It has been nearly a quarter-century since a Triangle university won so much as a share of the ACC Football Championship. In 1989, when the Steve Spurrier-coached Duke team shared the title with Virginia, it was the Blue Devils' only football title in the past 50 years.
The record of futility at N.C. State and North Carolina is even longer. Carolina last won a title in 1980, N.C. State in 1979. None of the Triangle schools has qualified for the season-ending conference title game since it was inaugurated in 2005; nor have any qualified for a BCS bowl.
The futility of recent decades has hardly lessened interest in area college football—at least at two of the three local schools. ACC home games in the Triangle this season will probably have a cumulative attendance approaching a million. Unfortunately, much of that interest in the past two years has necessarily focused on off-the-field events, as a result of the still-smoldering football and academic scandal at Carolina, a scandal that among other effects has created a 24-7 all-out war on the Internet between the State and Carolina football fan bases. Area supporters who once devoted their free time to studying footage of sacks and touchdowns now find themselves dissecting and debating the transcript of former Tar Heel star Julius Peppers, whose less-than-stellar academic record surfaced this month on a publicly accessible website.
Indeed, the most memorable moment of the 2011 season occurred in a press conference when N.C. State coach Tom O'Brien delivered a memorable beatdown, declaring that Carolina had committed a "triple play" of NCAA infractions (agents, academic fraud, illicit benefits) in response to remarks by interim coach Everett Withers trumpeting UNC as the state's flagship academic institution. A fired-up State team then backed up their coach with a 13-0 win in Raleigh, State's fifth consecutive victory over the Tar Heels.
Odds are, there won't be a championship in the Triangle this year either. N.C. State is considered to have an outside shot at challenging for the Atlantic Division title, but most pundits are picking traditional powers Florida State and Clemson. Duke is still looking for its first winning season since 1994. And Carolina is on probation this season, out of the running entirely for the conference championship and a bowl bid.
That the search for a football championship in the Triangle is now decades-long may not be surprising; after all, this is basketball country. But what might surprise many casual and younger fans is the indisputable fact that the Atlantic Coast Conference was founded as a football conference, for football reasons. Basketball coaches at the founding schools had practically no voice in the league's establishment in 1953.
As recounted by historian J. Samuel Walker in his fine book ACC Basketball, an academic study of the league's first 20 years, the seven schools that chose to defect from the Southern Conference and form a new league in 1953 were motivated by two distinct sets of concerns.
On the one hand, Clemson, South Carolina and Maryland, all of which were heavily invested in football, were frustrated by the old Southern Conference's ban on participation in bowl games, instituted in 1951. The drive for reform was strengthened by a major scandal that year at conference member William & Mary, where it was revealed that the football program had altered transcripts, changed grades and pressured faculty members to give players favorable grades.
Ironically, UNC and State College (as NCSU was then known) were two of the strongest proponents of the bowl ban: UNC President Gordon Gray (who controlled both schools' votes) described bowl games as "a non-educational distraction for students, both players and otherwise. ... [T]hey command much spectator interest but contribute little to the underlying values of intercollegiate athletics." Wake Forest President Harold Tribble chimed in, saying, "I am in favor of doing everything we can to restore intercollegiate athletics to the status of general student activities."
This attitude was a major problem for Maryland and its president, Curley Byrd, who had an aggressive strategy to use football success to catapult the university to national prominence. Flaunting the Southern Conference ban on postseason play, Maryland and Clemson chose to play in bowl games on January 1, 1952 (Sugar and Gator, respectively). The conference responded by placing both schools on probation.
That controversy led the football-minded schools to begin considering in earnest plans to break away from the Southern Conference, a large, unwieldy league that still contained much smaller schools such as Washington & Lee. Meanwhile, the so-called Big Four schools (Carolina, State, Duke, Wake) were proceeding on a quite opposite track. At least at the level of institutional leadership, all four were said to favor strong academic standards and reining in the emerging commercialism of college sports. Duke athletic director Eddie Cameron, whose football teams dominated the early ACC gridiron, even forwarded a serious proposal to restrict eligibility for athletic scholarships to students finishing in the top 75 percent of their high school class.
But these schools were equally committed to staying in the game. "Big-time football keeps the persons, the appearance and the general nature of the institution before a large section of the public and gives a wholesome emotional catharsis to the students themselves," said Gray. Duke President Arthur Hollis Edens concurred, stating, "We believe that a sane program of intercollegiate athletics is a constructive influence in the life of a college or university."
Those sentiments help explain why the reform-minded Big Four would choose to join forces with the football-oriented trio of Maryland, South Carolina and Clemson. Gray was willing to relent on the question of a conference-wide ban on bowl participation, but the new ACC did ban freshman eligibility and also established the requirement that players must "be enrolled in an academic program leading to a recognized degree, and should be making normal progress, both qualitatively and quantitatively, toward the degree."
Fast-forward nearly 60 years, and one can easily see that the basic tension—or contradiction—at the heart of the ACC has yet to be resolved. The founding ACC presidents, at least in the Big Four, wanted to have big-time sports and the "cathartic" benefits they bring, without compromising the academic mission of their universities. Today's college presidents say much the same thing, but fewer people are inclined to believe them.
It's hard sometimes to argue with the cynical conclusion that there is hardly any tension at all, that commercialism has decisively triumphed in the age-old conflict between academic integrity and athletic ambition. Exhibit A is the case of UNC-Chapel Hill, where fans and the university community have had to find out the hard way that there are things much worse than a decade of football underachievement. Just when the dust had seemingly settled on the Butch Davis-era scandals with the NCAA's final ruling and penalties in March, the controversy kicked up again with fresh revelations into serious academic misconduct in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies uncovered by an internal UNC investigation.
That report, authored by faculty members Jonathan Hartlyn and William Andrews, audited all classes in the department between July 2007 and summer 2011 and found a total of 54 "aberrant" or "taught irregularly" courses, involving 686 students. During that time period, the department offered more than 600 courses serving more than 14,000 students, and the faculty report took pains to emphasize that the "vast majority" of courses in the program had no irregularities.
That point tends to be lost in the commotion surrounding the irregularities that were found, in courses and independent studies under the supervision of former department chair Julius Nyang'oro. While the investigation found that all students receiving grades did turn in work, some courses had no regular meetings, grades were changed without the authorization of instructors, and the department as a whole maintained very lax administrative practices.
The internal investigation found no evidence that these irregularities specifically benefited athletes, though subsequent digging by the News & Observer revealed that 58 percent of the students in the courses in question were athletes. But the report raised troubling questions, not all of which have been answered: How far back in the past did the irregularities go? Did academic tutors employed by the athletic department deliberately steer athletes to Nyang'oro's courses, not just because the courses were "easy" but because they knew they might be able to exploit lax academic practices and receive generous treatment? Why didn't the university's academic officials realize what was going on earlier, or take note of a pattern of athletes clustering in courses in the African and Afro-American Studies courses?
These questions, of course, have not been lost on the partisans at Packpride.com, which maintains a running tally of findings from the UNC investigations. Resentment of State fans toward Carolina and its (once) lofty image dates back decades. In 1958, State athletic director Roy Clogston remarked (in the wake of the stiff and highly questionable penalties State received for basketball recruiting violations in the Jackie Moreland case): "Some of our people have a strong feeling that UNC can and has done some very questionable things as far as ethics is concerned and always seem[s] to get away with it. On the other hand we feel that we always get shortchanged."
But UNC faculty members are also asking questions. In a less-noticed report released July 26, a committee of three UNC faculty members (Steven Bachenheimer, Michael Gerhardt and Laurie Maffly-Kipp) examined the broader question of the relationship between athletics and academics at UNC. That report argues that the academic advising process for athletes at UNC has been confusing and ambiguous, and that much more needs to be done to integrate basketball and football players in particular into the "life of the university." It also concludes that the university needs to have a much stronger system for tracking the enrollment patterns and academic progress of athletes in order to detect potential problems.
The latest salt in UNC's wounds is the public appearance of Julius Peppers' academic transcript, which the former football and basketball star confirmed as genuine last weekend. (Publicizing a student's transcript is a violation of federal law; the transcript appears to have been unintentionally left accessible on a public server.) The transcript shows that Peppers took a large number of African and Afro-American Studies courses, and that these classes kept his GPA high enough to remain eligible under then-prevailing rules. Contrary to the manner in which the News & Observer initially reported this story, the Peppers transcript does not show or prove that the player or UNC engaged in academic fraud, and as it is not the NCAA's business to evaluate the academic rigor of institutional offerings, the transcript should pose no further NCAA issues for Carolina. Peppers himself denied fraud in a statement released Saturday: "I can assure everyone that there is no academic fraud as it relates to my college transcript. I took every course with qualified members of the UNC faculty and I earned every grade whether it was good or bad."
But the transcript does raise the broader question of why and whether UNC has engaged in the practice of just barely keeping athletes eligible by steering them to athlete-friendly majors. It would be difficult to look at Peppers' transcript and conclude that it meets the standards of the ACC's original bylaws: "normal progress, both quantitatively and qualitatively, toward [a recognized] degree." Nor did Peppers graduate from UNC (although the university announced Monday that the athlete had donated $250,000 to a UNC scholarship fund).
And yet, given the large gap between the academic abilities of many revenue-generating athletes at the big-time schools and the academic expectations of most courses at a school such as Carolina, few can be surprised that many athletes have gravitated to classes with more generous standards. Hence, the basic contradiction: To reduce the tension between athletics and academics at a rigorous school such as UNC, one would likely have to raise admissions standards for athletes dramatically. But doing so in a serious way means accepting the fact that you likely won't win too many games, let alone a championship.
There's little doubt that numerous athletes at all ACC schools have had transcripts similar to that of Peppers. Among the Triangle schools, only Duke, with its 17 consecutive losing seasons, can persuasively claim that almost all of its players are getting a university education: The most recently published football graduation rates show a 93 percent success rate for Blue Devil football players, compared to 75 percent at Carolina and 56 percent at State.
On Aug. 16, UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp announced a reform plan to implement changes in the academic advising system, as well as new inquiries into possible academic irregularities prior to 2007 and the general question of the role of sports at Carolina. For some faculty, however, procedural improvements will not be enough—in a News & Observer opinion piece, outspoken historian Jay Smith called last week for nothing short of a new "Reformation" in American college sports, akin to the one kicked off by Martin Luther in 16th-century Europe.
Smith is not likely to get his wish. The power of big-time sports is too strong to permit revolutionary change. University presidents—including Thorp—are loath to get too far in front of the views of their sports-loving alumni and donors. However, we may be in for a period of incremental, small-r reform, judging from the surprisingly strong actions of NCAA President Mark Emmert in the Penn State case, as well as a number of significant reforms he has championed, including significantly raised standards for freshman eligibility, starting in 2016.
The problem for figures like Thorp is the same as that identified by former Roanoke College President Charles J. Smith, who in 1951 described the president of a school playing big-time sports as "a man truly to be pitied ... If he sides with the professors he sacrifices his job. If he lines up with the football crowd he sacrifices his integrity."
Seen in this light, the creation of the ACC in 1953 did not so much solve the contradiction of college sports as kick it on to succeeding generations, where it has come back with greater force. No obvious resolution is in sight, other than the nuclear option of blowing up college sports altogether, a button that few want to push.
After all, the games are still colorful and fun. On a slightly cool fall Piedmont afternoon, hardly anything is more appealing than seeing a highly contested football game in front of a pack of passionate fans. For hardcore fans, especially at Carolina and State, the football experience is a way of life, and all the background problems one may debate six days a week melt away on a crisp Saturday.
Neutrals considering a trip to the stadium to take in a game this fall might understandably feel less enthused about supporting Carolina's on-probation football team or State's team, with its low graduation rate. But such neutrals are not quite out of luck: If one doesn't care too much about whether the home team wins, as long as its players are graduating scandal-free, there are always seats at Wallace Wade Stadium.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Tar Heels under fire."