For the last third of the twentieth century, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill had an athletic program remarkably unsullied by scandal, a situation so rare among large Southern state universities that some people began to speak about “the Carolina Way.” That phrase has always annoyed our athletic rivals, and, to be sure, the reality was less chaste than the image, but it did mean something.
It referred to a tolerable arrangement, a respectable one that included only a small compromise, so small that it could almost be ignored. Not corruption like what some places had, just a pragmatic concession to reality.
So we told ourselves, and I think we were actually right. While some other flagship schools were becoming to college athletics what Chicago and Boston and New Orleans are to municipal politics, we were happy to be, say, Minneapolis. Our partisans took pride in Final Four basketball teams made up almost entirely of athletes who didn’t need a great deal of character-building to stay out of trouble with the NCAA and the law. Coach Dean Smith recruited partly on that basis, and he kept a close eye on his players, off the court as well as on.
Yes, there was petty sleaze around the edges. Coach Smith observed that the NCAA’s rules made it almost inevitable, and I’m told that he argued for some modest compensation for players so they didn’t have to sell their complimentary tickets or accept $100 handshakes from grateful fans in order to dress like their classmates or go home for funerals. And, yes, academic standards were fiddled, but not too badly and not too often.
A championship basketball team requires only seven or eight outstanding players, so Coach Smith could assemble one by recruiting only one or two academically unqualified “special talent” athletes a year, if they stayed around to play out their eligibility, as most did. They had help from notorious slide courses like Geology for Non-Majors (“Rocks for Jocks”) and Portuguese (the Swahili of yesteryear), and they learned how to make Thanksgiving turkeys out of pine cones in Arts and Crafts for Elementary School Teachers, but at least those courses actually met and the athletes more or less earned their grades.
It was like Smith’s famous “Four Corners” offense: Carolina basketball was simply making the most of what the rules allowed. When it came to serious infractions, our athletic program was almost clean, and our athletes mostly stayed out of the newspapers except for the sports pages.
Maybe you’ve noticed that I haven’t mentioned football. The NCAA allows a school to have 85 scholarship football players at any one time, compared to only 13 scholarship basketball players, and fielding a top-ten football team illustrates Marx’s observation that “quantitative differences beyond a certain point pass into qualitative changes.”
To have had such a team would have required accommodating dozens of overstretched and underprepared “special talent” athletes, in ways hard to overlook. To its credit, UNC was unwilling to do this. Our boosters had to settle for defining a successful football season as one in which we beat Duke and N.C. State and did well in a mid-level bowl game.
This arrangement lasted so long and became so unremarkable that many of us began to think of it as normal — just the way things were at our exceptional university. And perhaps we did become a little smug, a little condescending. As a University of South Carolina fan put it recently, in a discussion of whether UNC should be invited to join the Southeastern Conference, “If you want to see the SEC devalued and cheapened with preppy, false academic arrogance and crap football . . . go ahead, invite away.”
Academic arrogance and crap football? Worked for us.
So when the old arrangement began to crumble and then to collapse, it was a shock. For a time, every month seemed to bring new stories about flash loaner cars, unpaid parking tickets, shopping sprees in D.C., parties arranged by an ex-felon named “Fats”, term papers written by tutors, term papers plagiarized from eleven year-olds, athletes steered to easy majors, grade changes, no-show classes, non-existent classes, marijuana possession, money, guns, and lawyers. (OK, I exaggerate: just one gun — 9mm, semi-automatic.)
The local media got on the case, the national press started picking up their stories, the D.A. began handing out indictments, a showboating congressman threatened to hold hearings, and everything was made worse by what looked to the uninstructed eye like a cover-up. Some former UNC athletes even went on television and said they weren’t grateful for their free education.
Friends and admirers of UNC were dismayed. How did things spin out of control like this? What happened to the Carolina Way?
Maybe we should get used to it. This could be the new normal.
In retrospect, it’s clear that our modest little compromise was an anomaly. There was and always will be pressure for winning teams from boosters whose identity, pride, and manhood are at stake, but for a time this pressure was offset by a lucky concatenation of circumstances and personalities.
We had a sort of equilibrium, a balance of forces – until some changes tipped the balance. Three are undeniable: (1) Coach Smith retired; (2) President William Friday’s influence waned; and (3) the Atlantic Coast Conference was expanded. In addition, I believe that (4) there has been a change in how UNC’s faculty and administration view their role.
Consider first the contribution of Dean Smith. Smith was head coach of Carolina basketball for 36 years, and the Carolina Way was largely his creation. When he took over, there was no such thing; when he retired, it seemed as if it had always existed.
Smith moved up to become head coach in 1961 when his boss, Frank McGuire, was forced out amid a flurry of NCAA violations and allegations of point-shaving. Smith, a smart man and a cautious one, cleaned things up and kept them that way. He recruited those tractable players, made sure that they stayed eligible and reasonably well-behaved, and kept the program operating within the rules.
But he retired in 1997, and subsequent coaches may not have been as smart. Certainly they have been less alert for signs of trouble. Smith’s successors may have been less vigilant because, unlike him, they never saw close up what happens when things get out of hand.
In addition, to be fair, coaches now must deal with an environment in which most NBA-worthy players bolt for the professional ranks after a year or two, which means, obviously, that more “special talent” admissions are required to build a championship team, with all the attendant problems.
The other major figure in this story was William Friday, president of the university system from 1957 until he retired in 1986, then an éminence grise on the Chapel Hill campus until 1999 as executive director of the Kenan Charitable Trust. Mr. Friday was co-founder of the Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, serving as its co-chairman throughout the 1990s.
We don’t have to speculate about what he might have thought about our scandals, because he lived long enough to tell us. “The University of North Carolina has suffered a humiliation unlike anything it ever had before,” he told the Washington Post in 2012.
He added, “People don’t want their lifetimes to be measured by how much their football team won or lost. There is something valuable they want to have written on that intellectual tombstone when the time comes.” This good man died six days after those words were published.
Friday consistently deplored “the power of money” and the “insatiable appetite” for athletic success. In 2007, for instance, he opposed the destruction of the historic field house at UNC’s Kenan Stadium to construct an exclusive “Blue Zone” for moneyed fans. By that time, however, Friday had come to be seen as a benign elder statesman, venerated – and ignored. The demolition went ahead and the Blue Zone was built.
Friday’s first successor as UNC system president, C. D. Spangler, tried to follow the path Friday had charted, and, as a Forbes 400 billionaire, he easily faced down the mere millionaires who were demanding special seating in the stadium. But presidents since Spangler have been less willing to tangle with wealthy and powerful boosters. Erskine Bowles, president from 2006 until 2010, said once that serious reform of UNC athletics would only be possible in response to a really big scandal. (Hello?)
Friday identified another crucial factor in the collapse of the Carolina Way when he pointed out that reconfiguring Kenan Stadium for big givers was the “natural evolution” of the expansion of the Atlantic Coast Conference. For many years after its founding in 1953, the ACC comprised a group of southeastern universities with roughly similar athletic programs.
In 1960 it was the first conference to impose a minimum SAT score for participation in intercollegiate athletics, a requirement rumored to have denied the ACC the services of both Joe Namath and Pete Maravich. It was struck down by a federal court in 1972.
The conference’s finest moment probably came in 1971 when it bid adieu to South Carolina rather than lower its standards as USC demanded. South Carolina’s basketball coach at the time was Frank McGuire, Dean Smith’s tarnished predecessor at UNC.
In the 1990s, however, in pursuit of expanded media markets and big-name competition, the ACC began to metastasize. The admission of perennial football power Florida State in 1991 was a sign of its new direction, and the transformation was sealed when Boston College, Miami, and Virginia Tech came on board in 2004-2005. (Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Louisville, and Notre Dame were added in 2013.)
The Knight Commission had recommended that university presidents take control of athletic programs, but nobody paid much attention; negotiating the huge sums paid for broadcast rights was handed over by the member schools to the conference itself. What this means for UNC is perfectly clear: If we stay in the Atlantic Coast Conference either we resign ourselves to never winning another ACC football championship or we have to field a top-ten team, with all that implies.
Many boosters had no question about what course to take, and were delighted to take it. In 2007 they saw to the hiring of Butch Davis, a coach from the University of Miami who promised to deliver such a team.
James Moeser, UNC-Chapel Hill’s chancellor at the time, had many good qualities, but skepticism about the benefits of a big-time football program was not one of them. His career had taken him from his undergraduate days at the University of Texas to Michigan, Kansas, Penn State, South Carolina, and Nebraska — none a university with any reservations about pursuing gridiron glory — and if he put up any resistance to the hiring of Coach Davis, it escaped public notice.
Four years later, when a number of Davis’s football players were found guilty of violating various NCAA regulations, he was fired by Moeser’s successor, Holden Thorpe, in a scene recalling Frank McGuire’s dismissal a half-century earlier. Moeser told the press that he wouldn’t have fired Davis, but Thorp was a local boy brought up in the Carolina Way. Unfortunately, he was eventually driven from office by this and other athletics-related embarrassments.
We’ll be paying for Davis’s tenure for decades (I’m not talking just about the $2.7 million going-away present we gave him) and of course getting rid of him was a good idea. But we don’t seem to have learned much from the experience. There hasn’t been a word, for example, about leaving the present-day ACC, which might be an even better idea.
True, we have more or less locked ourselves in by ceding our media rights to the conference until 2027, but we could at least talk about it. Instead, UNC’s athletic director is still promising boosters that there’s a top-ten football team in our future.
Why has the faculty not raised hell about this? And why has the administration been complicit in it? Old-timers like me have always and everywhere thought things were better in their day, but in this respect I believe they really were.
In the olden days of the 1970s and ‘80s, administrators and faculty (on the Academic Affairs side of things, at least – forget the medical school) really did keep a wary eye on the athletic program, alert for signs of a win-at-any-cost ethic. We had provosts who were less interested in defending the program than in overseeing it and we had deans of the College of Arts and Sciences who had no illusions about the frequent disparity between its interests and the ambitions of the Rams Club, our booster organization.
The faculty was represented by serious scholars, men and women like the former presidents of the Faculty Council and the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee who in 1989 produced a report examining “all relevant aspects of the University’s intercollegiate athletics program . . . and to what extent, if any, these may be at variance with the University’s purposes and standards of conduct.”
The “Betts Committee” report concluded with 32 recommendations. They were approved with only minor changes by the 1990 Faculty Council — then apparently disappeared down the memory hole.
These days, however, it appears that UNC’s faculty and its administration have resigned themselves to merely tinkering with the academic component of our athletic program, and they seem to do that only when abuses can’t be ignored. After some initial grumbling, the faculty has been strangely silent about the recent and continuing scandals. Most have been behaving like civil servants, busily devising remedies for the symptoms, while leaving the disease not just untreated but undiagnosed; the few honorable exceptions seem to be regarded as tiresome obsessives.
George Stigler won a Nobel Prize for his concept of “regulatory capture,” and faculty oversight of the athletic program now seems to illustrate that phenomenon. In 2006, for instance, the Faculty Athletic Committee blithely assured us that athletes’ vastly disproportionate enrollment in independent study courses was no cause for concern. The woman who chaired that committee, by the way, is now UNC’s faculty representative to the ACC and the NCAA. There is a striking difference, and a sad one, between the sober realism of that 1989 report that I mentioned and the happy talk coming from today’s Faculty Council.
Meanwhile, the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences also seems unconcerned, although maybe she’s just timid; in any case, I’m not aware of a single public statement from her. We have heard a lot from her boss, the provost, but he seems to be permanently on the defensive, attacking just about everyone except the boosters and athletic department personnel who got us into this mess and the administrators and trustees who looked away while they did it.
He acts as if criticisms of our athletic program’s excesses are somehow attacks on the university. His predecessors – at least those I’ve known — would not have made that mistake.
The administration has spent a couple of million dollars, more or less, to deal with the widespread perception that they’re not doing anything about the Problem That Must Not Be Named, when it would almost certainly have been cheaper just to do something.
Is there any hope for UNC? Some people have always believed that we’re just another big Southern state university wagged by the tail of its athletic program — more successful than most at concealing the fact, that’s all. Are we determined to confirm that opinion? Does anyone care?
We probably can’t look to the Board of Trustees for restraint. Three trustees were instrumental in bringing Butch Davis to Chapel Hill, and the current crop seem to have bought the line that everything is being taken care of (nothing to see here, keep moving). It may be relevant that three of them are on the board of the Rams Club; one chairs it and the chairman of the Board of Trustees is his vice-chairman. Got that?
William Friday put his hope in our alumni. In that last interview he said, “There are thousands of alumni who look upon what happened with serious concern, and I don’t believe they’re going to tolerate it.” Could he be right? The best of our graduates have always taken even more pride in our academic reputation than in our NCAA championships, and many recognize that these accumulating scandals have disgraced their university and devalued their degrees.
Buried deep in the website of the General Alumni Association are letters from some of them – perplexed letters, sorrowful letters, indignant letters, lots of letters. But there need to be more.
Of course, our chancellor will never say to the big-money boosters, “You’ve destroyed the ACC. You’ve deformed Kenan stadium. You brought down a good chancellor. You’ve damaged our university’s reputation, perhaps irreparably. We’re not going to turn ourselves into the Alabama of the East for your entertainment. So just back off.”
She’s more diplomatic than I am. But she might tell them something useful, if thousands of alumni urged her to do it. How about: “We’d love to have top-ten teams in every sport, and we’ll get to work on that just as soon as we’ve made every department in the College of Arts and Sciences one of the top-ten departments in its discipline. Would you like to help?”
***WCHL’s Aaron Keck Discussed The Essay With Reed***