Holden vs. Butch: Collision of cultures at UNC

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This is Part 1 of a two-part story; read Part 2 here.

On July 27, Holden Thorp, the genteel, baby-faced chancellor of the University of North Carolina, fired one of the highest-paid and highest-profile employees of his institution, the drawling, $1.7 million-per-annum football coach, Butch Davis.

The applause from the faculty and reform-minded media who saw Thorp’s move as a blow for books over balls was immediate and predictable. But Thorp’s assertion of academic authority simultaneously set off previously unseen depths of outrage amongst alumni football boosters, who almost immediately began claiming that the wrong head had rolled.

In his press conference, the clearly burdened Thorp refused to point to any specific action or inaction by Davis, but rather simply stated that in order for the university’s reputation to recover from the public blows delivered by the year-long NCAA investigation into Carolina football, a coaching change would be needed.

To most academics, Thorp’s reasoning needed no further elaboration to be persuasive. The NCAA Notice of Allegations in June made it very clear that UNC was facing serious charges and was highly unlikely to escape probation for misdeeds involving agents, academic misconduct and a rogue associate head coach.

Thorp judged that he was no longer willing to tie Carolina’s reputation—or his own—to the coach on whose watch these events took place. He was also trying to show that the balance of power within the university lies on the academic side, not with the jocks and their enablers. Most faculty surely sympathized with Thorp’s desire to put the football issue in the rear view window so he can focus on responses to legislative budget cuts rather than NCAA allegations.

Looming over Thorp’s move was the influence, direct or indirect, of William Friday, the man who defined public higher education in North Carolina in the 20th century. Now 91 years old and retired as UNC system president since 1986, Friday had been among the most vocal critics of the problems with the football program, and now has emerged as one of the biggest backers of Thorp’s decision.

Friday has been fighting the good fight for more than half a century. In the early 1960s, UNC and N.C. State players were implicated in connections with gamblers and point shaving, which led to severe penalties imposed on the basketball programs at both schools, cancellation of the Dixie Classic, and the 1961 departure of Tar Heel coach Frank McGuire. Dean Smith replaced McGuire, and Friday’s leadership during the scandal was a defining moment in the early years of his tenure as university president.

Friday’s stance was unpopular with some legislators and many North Carolinians, especially State College (N.C. State) boosters for whom the Dixie Classic was the event of the year. Friday’s response was that the university must be governed by the internal norms and standards of academic life, not the entertainment desires of the public or alumni.

Hence the paradox at the heart of the idea of a public university: Friday believed in a university that would serve the public good, promote progress and promote democracy, precisely by defending the norms of free inquiry and academic rigor from pressures alien to academic life, including pressures from sports boosters. A great public university should serve democracy, but also be protected from democracy’s excesses.

Fifty years later, we are finding out again where the balance of power lies in Chapel Hill—with the academics or with advocates of big-time sports. Davis’ outraged defenders cite the fact that the coach was not mentioned in the NCAA Notice of Allegations, that Thorp provided no “smoking gun” to show Davis’s culpability, and that Thorp did not seek to terminate Davis “for cause” and hence avoid liability of Davis’s remaining salary.

Online public message boards devoted to UNC sports encourage readers to write their own letters of protest to Thorp, and a group of lawyers representing UNC football donors filed a public records request this week to get records of Thorp’s communications related to the football situation from June 2010 to the present released.

To understand the intensity of the ire directed Chancellor Thorp, it’s necessary to delve a bit into the psychology of Carolina’s football super-fans. This is a heretofore largely unrecognized species of Carolina fan, who can be distinguished from two other kinds of Tar Heels fans: “basketball first” fans, and fans who are equally passionate about basketball and football.

Probably most Tar Heel supporters fall into one of those two categories. But Carolina’s “football first” fans are of a different ilk. From their point of view, Carolina’s athletics legacy has not been decades of nearly continuous excellence and success (as in basketball), but rather decades of frustration and under-achievement. According to this view, Carolina should be a true national power on the gridiron, on account of its excellent facilities, beautiful stadium, large base of fan support, and good in-state talent pool, with a capacity to recruit both deep into the Southeast (Florida) and well up the East Coast.

But Tar Heel football has under-achieved, football-first fans believe, because of lack of administrative commitment to winning and (closely related) the lack of the right coach to capitalize on Carolina’s assets.

Butch Davis was supposed to be the man to deliver UNC football to the promised land of top-five rankings and New Year’s Day bowls.

Carolina football fans saw the Davis hiring as the first serious effort by the school in half a century—since Jim Tatum was recruited away from Maryland in the 1950s—to build a national powerhouse by hiring an established, “name” coach. No more betting on unproven assistant coaches (Carl Torbush), popular alumni players (John Bunting), or even coaches with good records at smaller schools (Dick Crum and Mack Brown).

In Davis, Carolina got a coach who assembled a national championship-caliber roster at Miami, then coached in the NFL. Davis boasted the star power that could attract top-caliber talent to Chapel Hill and in time make a serious run at a Bowl Championship Series bid.

Davis soon became aware of his leverage with his new employer. After a 4—8 opening season, Davis negotiated a large salary increase from Carolina administrators who were nervous about Davis jumping ship for Arkansas. Davis also secured pledges for the aggressive expansion of Kenan Stadium via the $70 million “Blue Zone” project, which will provide, ironically enough, an academic study center and a massive workout facility for varsity athletes as well as luxury seating on game day for Carolina’s wealthiest, best-connected fans.

This huge investment in infrastructure, in the expectations of future gridiron greatness, meant that Davis’s future and the future of Carolina football were locked at the hip. Or so it seemed, until Thorp put his foot down.

Getting rid of Davis has been interpreted as a wimp-out, an admission of failure on the macho field of football competition. The most intemperate expression of this came from Deems May, a radio personality and former UNC player. In a galvanizing, instantly notorious missive, May wrote earlier this month that if “Bill Friday and Holden Thorp” are allowed to pick the athletic director and next coach, Carolina might as well “carpet bomb Kenan Stadium.”

May also advised the existing staff to leave at season’s end if Thorp stays in place and predicted that in three years Carolina will sink beneath the level of such contemptible football weaklings as Duke and Vanderbilt.

May’s piece was remarkable in the degree to which it ignored the impact of the NCAA investigation on UNC’s broader reputation, as well as the indignation it expressed at the idea that Thorp would assert his authority over the football program. (Wrote May: “I can’t stomach the thought that our chancellor may be attending games mere weeks after gutting us.”) But he gave loud voice to the views of many football-first fans who have been assailing Thorp and other university officials, in many cases going on to call for Thorp’s resignation and ouster.

The anti-Thorp movement also has some sympathizers in the media, most notably veteran journalist Eddy Landreth, who has warned of an effort to “kill” football at Carolina.

Implicit in these charges that an anti-football effort is afoot is resentment at the prominent place of basketball at UNC. Well-known basketball historian Art Chansky was excoriated—and dismissed as a “basketball guy”—for his support of Thorp’s decision.

To be sure, the loudest voices are often not the most representative voices. A poll of 317 UNC fans released this week makes it clear that the most assertive anti-Thorp voices do not speak for the broader Carolina fan base. The poll found that of those who had an opinion, most favored Davis’s departure (36 percent to 27 percent among all fans, 50 percent to 32 percent among alums), and that more than 60 percent of respondents with an opinion believed Thorp has done a good job overall. But the poll also found displeasure with Thorp’s handling of the football situation, especially among “hardcore” fans who by a small margin (44 percent to 40 percent) favored retention of Davis.

There’s no question that UNC loves basketball, but there’s also no doubt that the UNC community would love to have a successful football team.

The issue here, finally, is just what level of success UNC football should aspire to.

Tomorrow: How UNC can play football with success and dignity, and why Butch Davis’ on-field accomplishments are overrated.

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