Thorp's True Legacy
His detractors who grew since the firing of Butch Davis 14 months ago are happy, and some may be demented enough to think that score has been settled.
Those who support Thorp and care about what he and his family have gone through the last two years are happy that he will be off the hot seat.
And, deep down inside, Thorp himself is probably happy to be returning to teaching and research and helping the university in less visible ways.
Just as the dumping of Davis was the right move, the Chancellor’s resignation is best for the university’s future. The mild-mannered chemist, who once held the promise of being the most interconnected leader in UNC’s history, instead became a lightning rod. And he came to understand that divisiveness would be the enemy of progress as long as he was in the job.
When Thorp took office in the summer of 2008, the Carolina Athletic Department was probably last on his long list of concerns. Davis appeared to be taking football in the right direction, Roy Williams would win his second national championship within seven months and the overall athletic program had remained steadily ranked among the top 10 in America.
If Thorp did not know much about college athletics at the time, he appeared to have the luxury of a long learning curve. There was so much more pressing business, the worst being a crashing economy that endangered the university’s plans for growth in so many different ways.
When the football scandal broke in the summer of 2010 and crossed over into academics the following August, Thorp put himself out front against the advice of some people who believe CEOs should never deliver the bad news personally. But he did and pledged to get to the bottom of what was happening while promising to support Davis as long as he remained coach.
That’s when Thorp needed his own helmet to withstand the pressure. Certain Trustees who had commandeered the football program and brought Davis in were lobbying to keep the coach because if he went down they were going with him. The faculty was up in arms over the public humiliation of the university’s first major academic scandal. The Rams Club was afraid that Davis’ demise would leave the half-built, $70 million Blue Zone in financial ruin. And Davis, himself, said he was having a hard time recruiting without the school’s unfailing support.
So as the NCAA and internal probes continued, Thorp appeared to be squarely in the coach’s corner. He hoped Davis could survive but probably recognized that no UNC coach who takes a program to an NCAA probation can last. None of his options to replace Davis avoided playing one season with an interim coach and also left lame-duck Athletic Director Dick Baddour in no-man’s land. Meanwhile, the attack on UNC’s integrity kept escalating.
The late-July firing of Davis set off a hailstorm, but it turned out to be the right move at the right time. Everett Withers could be the interim coach with minimum disruption to the team. And Baddour could exit with dignity while a new athletic director was hired to find the next football coach. Anyone who still complains about the timing is merely baying at the moon.
While Bubba Cunningham and Larry Fedora took the football program in the new direction it needed, the African Afro-American Studies scandal also fell into Thorp’s lap. Some people wanted to hold him responsible because he was the Dean of Arts and Sciences for one year. No, Thorp did not throw the department open to complete scrutiny – a mistake Baddour made once the NCAA hound dogs arrived on campus – but he did pledge getting to the root of the problem.
Now, some tenured faculty were publicly pushing one of their own for complete transparency, and the media accused Thorp of dragging his feet and hiding the truth. Any action was going to cause a reaction from somewhere else, but while an unnecessary review of the past 10-20 years is still going on, Thorp and his staff basically found the problem, fixed the problem and promised it would never happen again. That was good enough for the NCAA, which stayed out of it because students as well as student-athletes were involved in what was deemed an institutional issue.
In my opinion, the Matt Kupec scandal proved one too many for the Chancellor, who would not approve an inappropriate hire but did not stop another that just plain looked bad. Whatever Kupec was doing that caused him to resign will come out one day, and Thorp will likely be blamed for lack of oversight there, as well. More damage was done and Thorp realized that, like with the firing of Davis, his own resignation was the best way for UNC to move forward.
But his true legacy will be this indisputable set of facts. Had none of these whistles been blown, Carolina would still have a football program and coach operating on the edge and an academic services program for athletes that was clearly crossing some lines. Because of Holden Thorp, neither of those scenarios will ever exist again at Carolina.