By The Commentators

Thorp and the Football Coach

By The Commentators Posted August 3, 2011 at 12:04 pm

Prior to last Wednesday evening, I was one among a group of friends who had struggled, deeply troubled with the drumbeat of news about the UNC football program.  It was not about the gridiron prospects of the coming season, but about rule-breaking of various sorts that was a growing threat to UNC’s reputation as an exception to the rule that attaches itself to too many “football powers.” 

It was a relief to hear the news that the Chancellor had begun to take steps of correction that began with the firing of the coach that day.  His work is not done, but that was a critical first step. 
 
While reasonable people may disagree over whether Holden Thorp handled the football scandal decision right, those who understand the real UNC should agree that he made the right decision. 
 
Let me count the wrong ways:  The timing was awful. He was too slow to act. If he was going to fire him, he should have done so last fall.  He didn’t explain some things and didn’t explain some things well.  There didn’t seem to be any new evidence of head coach culpability.  He should have fired the coach for cause and not paid him off.  
 
I have some of those same criticisms.  You and I have a gift, a special insight that Chancellor Thorp did not possess.  We have the clarity of hindsight and we were not charged with the decision.
 
Davis defenders who disagree with Thorp tried to paint each violation as the isolated incident of some rogue.  But, there were too many rogues, too many incidents, too many violations, and UNC’s place as a shining beacon that put academics and integrity first has been seriously eroded.  
 
Athletic apologists say, okay, we had trouble, but the NCAA did not cite the coach as guilty. To that, I point out that the NCAA gave SMU the death penalty, cancelling the school’s entire football program,  and Coach Bobby Collins was not sanctioned by the NCAA as guilty of any personal violation except that he was criticized for unsatisfactory explanations.   There are some things you can know but you cannot prove.  
 
Thorp was slow because he was careful.  What we knew was pretty bad.  But was it bad enough to fire the coach?
 
The faculty was up in arms, but the Chancellor took charge of the moment.  It would have been an uncivil potshot at our academic neighbor to have said publicly what he carefully lectured to his teachers in private.  He would not permit UNC to repeat the Duke Lacrosse scandal, a rush to judgment debacle by Duke’s faculty and president that damaged the reputation of the school, administration, faculty, and students.  It cost Duke many millions in lawsuit damages.  
 
During the time Thorp was evaluating the coach’s performance last fall, the Rams Club ramped up and the crowd came out in force.  The drumbeat of the coach’s innocence seemed to drown out everything else, except the facts.
 
They were there for the coach to know.  I truly don’t know whether Butch Davis lacks sufficient intelligence or lacks adequate honesty.  But there was a lack of intelligence in knowing what was going on and too much dishonesty for no one in the football program to have known.    
 
When it comes to broken rules, we should not expect a coach to know everything.  It is not acceptable for him to know nothing.
 
We require the young men who play on his team to do their homework.  Those who don’t flunk out.  Should we expect any less of an elite level head coach than that he should also be doing his homework, to know the facts?  Too often in such activities, the coach sends a message—either explicit or implicit—that there are some things he just does not want to know.  
 
What, you might ask, should the coach have done?  Well, if he wanted to know the Carolina Way, he might have asked Dean Smith, or Roy Williams, who is wrapped in the same cloth. 
 
Compare Davis to Coach Smith.  In the time that I worked with his radio on the periphery of the program, the coach was relentless in telling us that if there was anything we knew, we were to tattle. “Tattle,” he said, “always tattle.”  
 
If there was anything going on in his program that was untoward, he wanted to know.  He said that he would then be the arbiter in deciding how to handle such information.   And those of us who worked with him tattled when we needed to and were always thanked for doing so.
 
Unlike Smith’s basketball that still sets the standard, there had to be a see-no-evil culture in football. If the boss didn’t know, we can only conclude that he didn’t want to know.  The depiction of a culture of cover-up, corruption and insensitivity to UNC values emerged in an increasingly clearer picture, until one day, the Chancellor—who may not even have known what tipped it—saw it clearly and reached his tipping point. 
 
At some point, UNC’s Chancellor concluded that the leadership that his football coach brought to the program was inadequate for an institution with the University of North Carolina’s values. Holden Thorp made the right decision, as awkward as the timing is for the football season.
 
UNC has real football talent this year.  They tell me we might win ten games.  And I will be there, as always, cheering for the team in our blue and white.
 
But whether it wins a game is not as important as this University’s core mission, which is much more highly threatened by an 18% cut in state funds.  And part of that mission is to maintain and improve our excellence in what matters, even in financial adversity.   The Chancellor’s schedule needs to be filled with that, not distracted by responding to all of us over a fired football coach.  
 
Are you are one those worried about the loss of the sale of football tickets?  The Chancellor’s worry is to educate his students with the loss of a hundred million dollars. That’s what matters. 
 
Have your criticisms.  That goes with the Chancellor’s job.  But, at the end of your day, do you want to your school to be a school that fires a Chancellor because he fired a football coach?  Not my Carolina.  That’s not the Carolina Way.  
 
My advice to the Chancellor is that I believe I would rather have those on my side who support his commitment to this university’s real values than those who would let their criticism turn to vitriol.  And, at the end of my day, in the matter of a football coach, I will take a chancellor who is slow and right than one who is fast and wrong.  
 
It is a difficult time for the man charged with leading our university.  If you agree with this view, the Chancellor might appreciate hearing from you.  
 
If you don’t, there’s plenty of space below.  But, let’s be civil.  That, too, is the Carolina Way.  

Jim Heavner
Chapel Hill

What are your thoughts? Let us know in the comments. And if you’d like to see your opinion here in T.W.O. Cents, email molly@chapelboro.com

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