Call it a sharp change in the tide, or an intervention of fate.
Six weeks ago, the gap between the football and basketball programs at North Carolina was as close as it ever will be.
The storied basketball program was left searching for its soul after a dismal 2009-10 season. Meanwhile the football program, usually an afterthought on campus, was buzzing that big things could be in store this fall.
Then, in July, the NCAA pulled the shades on coach Butch Davis’ team when it announced it was investigating the program concerning improper contact between players and agents.
The first reaction was that Marvin Austin and Greg Little, the two players most visibly implicated in the saga by a variety of news sources, could be suspended for the season opener against LSU and possibly another game or two. Both would be huge losses, but the Heels could have kept their heads above water.
Smoke: Meet fire.
Last week, InsideCarolina.com reported an academic advisor illegally wrote class papers for players, eliciting an unexpected news conference Thursday night in Chapel Hill. All of a sudden, the outlook for the Tar Heels’ season was put in serious jeopardy.
According to ESPN’s Joe Schad, at least nine players were relegated to the scout team Thursday, including several prominent starters. The only explanation for this would be that head coach Butch Davis fears for those players’ eligibility come Sept. 4.
“Before their start of training camp, because there was speculation on some of these issues, we made a statement — that there would come a point in time in preparation for this first game where we would have to prepare with the players that we assumed that we would be able to compete and play with,” Davis said. “That’s what we’ve done.”
Predicting who will or won’t be suspended and for how long would be premature speculation, but it is safe to say the Heels won’t be at full strength for some portion of the season.
“It is likely that the review would extend beyond the start of the season,” said Dick Baddour, UNC athletics director.
In other words, any players who may have let this unnamed tutor write even a sentence of their assignments would have to sit out every game until the investigation is complete, or risk being retroactively ineligible and forcing the Tar Heels to forfeit any game they played in.
It is safe to assume that said players would be the same ones reportedly relegated to the scout team last week. If that’s the case, the ACC Costal Division, which includes four teams (Virginia Tech, Miami, Georgia Tech, North Carolina) ranked in the Associated Press preseason top 25 rankings, just turned into a three team race.
The potential for a memorable season in Chapel Hill could be nullified prior to the first game. Depending on the investigation’s findings, this could easily turn out to cost Davis and Baddour their jobs. It’s not often that a prominent athletic program undergoes a major NCAA investigation without enduring significant administrative change.
Nonetheless, Baddour expressed full continuing commitment to Davis as the school’s head football coach.
“When we hired Butch Davis, we believed he was the right fit for the University of North Carolina, and I continue to believe that. He has my full support,” Baddour said.
Chancellor Holden Thorp just wants to retain the integrity of his university.
“We are treating this issue with the seriousness that you would expect from this university,” Thorp said. “We will straighten this out.”
He went on to make two more promises — one more feasible than the other.
“We will not let these mistakes define our university and what we stand for. We will use this to be…a better football program in the years to come,” Thorp said.
Save face for the university? Not too difficult in this case. Keep a traditional non-power in college football afloat after a major scandal? It may not be possible.
No matter what kind of hit the university takes, it is likely that football at North Carolina is headed for a return to familiar territory.