We didn't do that. But it's a win. Ten years from now it will still be a win."
While North Carolina left here Saturday night feeling good about its effort in the face of adversity, the investigation and the potential fallout from it is far from over. Some of the players who were held out of this game could subsequently be cleared and allowed to play again. North Carolina could still be a factor in what promises to be a very competitive race in the ACC's Coastal Division. School officials insist they were acting out of an abundance of caution when they left the 13 players at home. The fact is nobody knows what the coming weeks will bring and if the scandal could actually get worse.
It wasn't supposed to be this way. North Carolina was simply trying to get back into the big-time college football business when it hired Butch Davis in 2006. The Tar Heels had had a taste of it when Mack Brown led North Carolina to an 11-1 season and a No. 5 national ranking in 1997. But Brown left for Texas and his success could not be sustained, first by Carl Torbush and then by UNC alumnus John Bunting.
With the hiring of Davis, who had re-built Miami into a national championship program before leaving for the Cleveland Browns in 2000, North Carolina showed once and for all that it would make the same commitment to football as it had always done for basketball. Davis had earned high marks for cleaning up the Miami program and bringing in the right kind of kids. After he left for Cleveland, Miami won the national championship in 2001 and played for it in 2002. Davis knows what a good football team is supposed to look like.
After three years of high-level recruiting in Chapel Hill, Davis' fourth season in Chapel Hill was supposed provide the breakout that finally put North Carolina back on top in the ACC. Now Davis can only grimly promise to do his part and guide what is left of this team through the schedule that is to come. Davis has received the public support of AD Dick Baddour and other key officials. But that support is based on the way things stand now. That could change if the investigation uncovers more bad news.
North Carolina has a week off to figure out where it goes from here. Georgia Tech, the defending ACC champion, comes to Chapel Hill on Sept. 18. There is no telling where this story will be two weeks from today.
And for all those who love the University of North Carolina the painful question remains: Can a sterling reputation that was built over 50 years be irreparably harmed in just one dreadful summer?
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