It still may not seem so to the knuckleheads who hate Holden Thorp, but the Chancellor had a plan that he could finally hatch last July 26, when he decided that Butch Davis and the embarrassment his football program cost UNC had to go.

For whatever reasons Thorp did not dump Davis in August of 2010 or right after the Musical Chairs Bowl – and believe me, they were good ones – he knew by making the move when he did that Carolina at least had a chance to recover.

Key was getting Dick Baddour to step down, step aside or step out of his own way. That had to happen to put Thorp’s plan in place and probably could not have happened back in August or last January. So the three steps became:

1)    Hire a new athletic director who had the experience and contacts to lead a quality search for a new football coach.
2)    Hire the best possible coach for the restoration of UNC’s image and the Tar Heels’ chances to win ACC Championships.
3)    Do everything possible to catch the biggest break from the NCAA jury.

So far, so good. Bubba Cunningham has conducted himself like a professional, experienced, highly competent athletic director, heading a thorough, almost-silent search for someone who would meet his criteria of being a “great coach and the right fit” for Carolina.

Larry Fedora, who will be introduced in the next day or two, has all those qualities and the sense to turn down (a lot) more money from Texas A&M, where he would have been playing for fourth place  every season in the SEC West (behind LSU, Alabama and Auburn). Fedora also is the first offense-advertised coach that Carolina has hired in recent memory, if ever. His spread attack ran up huge numbers as a coordinator at Oklahoma State and head coach at Southern Miss. With the better athletes he’ll inherit at UNC and recruit, the Tar Heels will become what Bubba wanted – an exciting product that will sell tickets.

All that’s left is to wait for the NCAA to decide whether Carolina’s self-imposed penalties are enough or if the pot will be soured a little more. Either way, it’s far from the death sentence for Carolina football, which can actually come out relatively unscathed. And that’s beginning next season, for those Deems-dayers who have said we’re de-emphasizing the sport or facing a 5-year reconstruction.

So Thorp’s job is done with athletics, and he can go back to running the university. Or if this whole sorry experience has made it so hard for him and his family, he can go back to teaching and research. He found himself in a mess he wasn’t equipped for, handled it far better than most people are giving him credit for and, the truth is, will never be a beloved chancellor because of it. That’s sad.

As for Cunningham and Fedora, both yet to reach 50, they are the future of Carolina Athletics. Roy Williams can coach forever (and we hope he does), but at 61 ol’ Roy’s contract runs through 2018. By then, his grandchildren may be old enough to fulfill his long-time dream of “coaching them in Little League.”

Some old grads have had a saying about Carolina football, SO-SO, meaning same old, same old. Every time the Tar Heels got close to being good on a regular basis, something happened to turn us in the other direction. Mack Brown left for Texas, two experienced head coaches who said they were coming didn’t, and Butch Davis acted like an entitled hired gun. Whatever the Carolina Way is, it’s not that.

I may be whistling past the graveyard, but it seems different now. Our new athletic director has a record of making, and managing, good hires, and my guess is it won’t end with the new football coach. Though not as time sensitive, academic support and compliance will be tightened up, some passé marketing philosophies will be redefined and loosened up, and Carolina will truly step into the 21st Century even though we’ve got some catching up to do.

Cunningham has already begun visiting with some prominent alumni whose disgust had either lessened their involvement or chased them away completely. One of them even told Bubba he never wanted to hear the “Carolina Way” again. Instead, let’s get it done the right way. The so-called old guard who thought they ran the university are off the clock and can become just plain supporters again.

Within nine months, footballs will be flying into the Carolina blue sky, absentee attendees will start coming back to Kenan Stadium and even the Blue Zone might sell its way out of debt. By the time the new coach gets his staff settled and his offense installed, those sun-soaked blue seats in the east end zone could well be filled with Fedora-wearing fans who need wrap-arounds because the rest of the decade will look so dog-gone bright.

Wherever Holden Thorp is sitting by then, he’ll be smiling for sure.