Withers the high road to football success at UNC?

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

Butch Davis and David Cutcliffe at a media event a week before the UNC coach was fired.
  • Photo by Al Drago
  • Butch Davis and David Cutcliffe at a media event a week before the UNC coach was fired.
For many of UNC’s “basketball first” fans, and perhaps some “all sports” fans, success in football means a winning record, appearances in bowl games in a regular basis, beating N.C. State at least half the time, and being in the upper half of the ACC standings almost every year.

Carolina has been successful by these criteria for two stretches in the last generation—between 1979 and 1983 under Dick Crum, when Carolina attended five straight bowl games (winning four), claimed the 1980 ACC title, and was a fixture in the national rankings, and between 1992 and 1997 under Mack Brown, when Carolina attended six consecutive bowl games and spent much of the 1996 and 1997 seasons in the national top 10.

Since then, Carolina football has only been sporadically successful; the Tar Heels had a record of 32-48 in ACC games in the 2000s, improving slightly to 15-17 in the past four seasons under Davis (2007-10). Yet many of Carolina’s football-first fans get irate if it is suggested that a reasonable aspiration is simply to try to duplicate the most successful period of the Crum and Brown years, then go on from there. They insist instead that for a school with UNC’s stature and assets, real successes must be measured in BCS appearances and, eventually, national titles.

Unfortunately, achieving that level of success is much harder in today’s expanded ACC than in days gone by. In the 1980s or 1990s, Carolina could schedule three easy or at least winnable non-conference games, expect to beat Duke and Wake Forest most years, then hope to win half of the remaining games to get to an impressive-looking 8-3 regular season.

But today, in the ACC Coastal division, Carolina has the job of trying to supplant traditional powers Virginia Tech and Miami, outcompete Georgia Tech, and make sure there is no resurgence at Virginia. Given the competitiveness of the modern ACC, many UNC fans were persuaded that a figure like Davis was needed to put Carolina over the top.

Yet a key irony is that there is good reason to doubt that Davis was in fact the coach to lead Carolina to the promised land. In addition to four losses to N.C. State, Davis’ Carolina teams, while generally competing hard, lost numerous winnable games after leading in the fourth quarter, including four occasions in which the Tar Heels gave up second half leads of two or more scores. Davis’s record in games at Carolina decided by seven or fewer points was a mediocre 13-16.

Worse, his teams’ play was often marred by indiscipline at key moments. In Davis’s last game as coach, against Tennessee in the Music City Bowl, the field goal unit inexplicably ran on the field as quarterback T. J. Yates was trying to hike the ball and spike it in the waning seconds of regulation, a mistake that came within a split second of costing the Tar Heels the game. Davis himself named attention to detail and discipline as key issues for his program after the 2009 Meineke Car Care Bowl 19-17 loss to Pittsburgh, a game in which Carolina had back-to-back illegal formation penalties that turned a first-and-goal from the 5 into a first-and-goal from the 15, Greg Little punted the ball into the stands after a touchdown, Carolina committed a 15-yard interference penalty on a punt return to set up one field goal, then jumped offside prior to a 47-yard field goal attempt to prolong Pittsburgh’s final drive and allow them to boot the game-winning kick from just 33 yards out with under a minute to go.

Michael McAdoo, Marvin Austin and Robert Quinn at a fan event in 2010, with shadows already gathering. All three were later declared permanently ineligible by the NCAA.
  • File photo by George A. Hoffman Jr.
  • Michael McAdoo, Marvin Austin and Robert Quinn at a fan event in 2010, with shadows already gathering. All three were later declared permanently ineligible by the NCAA.
Those problems were soon overshadowed by the absences of Little, Marvin Austin and Robert Quinn due to off-field issues, absences that cost Carolina an opportunity for a championship run in 2010. Among other problems, all three players were cited for dozens of parking violations; in Little’s case, the citations included multiple $250 fines for parking in handicapped spaces. These parking violations tell the story of star players with an out-of-control sense of entitlement—and cast serious doubt on the view that Davis was capable of assembling a team with the on- and off-field discipline required to win a championship in a highly competitive league like the ACC.

The larger question, beyond Davis, is the question of what cost UNC is willing to pursue the goal of a football championship. Upgrading talent at the top end of the football spectrum involves not just winning recruiting battles. It also involves getting assurances of favorable treatment from admissions on players with borderline academic records, getting good academic support for the players once they are in school, and making sure they stay eligible and out of serious trouble.

Moreover, the sheer numbers involved—there are 89 players currently on the UNC football roster—are much greater than in basketball, making it more likely for problems to arise. Compromises of academic standards are made by every school that admits Division I football players; the question is where the line is drawn and how much leeway and deference the coach is given.

Football super-fans and boosters at UNC fear that with a new coach will come new rules from South Building regulating the recruitment and admissions of football players, as well as tougher behavior standards on team members. Yet for Thorp’s faculty colleagues, new measures designed to keep bad apples and substandard students off the field in the first place are the least UNC must do to assure that the embarrassments of 2010 and 2011 do not repeat themselves for at least another 50 years.

Pressure for higher standards is coming from the top down, as well: UNC’s Board of Governors released a task force report on athletics report Thursday calling for greater scrutiny of admissions standards for athletes, including direct participation by system chancellors in evaluating special admit cases.

The dilemma for Thorp is that the institution has already committed substantial resources to being very successful in football, and that the viability of Carolina’s extensive non-revenue sports is dependent on that success being achieved. If Carolina is to avoid having to follow in the path of Cal-Berkeley and other schools cutting sports teams, maintaining competitive success and high fan interest in football is essential.

Simply put, Carolina is in an expensive game it cannot easily get out of, even if it tried. It was well within Thorp’s prerogative to fire a coach whose program was on the verge of landing the university on NCAA probation. But crafting a balance between successful football and academics that can satisfy both his faculty and the athletic boosters will prove to be a more challenging proposition—one that at this point will surely either make or break Thorp’s tenure as chancellor.

That observation leads to perhaps the ultimate irony: almost as soon as Thorp cut ties with one football coach, he de facto found his long-term prospects tied to the success of another. Announcements of support from the Board of Governors and University President Tom Ross, like that received by Thorp Friday, should suffice to help the chancellor get through this very long August. (So too will the practical fact—completely ignored by the “fire Thorp now” crowd—that UNC simply cannot go into its NCAA hearing on October 28 having just had a chancellor run off by boosters upset about a football coach.)

But the only thing that might truly settle the waters in Chapel Hill is for the football team to play and play well this fall under interim head coach Everett Withers. Whether Withers will be an effective head coach remains to be seen, but in press appearances to date he does not come across as a coach who will use his agent to get a bigger contract after he wins a few games or who will be fazed by any new conditions placed on the football program by Thorp—or by the NCAA. If Withers can maintain the fighting spirit achieved under Davis in 2010 while improving team discipline in all aspects of the program, his team has a chance to have a very successful campaign, possibly emerging as a solid top 25 outfit.

Such success would also give Thorp more breathing room to carve out his own answer to a basic philosophical question: What level of football success should Carolina aspire to?

No school that bothers to field a competitive sports team will say that it is not interested in winning championships. The facilities and overall support in place at Carolina give all its teams, including football, a big leg up on most other schools, even within the competitive ACC. But having fired Davis, what Thorp must make clear is that while Carolina aims to be very successful in football, it will not again attempt to take the fast road to success, a road based on using a head coach’s star power to lure five-star recruits to campus and giving them largely free rein while in Chapel Hill.

Instead, Carolina football must try to pave the high road to success—a road that may require more patience, but is much less likely to lead to the program running off the road in a slew of suspensions, academic problems and off-field turmoil. Taking the high road may mean passing on certain recruits, and it may mean lower tolerance for nonsense once players are on campus.

Carolina’s football fans are correct that the program has largely underachieved, especially in the last 15 years, and they cannot be blamed (any more than any other sports fan) for dreaming about a championship. But it is not reasonable, and indeed self-defeating, to make winning a national title in football a primary institutional goal of the University of North Carolina.

Brandon Tate returns a kick for a touchdown in a 2008 game.
For one thing, a lot of other schools have the same goals and dreams, some of which also are either sleeping giants or former mega-powers fallen on rougher times (Penn State, Nebraska, Notre Dame). And for another, many of those schools operate with an entirely different mindset about the proper relationship of football to academics and to the NCAA rules. Carolina is not going to become Auburn University; nor should it want to be. But winning a title would mean someday having to beat an Auburn or the equivalent.

If done the right way, that would be a wonderful thing to have happen, but UNC cannot put that dream above the business of operating a well above-the-board program in which allegations of improprieties simply never come up. Beat the Auburns? Maybe one day. Join them? Never.

For now, the first goal in repairing the football program is to get things right off the field while competing hard and smart on it. The second goal is to build a program that can sustain competitive success within the ACC over a period of time. Do those things long enough and well enough, and perhaps an opportunity to play for a championship will come.

That’s the vision of athletic, academic and institutional success Thorp, his new athletics director, and the new permanent coach must embrace. Needless to say, it will make Thorp’s life a lot easier if Everett Withers shows this fall he is the man to make that vision a reality.

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