CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- It was the home-opener for North Carolina in this season previously labeled The Season. So fans flocked to campus early, drank their beverages, ate their food, and there were no obvious signs -- in terms of atmosphere or mood -- that the school's football program seems just months from crumbling to pieces because of an NCAA investigation into agents and alleged academic fraud.
And I suppose that's the way it should be.
|Tar Heels' fans continue to cheer though their team faces crushing allegations. (US Presswire)|
Have a blast, I guess.
But the long-term prognosis remains dismal.
"I'll let the school worry about that," said Kent Walker, a UNC fan from Charlotte who was carrying a football around Kenan Stadium after tailgating with his wife [Gaby] and two children [Kent and Cristina]. "We just want to have fun at the games."
Maybe next game.
North Carolina lost 30-24 on Saturday to a Georgia Tech team that lost last week to a Kansas team that's already lost to North Dakota State and Southern Miss. So things did not go well for coach Butch Davis on this gorgeous afternoon, and I can't imagine they'll end well for him, either, because, as you know, it's a mess down here. I explained earlier in the week -- in a column about Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl -- how there are really only three types of NCAA violations that can't be absorbed by a program (paying prospects, committing academic fraud, and dealing improperly with agents), and somehow Davis' program is facing allegations about two of the three (academic fraud and improper dealings with agents). That's not good. A coach (John Blake) has already resigned, 12 players were held out against the Yellow Jackets, and the star defensive lineman (Marvin Austin) spent Friday meeting with the North Carolina Secretary of State's office, which is investigating whether any laws that restrict how agents can operate have been broken.
If Davis somehow survives all this, he should change his name to David Dunn.
Or, at the very least: Jim Calhoun.
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But the truth is that there's a growing feeling around campus that sweeping changes will come in time because, well, there's just too much to explain away. Even if Davis isn't directly implicated, it's fairly clear the program he's been running the past four seasons has been running wild. An agent had a direct link to the coaching staff, and a tutor is said to have possibly helped a little -- or perhaps a lot -- more than she should've helped. The off-the-field problems have devastated the on-the-field product, and now this preseason Top 25 team is too short-handed to compete with in-season Top 25 teams, proof being how the Tar Heels are 0-2 with losses to LSU and Georgia Tech heading into next week's game at Rutgers.
"We can't control anything about the investigation," said UNC safety Matt Merletti, who by all accounts has never dealt illegally with an agent or benefitted from a tutor too anxious to assist. "We can't control it, so we don't even focus on it."
To a man, that's what the Tar Heels said after Georgia Tech wore them down by running for 372 yards and dominating time of possession. They all insisted they're standing with their coach, all swore they don't worry about what they can't control, all explained how they planned to go home, get some rest, wake up Sunday and get to work on getting their first win in seven days.
They seemed hurt but hopeful.
Down but not depressed.
Frustrated more than anything else.
"It can be frustrating, man, but we've just got to leave that stuff in the back of our heads," UNC linebacker Bruce Carter said. "We've just got to keep pushing forward."
In other words, they have to live in the moment, enjoy the day, worry about tomorrow tomorrow, Monday Monday, Tuesday Tuesday, and a notice of allegations from the NCAA when a notice of allegations from the NCAA arrives. Till then, play on. But it was all still strange for an outsider like me, because I felt like I was talking to a group of players who haven't quite realized that the rest of their college careers likely never will be what they imagined or hoped.