The Thigpen Connection
By far, the most damaging allegation from the NCAA into the UNC football scandal is on pages 62-63 of the 111-page response by the school, released Monday.
It speaks to what, so far, the university has escaped – the dreaded lack of institutional control, or at least Butch Davis’ failure not only to monitor his program but to do something about it when confronted with alleged wrongdoing.
It also brings to light a story that has been in the rumor mill for two years involving former linebackers coach and beloved Tar Heel player Tommy Thigpen, who left Carolina to coach the safeties at Auburn, which won the BCS national championship the season after Thigpen arrived on the Plains.
The response includes facts that support the story about Thigpen, who supposedly found out that John Blake was acting as a defacto agent for the late Gary Wichard, accepting money Blake said were “personal loans” but steering players inside and outside the UNC program toward Wichard’s agency, Pro Tech Management, before they were drafted by the NFL.
Thigpen has not talked publicly while the NCAA probe went on, and continues that stance, largely because he loves his alma mater and despite his success at Auburn wants to return to Chapel Hill some day. But the story goes that Thigpen knew what Blake was up to, confronted Blake and eventually went to Davis.
Thigpen on UNC Staff
Thigpen was an accomplished recruiter in the Southeast and may have felt like Blake’s reputation in recruiting was trumping the hours and hard work Thigpen was putting in to help UNC land stellar recruiting classes in 2008 and 2009. So, as the story goes, Thigpen told Davis what Blake was doing and said basically, “It’s either him or me.”
Davis reportedly asked Thigpen what he would do if he left UNC, and Thigpen said he had been offered a job by Auburn. Davis asked for how much money. Thigpen said more than he was earning at Carolina. Davis had a chance to jettison Blake and give Thigpen a promotion and raise. There had even been rumors that Davis was already trying to “find another job” for Blake.
You can’t turn that down, Davis told Thigpen, according to sources. Thigpen resigned and moved to Auburn, where he indeed made more money and helped the Tigers beat Oregon to win the BCS championship last season. But friends of Thigpen, who was later interviewed by the NCAA, said that he left reluctantly and would have stayed in Chapel Hill with a different response from Davis.
Paraphrasing pages 62 and 63 of UNC’s response reveals that Nebraska secondary coach Marvin Sanders told the NCAA on January 21, 2011, that two independent sources – Sanders’ agent Shane Meacham and an unidentified high school coach in Los Angeles – informed him that Blake had contacted Nebraska All-American defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh after the 2008 season, when Suh was contemplating entering the NFL draft as an underclassman.
The implication was that Blake, who had coached at Nebraska and recruited Suh, may have been doing more than staying in touch with Suh and his family.
Continuing from pages 62-63, Sanders reported the information to Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini, who instructed Sanders to contact the UNC coaching staff and tell Blake to refrain from calling Suh. Sanders also told the NCAA he had followed up with Thigpen, who Sanders learned had relayed the message to Blake. Phone records that have been published show that Blake had called Suh, Suh’s family and Wichard within the same day in 2009.
This allegation is perhaps the most damning among all nine Carolina received from the NCAA, because if the Thigpen story is true it confirms Davis knew what was going on with Blake and did nothing about it until the scandal erupted in August of 2010 and Blake resigned under pressure following the opening game of the 2010 season against LSU.
Davis’ defense all along was that he knew little or nothing about violations within his program – pertaining to impermissible benefits from agents and the ensuing academic scandal that broke. Despite his coach’s insistence, this could have been the straw that forced Chancellor Holden Thorp to fire Davis because it was an indefensible position for the university.
Put all this together with the previously untold story that Thigpen had left UNC after confronting Davis about Blake, and you can see why this brings into question the honesty and chutzpah of Carolina’s fired head coach. Thigpen is an honored and respected member of the Carolina family, a three-time All-ACC linebacker under Mack Brown and former player for the New York Giants of the NFL.
If Butch Davis knew all this and retained Blake over Thigpen in light of the information he received, then Carolina football was out of control. Davis may not have, and my guess did not, inform UNC Athletic Director Dick Baddour, which is why the school may have escaped the lack of institutional control charge.
But it clearly supports why Butch Davis should have been fired. And eventually was.
Do you think Davis should have chosen Thigpen over Blake?