Even as Larry Fedora injects a youthful, wide-eyed energy into Carolina Football not seen here since Mack Brown, the Butch backers and Holden haters continue to view the glass as more than half empty.
I ran into such a group this week having lunch at the Crook’s Cafe — one who said he had three degrees from Carolina — that insists a significant segment of UNC alumni cannot move forward until Thorp is out of office. I’ve heard that others are still withholding their financial pledges for the same reason.
They insist the chemist Chancellor belongs back in the lab, and the timing of Davis’ firing was so egregious that it leaves them obsessed with the past instead of looking to the future. Some even argue that the 11th-hour dismissal has kept the deposed Carolina coach from getting another job because it looks like there is a smoking gun somewhere.
Here’s some news for this group that needs to get over it. Whether he knew or not, whether his big toe or six-foot frame was in the hot water, Davis was making $3 million while heading up a program under NCAA investigation for more than a year at a university that long ago decided such a probe cannot happen here.
The Chancellor has had 18 months he will never forget, going from “Gee Whiz” we have Butch Davis and Roy Williams as our head coaches to needing a bodyguard with him whenever he leaves his office due to threats of bodily harm from the lunatic fringe. Holden Thorp could not win for losing.
When he stared into the cameras back in August of 2010, after the NCAA investigation crossed over to academics, it seemed like he wanted to fire the football coach and CEO of the complicit program. Thorp let the inquiry play out and give Davis time to decipher and correct the mistakes that were made.
Initially, he tempered his support for Davis because of the ongoing investigation and was blasted by some who said he was sabotaging football recruiting and fund-raising. So then he clearly supported his coach throughout the 2010 season, and many people took that to mean that Davis’ safety was guaranteed.
By my count, Thorp had five opportunities to fire Davis – when the NCAA investigation erupted into a scandal; when all the bad news broke about John Blake and the agent who was paying him; after the 2010 season, when there might have been time to hire a new coach; when UNC received its official notice of allegations the following June; and before the 2011 season, when Thorp did dismiss Davis because he deemed the university had to move in another direction.
There is no good time to fire a coach who had the support Butch Davis did. The most common criticism of Thorp is he should have let Davis coach in 2011 — that it was unfair to the players if he did not. No one knows for sure how that would have gone, with the NCAA hearing looming in October and the coach facing the media daily. And what if the Tar Heels went 9-3, as the critics claim they might have with Davis still on the sideline? In the mind of some of his supporters, nine major college victories would have nullified nine major NCAA allegations.
Besides being pushed and pulled from all directions, and aware from the day he took over that Dick Baddour was close to retirement, Thorp knew enough to know he needed a new athletic director before Carolina could hire its next coach. Surely, that played a part in his decision to hold off on Davis, so it could look like Baddour was stepping down for the good of the university instead of not being allowed to find the fourth football coach of his 14-year tenure as a lame duck AD who would not be here to support the coach he hired.
Bubba Cunningham, the new AD with two decades of meaningful experience and head-coaching hires, has already done his qualified best to make sure the same mistakes that wrecked a football program for 15 years will not be repeated. Bubba has taken a lot of the guesswork out of it.
He hired a successful sitting head coach, which Baddour did not do three different times. He made sure the head coach would bring with him a staff that knew each other, liked each other and had worked together before. All three of Larry Fedora’s predecessors took a wild crap shoot with the assistants they hired, and all three staffs came up snake eyes as far as chemistry goes.
Of Carl Torbush, Mack Brown’s successor, it was said that he could coach the players but not coach the coaches. He promoted Donnie Thompson to assistant head coach and George Smith to strength coach before they were ready. John Bunting let his old friend and fellow UNC linebacker Jim Webster recommend much of his coaching staff, even though Bunting and Webster hadn’t seen much of each other in 25 years. And after making his former student and coaching colleague John Blake one of his first hires, Davis spent part of the strange video he released in December documenting how he and Blake had barely worked together.
Clearly, it was no coincidence that when Fedora’s new wing men — Blake Anderson, Vic Koenning and Dan Disch — were introduced this week, they talked about how much camaraderie the new staff brings to UNC, and that they plan to win with good kids and good students on and off the field. Sounds like some serious thought, the right message and proper briefing has marked the new era of Carolina Football.
It’s about damn time.