- Associated Press - Thursday, September 2, 2010

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) - The NCAA investigation hovering over North Carolina’s football program has frustrated everyone at the university from administrators to alumni.

The probe initially focused on whether two players received improper benefits from agents, but its expansion into possible academic violations that could sideline numerous players for this weekend’s opener against LSU has embarrassed the university.

“It gets at the heart of what we stand for,” athletic director Dick Baddour said. “It gives me grave concerns. And it comes in an area where we’ve taken great pride, not only in the achievement of our student-athletes but in the support program we have.”

The investigation overshadows everything.

Coach Butch Davis is on the verge of reviving the downtrodden program. The No. 18 Tar Heels looked ready to contend for an Atlantic Coast Conference championship and had locked up a high-profile opener against the No. 21 Tigers in Atlanta this weekend.

But all anyone is talking about is the probe.

Investigators first visited the campus in July to look into whether defensive tackle Marvin Austin and receiver Greg Little received improper benefits from agents. Then, last week, the school announced that it was also looking into potential academic misconduct involving a tutor.

Davis suspended Austin on Wednesday for violating team rules, while the school is conferring with the NCAA about whether an unspecified number of players should be cleared to play Saturday. It’s a violation to travel with ineligible players, so Baddour said the school wouldn’t take a chance with a player whose status is in doubt when the team leaves Friday.

“We are certainly anxiously awaiting word on a number of players,” Baddour said.

On Thursday afternoon, Davis refused to say how many players were in jeopardy of missing the game.

The coaches “have asked our players to stay focused, come to practice, watch film, try to create as normal as an environment as possible,” Davis said. “With all the rumors and the speculation and all those things that have hovered around for the better part of six to seven weeks, I think our kids have done a good job.

“They’ve put everything in perspective, they’ve come to practice during training camp and they’ve worked hard.”

As if the football issues weren’t enough, the latest developments are causing consternation for a school that is sensitive to protecting its academic reputation.

“It does shake us more,” said Jack Evans, a former longtime faculty athletics representative and part of the university’s investigation into the academics issues. “Because we start by saying this is a public university that is committed to providing education for the students that come here, that it’s committed to serving the people of the state. … Something like this is disturbing. It’s unsettling.”

That message has clearly reached Davis, who opened Monday’s weekly news conference by saying program and school integrity was more important than any game. The program’s Academic Progress Rate, released by the NCAA in June, is in the middle of the ACC and is higher than the average among Bowl Subdivision schools.

Chancellor Holden Thorp said he believes Davis is “just as embarrassed as I am, that he’s just as sad about what has happened.” He also said he received numerous e-mails _ a handful of angry ones, but mostly supportive _ from alumni who want the school to protect its academic reputation before anything else.

“I think that’s why this is such a big deal for us because that’s been a huge part of our message and brand,” Thorp said, “and it still is.”

Thorp said he has reviewed the school’s academic support program, which employs 25 tutors and about 25 mentors who help student-athletes with issues such as time-management skills. They receive training that includes NCAA compliance as well as the school’s honor code. Tutors and mentors then must sign a pledge to follow NCAA and school academic policies, then a testimonial that they didn’t break any rules at the end of each year.

The school has been investigating whether the tutor in question had contact with other sports at the school, though Baddour said she didn’t work with any players in the men’s basketball program.

“I think everybody’s signed something, everybody’s heard the right Powerpoints,” Thorp said. “That’s not going to be the thing that’s going to move it. It’s going to be the day-to-day reminders that say, ‘These are the expectations.’ I think when you’re getting ready for big games and you’re thinking about the future and you’re 21 years old, you just need to be reminded about that pretty frequently.”

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