UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp, athletic director Dick Baddour and football head coach Butch Davis informed the press last Thursday that the NCAA's player-agent relations investigation had expanded to include possible academic misconduct by an unspecified number of players. The press conference began with the chancellor's sobering apology.
"To everyone who loves this University, I am sorry for what I have to tell you." Not many good things could come after those words, and nothing did. He gave no names and looked like he wanted to cry. The athletic director was his usual smug self. Coach Davis looked pale.
Davis said the academic improprieties involved one tutor who, incredibly, was also his teenage son's tutor. The chancellor and athletic director emphasized their complete support of and belief in the coach despite the player-agent probe, the academic misconduct and the admission that the tutor in question was once under the private employ of the head coach himself.
Independent news outlets reported that six to 12 players were involved in the academic probe and two might have had improper contact with an agent. Most of Carolina's six projected first-round draft picks were under fire and playing with the world's most talented scout team in practice. The best defense in the country might never see the field. The season Carolina fans knew was coming four years ago might die a week before its birth.
The season opener against LSU is the most prolific in decades, but most Carolina fans have not thought about or mentioned the Tigers since Thursday night. Something much bigger than a game or a season is suddenly at stake. Academic integrity was something we took for granted in Chapel Hill. Our coaches recruited promising youth, and most players delivered on the promise on the field and elsewhere. We enjoyed a sterling reputation and swelled with pride whenever the blue, our blue, spilled out of the tunnel with the thunder of the bell. A few kids took that away from hundreds of thousands of alumni without thinking twice.
I stewed for days. Conversations with my friends focused on speculation instead of emotion. Who had moved to the scout team? Would the professors expel or suspend the players? Would Davis stay at Carolina for the whole season? When would the investigation conclude? Will we play the right players Saturday night after only a week of investigation? I realized a couple days ago that the only person I had heard talk about his own emotional reaction was the chancellor. I decided to be the next in line.
I told my friends I was shocked and angry.
The shock comes from being an alumnus who has a faith in his university. I believe that people tell the truth when they say they do things the right way. I think the people who hired Carolina's coaches love the University as much as I do. I think the coaches recruit players who can win and represent the University in the way it deserves. For a privileged football player to do something he knows is wrong is unintelligent and, as I mentioned before, blatantly disregards alumni. Such a player probably does not care about the University in the same way I do.
The anger comes from looking forward to football season for the 34 to 39 weeks in which my world recedes to a comparatively boring slumber. Each start of the college football season more than neutralizes the end of each two-month vacation. I write e-mail reminders to my friends about college colors day. I write football word problems for my classes. I walk to Kenan Stadium to see the empty bleachers and hear the silent noise. I am a child in September.
My friends and I decided months ago to travel to the game at Virginia instead of the LSU game in Atlanta. Still, my friends could not get Sept. 4 off their minds. My friend Will invited people to come to his house at 4:30 p.m. and depart at 6 a.m. We were simply excited. We were going to have more fun in Chapel Hill than we would have had in Atlanta. This passion dissuaded Will from telling me the bad news two days before the press conference.
"You were the last person I would tell," he said. "I just couldn't."
Carolina had never enthused me less. I felt embarrassed to have gotten so excited about football. "Go Heels" disappeared from my vocabulary. I wanted information second only to resolution, but I had to wait for both as the LSU game worked its way up my calendar. I wondered how this season would feel. Would I be shocked and angry for the next three months?
My friend Stephanie joked that we should not pin our happiness on college kids playing sports. My friend Kim said something like this should not happen at Carolina. My friend Will said the University would sort it out and get the right players on the field.
Each conversation was a microcosm of my week-long emotional process; I started with anger but progressed to a familiar sense of ownership. These are our players. I remember basketball head coach Roy Williams addressing students toward the end of the football season in Hamilton Hall in his first year in Chapel Hill. A student asked Williams if he supported then-football head coach John Bunting, who was struggling to win games.
"Of course I support John," he said. "He is our coach. He is our coach." Williams paused for emphasis and took the next question. His message was not lost on me then, and it is coming back to me now.
Of course Bunting's folly, losing, fell on the better side of the morality fence. But even if he did something morally wrong, he still would have been one of us, a title that has no clear qualifications. I want to say the degree seals the deal, but I think our undergraduate players and current students are among us as well. What is it that makes someone a Tar Heel? Can somebody do something that makes him not a Tar Heel anymore? I am not sure that is possible.
Some of our players allegedly did something wrong, but we can take comfort in the leadership in Chapel Hill. The chancellor said we would "get to the bottom of this." Some players will play. Some players will not. All of them are Tar Heels. I stand by my team.
God bless those Tar Heel boys.