The sudden silence surrounding UNC’s search for a new athletic director is anything but deadly. In fact, it’s a sign that the process has taken a step in the right direction.
As a large list of qualified and sitting AD’s from other schools has been narrowed down, the names have, for the most part, remained secret. And that’s the only way Carolina is going to get the so-called best man for the job.
When contacted recently, UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp could share very few specifics about the search. His main acknowledgment was that the process may have begun like an academic search for a tenured professor or experienced dean, but it has since evolved into a highly confidential quest that will end one day soon when the job is offered and accepted.
Thorp said he understood why it had to be that way. Tenured professors exploring opportunities at other schools are protected from losing their present positions, and their inquiries often result in counter-offers to their own benefit. In athletics, sitting athletic directors are not going to risk their jobs by publicly “applying” or “interviewing” at schools that may not offer them a great deal more than they are currently making. If they don’t get hired, or they announce they are withdrawing, it could leave them less secure with alumni and fans of their school.
“I am getting advice from some of the most experienced people in college athletics,” Thorp said. “I can’t say who they are, but our goal is to hire the best person in the country for Carolina.”
The “for Carolina” may be the key phrase to the one comment Thorp would make, because the budget for the new athletic director’s salary is not unlimited and some of the biggest names in the country may already have jobs that are equal or even better than UNC’s, considering the NCAA sanctions and financial challenges ahead.
But sources familiar with the search say there are still a number of candidates with the experience and respected connections to college athletics that remain highly interested in succeeding Dick Baddour. Most of the “finalists” have escaped media speculation and the message boards, and some who have indicated they are not interested could be saying that to continue “playing the game” until they are offered the job.
Thorp has been criticized for firing Butch Davis when he did – a week or so before football practice began – but it has turned out to be the perfect timing, given the interest in directing the Tar Heels athletic program and the highly publicized first task of choosing UNC’s next permanent football coach.
Had Davis been fired when the NCAA scandal and academic fraud were fully exposed in August of 2010, or after the 2010 season, or when the NCAA Notice of Allegations arrived, Carolina would have had to play the following football season with an interim coach, anyway. But choosing the next coach would have been more difficult with a lame-duck athletic director such as Baddour, whose contract ran through June of 2012.
Firing Davis when he did, and having Baddour step aside, allowed Thorp to put the plan into proper sequence – that is hiring a new athletic director who could then hire the new coach. It is a given in college athletics that coaches want to know who they will be working for in the long run, and athletic directors always like to pick their own coaches.
That very reasoning leaves the popular and well-respected David Cutcliffe at Duke in trouble if the Blue Devils have another wash-out season. Kevin White came from Notre Dame after Cutcliffe was on board, and White will go only so long before choosing to bring in his own man. Ditto for Tom O’Brien and Debbie Yow at N.C. State.
The one sad part of the Carolina search, according to sources who know, is that Baddour continues to use political pressure in support of promoting from his current staff. Perhaps it is noble and loyal to want the up-line to continue, but Baddour’s legacy is in such shambles that an internal promotion would be seen as just more of the same old same old.
Baddour stepped aside so the problems with football and the athletic department could be solved. And promoting one of his own lieutenants, whether a career associate or a green assistant, is no recipe for change. It could also be the death knell for Thorp, who remains under heavy pressure to get it right after the controversial firing of Davis.
Baddour needs to complete his compliance responsibility with the NCAA hearing on October 28 and let Thorp and his prominent advisors hire someone who will give UNC the experience of having worked elsewhere, the college athletics clout and a fresh vision for Carolina, where several coaches will be aging out over the next few years and conference realignment seems inevitable.
Those current department employees who aspire to be athletic directors need to go learn on the job at a lower-profile school instead of subjecting the university to more Baddour-like blunders that stretch from letting Mack Brown get away without a fight in 1997 to allowing Davis to hire John Blake nine years later (with the Jim Donnan-Carl Torbush, Roy Williams-Matt Doherty and Frank Beamer-John Bunting fiascos in between).
Key members of the search committee are in Dallas this week for the national athletic directors convention interviewing candidates who can give Carolina athletics the new leadership, new ideas and new morale that are sorely needed, a sentiment that comes from many who work or have worked under Baddour but won’t be quoted for obvious reasons.
So for those who are still sore over the demanding and likely dishonest Davis being fired, remember that you (should) care most about Carolina and get behind a Chancellor who, ironically, has had to learn about college athletics on the job. When Thorp took over, he never thought he would need to devote so much time to a scandal-marred department. But he has, and the proverbial ball has landed in his court.
He needs to get this first hire right. I think he will.