by | Senior Writer

UNC makes tough, but right choice by firing Davis


I vividly remember hearing from my North Carolina friends in 2007 when the Tar Heels hired Paul Hilton "Butch" Davis as their head football coach. They were excited because, after nine long years under Carl Torbush (17-18) and John Bunting (27-45), the powers that be were going to pony up the money and FINALLY get serious about the college football business.

On Wednesday, with the start of the 2011 season 37 days away, North Carolina chancellor Holden Thorp decided he had seen enough and fired Davis, who was 28-23 in four seasons in Chapel Hill.

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The university is set to appear before the NCAA's committee on infractions on Oct. 28 to answer questions about nine alleged rules violations involving academic fraud and excessive benefits. Until Wednesday, the conventional wisdom in Chapel Hill was that Davis was safe for this season but might not survive after the NCAA penalties were handed down in 2012. An embarrassed Board of Trustees, which had not met since the NCAA's notice of allegations was made public June 21, saw things differently.

Now a lot of things make sense. On Sunday night in Pinehurst, N.C. -- the site of this week's ACC preseason meetings -- I met with Davis to discuss the events of the past 12 months. I met with him again on Monday morning. In both conversations, he went out of his way to accept full responsibility for what had happened and vowed to fix it.

"Look, you can't minimize what happened and I deeply regret that it happened on my watch. I'm the head football coach. I accept responsibility," Davis said. "My job now is to do everything I can to make sure that all of the facts get out. My job is to work with our administration to identify the problems and to make sure nothing like this happens again."

Davis, who repeated his mea culpa to every media outlet that would listen on Monday, was obviously trying to make the case to save his job. It didn't work.

On Tuesday, he met with Thorp and UNC athletics director Dick Baddour. On Wednesday came the regularly scheduled meeting of the UNC Board of Trustees. The board advises, but Thorp is empowered to make the final decision. He decided the damage to North Carolina's reputation over the past 12 months had been too much.

"Our academic integrity is paramount and we must work diligently to protect it," Thorp said in a statement released by the school. "The only way to move forward and put this behind us is to make a change."

To understand why this played out the way it did, you have to understand the culture of this university and the importance it places on its reputation.

In 1961, UNC chancellor William Aycock forced popular basketball coach Frank McGuire to resign after a series of scandals that included charges of point shaving. Aycock hired 30-year-old Dean Smith and told him not to worry about the wins and the losses. Smith's No. 1 job was to run a clean program.

And he did, winning 879 games and graduating 96 percent of his players over the next 36 seasons. Smith also won two national championships and went to 11 Final Fours without even a whiff of a rules violation. Smith's value system set the standard for the entire athletic department for a couple of generations.

That changed when the football program received its notice of allegations from the NCAA. On that day, North Carolina was lumped in with all of the other big-time football schools that have been caught cutting corners over the years.

What the school had to face was that Butch Davis had done exactly what he was hired to do. He brought in top-tier talent to Chapel Hill. That was borne out in the 2011 NFL Draft when North Carolina had nine picks, more than any other school.

But along with that exceptional talent, there has been a series of world-class embarrassments.

John Blake, Davis' lead recruiter, was charged with steering some of North Carolina's best players to an agent, the late Gary Wichard. Blake, who had previously worked for Wichard, was charged with still receiving payments from the agent.

Not only was a tutor, Jennifer Wiley, accused of academic fraud, she also was charged with paying off parking tickets for players to the tune of almost $1,800. One player, Greg Little, had 93 parking tickets. The mere fact that an athlete believed he could get away with 93 tickets smacks of an entitlement mentality that alumni of the school found distasteful.

Davis was not named directly in any charges when the NCAA sent out its Notice of Allegations in June. He is scheduled to attend the Committee on Infractions hearing, the day before the Tar Heels are scheduled to play Wake Forest. If he still attends, the committee is bound to ask two very important questions:

1. Davis had known Blake for over 30 years when he hired him. How could he not know what the guy was all about?

2. How does a tutor, who was once Davis' personal employee, get to the point where she even considers paying parking tickets and buying airline tickets for players? How does that happen?

Here is the ultimate irony: Davis was hired at Miami in 1995 to clean up a program that had gotten totally out of control. He brought in great players but tightened up the discipline and totally changed Miami's renegade reputation. After an 11-1 season in 2000, Davis became the head coach of the Cleveland Browns.

Davis left the Miami program in such good shape that Larry Coker won the 2001 BCS title and lost in double overtime (to Ohio State) in the 2002 BCS title game. What Davis did in six years at Miami was one of the best coaching jobs I've ever seen. A lot of people thought he would do the same at North Carolina.

"I understand mistakes were made and things were not done the right way. I understand that this has been hanging over our program for a while now," Davis said on Monday. "But I promise you, we are going to get through this and be better and stronger than we were before."

On Wednesday, North Carolina decided it would begin the process of rebuilding its reputation without Davis.

ACC commissioner John Swofford is a former football player at North Carolina, where he was a Morehead Scholar. He served as athletics director at North Carolina for nearly two decades (1980-97) before he became ACC commissioner. Swofford does not comment specifically on NCAA cases, but it is clear he's not happy about this one.

"It doesn't happen often in our conference, but when it does, it's the thing about my job I dislike the most," Swofford said. "If you look at the history of Carolina, it is very good when it comes to rules compliance."

Exactly. But a bunch of the power brokers at North Carolina gave Butch Davis $2 million a year because they wanted to get into the college football business.

And now they have.

The Tony Barnhart Show will return on Aug. 30 on the CBS Sports Network.

Tony Barnhart is in his fifth season as a contributor to He is a college football analyst for CBS Sports and The CBS Sports Network. Prior to joining CBS he was the national college football writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 24 years. He has written five books on college football.

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