For the accomplished chemist, Holden Thorp, the first phase of the “Butch Davis Experiment” went off like another everyday application of E = mc2. With mass, energy and velocity, Carolina sent James Madison hurtling into the September night.
For whatever reasons, some of which we may never know, UNC’s young chancellor jettisoned his four-year head coach a week before practice started and hoped it would result in addition by subtraction. Thorp admittedly knows a lot more chemistry than football, but the experiment worked like magic from the opening kick.
With Davis a guest in one of the suites of the $70 million Blue Zone he force-fed on the university, his spirit apparently was far more helpful than his presence on the sideline, where his last call of regulation in the Music City Bowl set off a Chinese fire drill that somehow resulted in one more play and eventually a win in overtime (college football has since closed that loophole like they do in the NFL with something that could affectionately be called the “Butch Davis 10-Second Run-off Rule”).
Whether Thorp considered the distraction Davis’ continued presence might have caused as much as the pain and suffering already inflicted on a proud university, banishing Butch left what appeared to be a totally focused football team with a first-year head coach and rookie quarterback operating like Belichick and Brady. They were both that good.
Everett Withers slid into the big chair like it had been fitted and waiting on him for years, and Bryn Renner had to make fans wonder if the Tar Heels might have been better than 7-5 in the 2010 regular season had four-year starter T.J. Yates not taken every freakin’ snap but TWO. Sure, the Heels were terrific under severe adversity, but more-consistent quarterbacking might have beaten LSU, Georgia Tech, Miami and/or N.C. State a year ago.
Renner, whose father coaches Davis’ kid at East Chapel Hill, never got the chance to start for Drew Davis’ dad, but he looked like a seasoned vet under Withers, who will be on a fall quest to have the “Interim” removed from his title. Renner sought out his new head coach after going 22-for-23 in his college debut, and they shared an embrace they said was dedicated to Davis, who brought them both to Chapel Hill.
Yes, the Experiment is working so far despite the misplaced martyr-ism.
Withers got a few camera shots, about the same as JMU’s losing coach Mickey Matthews, and Davis was only a sidebar rather than the sideshow for the Fox Sports TV announcers. Basically, what it was – as Andy Griffith used to say – was football on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in not-so-quaint Kenan Stadium, where a few thousand empty seats replaced what used to be about the same number of tall, pristine pines peeking into the east end zone.
The monstrosity sits, opulent inside and out, as testimony to the emphasis on Carolina football. The de-emphasis belongs to the people who have yet to buy the seats and fill up the so-called Butch Mahal. More than one person wondered what happened to those classic clay barrel roof tiles from the demolished old field house. Will they be auctioned off at the next Ram’s Club fund-raiser to help pay down the debt?
If head-coaching is overrated on Saturday, Thorp’s formula will be on the blackboard at his next chemistry lecture (do chancellors sometimes still do that?). Withers repeatedly praised the preparation turned in by the “great coaches” on the Carolina staff, and Renner not only played like a pro but he handled the post-game media with both humility and confidence (which is some tough concoction to pull off), as a well as personality fans will come to adore.
In short, and several players said as much, Saturday was about playing football in front of a great crowd on Labor Day weekend, U-N-C trumping N-C-A-A in the alphabet wars of the current craziness that has become college football. Besides Renner, there was a deep and talented backfield the size of Houston and a fleet of fleet receivers who ran for daylight and, after catching everything thrown to them, glory. 
Davis certainly did not depart leaving the cupboard bare, even with a handful of guys who missed an armful of games. The “O” and “D” lines looked dominating, the LBs as active as the bigger names we came to know and the young secondary good enough (though they will be tested against better downfield passing teams in weeks to come).
After the game, everyone said the right things, and none of the wrong questions that would have continued to plague Davis were posed. Praised by Withers and his former players, who say they will paint up the game ball and give it to their old coach, Davis may not realize that he wound up watching from on high as a sympathetic character he never could have been still stalking the sideline.
It’s only Week 1, but the day went as perfectly as a coach or chemist could have drawn it up.
Somewhere, Holden Thorp is wearing a well-deserved smile. So far, it looks like he’s found the right formula.
Don’t you think?