Firing Butch Davis: Um, What?

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This is launch week on Tobacco Road Blues, the new site dedicated to Duke and UNC sports. This afternoon's post comes from Nate Friedman, a contributing writer and the first fully-UNC affiliated author on the site. He'll be covering UNC sports, and football in particular. If you're interested in writing for TRB, follow the contact link to the right. Enjoy.


Firing Butch Davis: Um, What?

“It doesn’t make sense.”

I’m echoing several national-level writers, including ESPN’s Pat Forde and Heather Dinich, as well as CBS’ front man Gregg Doyel. All said that UNC had legitimate reason for firing head coach Butch Davis (Doyel in particular wanted his head on a platter) on Wednesday, July 27. All suggested this was a long time coming. All were shocked at the timing of the decision.

I understand the calls for Davis’ head, despite his relatively clean hands through this whole sordid affair. When the NCAA’s improper benefits investigation ballooned into a full-fledged scandal involving a tutor, academic plagiarism, and looming sanctions, it became seriously hard to believe the administration line that Davis knew nothing.

Did Davis orchestrate this whole mess?

Unlikely. Elite-level, highly-paid coaches tend to keep their noses out of the dirt – but you better believe they’re implicated and responsible for what’s going on (see Tressel, Jim; Calipari, John). Drug dealers from The Wire like Avon Barksdale and Marlo Stanfield? Bad-ass dudes who never touch a dimebag of their own stuff. Mob bosses may order hits, but they rarely wield the gun. Head football coaches at major universities may not be putting manila envelopes with $200,000 in them into recruits’ mailboxes (*cough* Cam Newton *cough*), but they sure do look the other way. Davis hired his buddy John Blake, a man who raised warning flags for his recruiting tactics from Oklahoma to Raleigh. Especially Raleigh.

Anyway, the point is that Davis is probably not without fault, despite his name’s omission from the NCAA’s Notice of Allegations. So firing him wasn’t the most shocking move. What is shocking is the horrendous timing of his termination: training camp was set to start in one week. That’s one week to reset an entire coaching philosophy for a roster that, up until then, was considered reloading. One week to name a hopelessly hamstrung interim coach, doomed to be the program’s caretaker before the recruiting fallout next year completely destroys it. It’s an absurd decision that no person, or group of people, would make if they could help it.

In a presser on Thursday, July 28 (which also served to announce Dick Baddour’s forced retirement), Chancellor Holden Thorp repeatedly mentioned that there was no ‘smoking gun’ that heralded Davis’ dismissal, but rather an “accumulation” of events over the past year. So what was the tipping point that set the gears in motion?

I can only think of two possibilities: politics, or some particularly foul-smelling feces is about to hit the fan.

Let’s attack the more distasteful bit first – politics. It is no coincidence that on the morning of July 27, the UNC Board of Trustees elected two new members as well as a brand-new chairman, attorney Wade Hargrove. By one o’ clock that afternoon, Davis had been fired.

North Carolina insiders (administration officials, athletics department employees, and boosters) know that the upper echelon of UNC – the Board of Governors, the Board of Trustees, and Thorp were split on what to do with Davis during the initial fallout of the investigation. It appeared, up until yesterday, that the pro-Davis forces had won out. With training camp one week away, UNC seemed committed to its coach – that is, at least through the 2011 season. Firing Davis now only punishes the players, who have to report to training camp with an interim coach who didn’t recruit them and has no power.

In December, the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions is expected to issue its findings and sanctions, whatever they may be. A split with Davis, if necessary, would have been appropriate then: it would have given the program time to find a replacement without a huge impact on recruiting.

But with the changing of the guard on the BOT, it appears the balance of power has swung. It was no secret that the Board of Governors responsible for the administration of the public UNC university system wanted Davis’ dismissal back when Marvin Austin issued his famously idiotic tweet. UNC stuck by its coach through what appears to be the lobbying of former BOT chairman Bob Winston, an avowed Davis supporter. With Winston stepping aside, Davis was fired hours later. I smell political football.

The other option is equally plausible but much more ominous for the Tar Heels. In recent weeks, some message-board noise has been made about some phone calls made from Davis’ cell phone. Most casual observers paid this no mind; after all, this is a comically slow-moving investigation that’s dragged on for almost a full year. But with the sudden and apparently irrational ousting of Davis,maybe there are some serious problems about to surface.

My theory: Davis knew a lot more than the university is letting on, and firing him without cause and with a $2.7 million buyout ensures he’ll keep his honor – but more importantly, he’ll keep his mouth shut, because he’s got 2.7 million reasons why. If UNC had tried to fire with cause, Davis would have fought the charge and aired all the dirty laundry he’s got.

This way, when the NCAA comes knocking again, UNC administrators can point to their self-imposed nuclear toasting of their football program and say, “See what we did there?”

Baddour and Thorp are both intelligent, good men. So I have to assume – and hope – that whatever is going on is either boardroom politics or an attempt to prevent further damage to the university.

Of course, there’s a third possibility: UNC is telling the truth, and the firing was actually the result of an agglomeration of small and large reasons over the course of the year. If that’s true, the entire BOT and Thorp deserve all the vicious fire directed at them for exhibiting a level of incompetence that’s simply incomprehensible. Or a level of ignorance that’s simply sad.

You can follow Nate Friedman on twitter at @nate_friedman, or check out his blog, Laughter is the Best Medicine.

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4 Responses to Firing Butch Davis: Um, What?

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  1. Fred Schlotz says:

    I agree completely. But UNC could coach their team with a Pop Warner coach and still cream Duke.

  2. William says:

    I would lean towards the 1st or 3rd theory, with emphasis on the first. I think the old wisdom that the simplest explanation is likely the correct one holds true here.

    Up to this point, we’ve had no indications or evidence that Butch Davis knew more than UNC is letting on. Thorp has been very open (some might say to a fault) throughout the entire process, even turning over more issues to the NCAA than they found themselves. And it seems pretty clear throughout his press conferences (and through the people I’ve spoken to in the know) that he wasn’t particularly fond of coach Davis to begin with. Couple that with the BOT changeover and I think it shifts the evidence overwhelmingly in favor of your first theory.

    The theory that Davis knew more and that the proverbial excrement is about to hit the fan blades causes us to make too many presumptions. See Occam’s Razor…

    Unfortunately options 1 and 2 make Thorp a liar, and option 3 makes him incompetent or ignorant. No matter how you spin it, by firing Davis two weeks ago, he is the one who comes out looking bad.

  3. Shane says:

    Agree with both the original author and Will – there’s no way Thorp comes out of this looking good. Whether he’s a liar or a bumbler is up for debate. Great stuff, Nate.

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