PINEHURST, N.C. — While N.C. State coach Tom O’Brien bantered with a few reporters about the upcoming college football season at Monday’s ACC Kickoff, North Carolina coach Butch Davis sat stoically across the room, doing his best to weather the media onslaught engulfing him from all angles. A total of 56 reporter-types and 33 tape recorders surrounded the coach as he endured countless questions about the state of his embattled program.
The Tar Heels have been under the microscope since last summer’s ACC Kickoff, when reports about potential NCAA infractions were beginning to surface. The scrutiny intensified last month when the NCAA issued a detailed notice describing nine major violations allegedly committed by student athletes and individuals with ties to the UNC football program. Those violations include impermissible benefits to players, improper academic assistance from a tutor and failures of institutional oversight.
“This is the most important issue that has faced the University of North Carolina probably in many, many, many years,” Davis said. “It has been unbelievably important to be as cooperative and as honest to work through this process and try to come to a good resolution. I think the administration has done a great job. I know that we’ve all tried to cooperate as fully and completely as possible.”
According to the notice, seven football players received a total of $27,097.38 in benefits in 2009 and 2010. The notice charged former assistant coach John Blake for failing to report $31,000 in income from Pro Tect Management and giving the NCAA misleading information, in addition to improperly consulting with agent Gary Wichard about marketing UNC players. It also stated that tutor Jennifer Wiley provided “impermissible academic assistance” to players and gave $3,500 worth of extra benefits to student athletes in the form of free tutoring, parking ticket payments and an airline ticket.
Those issues were compounded by last month’s reports detailing 11 players with numerous parking violations over a three-year span on the Chapel Hill campus. Records revealed 395 parking citations totaling $13,155 between March 2007 and August 2010.
The fate of the UNC football program will be determined when the Committee on Infractions holds a hearing in Indianapolis later this fall. Although penalties are likely to be severe, Davis takes some comfort in the increased certainty of the situation compared to last year, when 14 players ultimately were suspended over the course of the season.
“Last year, there was a tremendous amount of uncertainty,” Davis said. “People have no idea how difficult and what a challenge August and September was last year just internally, trying to help the players manage the things that they could control. … I think this year is dramatically different from the standpoint of we’re not going to go into the first game wondering whether or not are there 14 guys that maybe are going to play, are they not going to play, will they never play again?”
Davis wasn’t the only one in the room fielding questions about NCAA allegations. Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson was forced to respond to the recent punishment levied against his football program, which was hit with four years of probation, the loss of its 2009 ACC championship and a large share of responsibility for the school’s $100,000 fine, which also stemmed from infractions by the men’s basketball program.
“It is what it is,” Johnson said. “You just move forward. You go on and the administration will handle it from here and if they decide to appeal, they’ll be in charge. We weren’t really involved hardly at all in the process to begin with, and we certainly aren’t involved in it now. It’s more of an administrative issue, and that’s what it will remain.”
The program’s punishments resulted from using Demaryius Thomas - who should have been declared ineligible after accepting $312 worth of clothing from someone connected to a sports agent - during its final three games of the 2009 season. Senior A-back Roddy Jones downplayed the controversy Sunday by reflecting on the hard work of the team instead of the missteps by a few.
“The memories that we have from the Orange Bowl, that stuff is still there,” Jones said. “We feel like we won the game on the field, and that’s where the game is played. So whether or not people take away titles or take anything away, we have no control over that.”
While coaches and players representing the two teams lamented the predicaments enveloping their programs, they expressed optimism about their chances at championship contention this season. And though his team’s infractions could hamper the future for UNC football, Davis assured reporters that the firestorm would make them stronger in the end.
“I regret greatly that these things have transpired,” Davis. “I don’t take them lightly. This is a very serious issue. It’s put a tremendous amount of embarrassment and a tremendous amount of hard times for Carolina alums and fans, but we’re going to get through this, and because of it we’re going to come out of it and be better than we were before.”