Why now, six weeks before the start of the season? That's the question on everyone's mind in the wake of the University of North Carolina's firing Butch Davis. Some are going to greater lengths than others though. A group of attorneys working on behalf of "a handful" of boosters and alums have filed a public records request for information on communications between Chancellor Holden Thorp and school officials regarding Davis. On the surface, it seems that the boosters are mad that Davis was fired, period, given their funding of the "Blue Zone" initiative, and their belief that Davis was the key ingredient in elevating the stature of the football program:
"I can tell you, everybody that we represent is furious about the timing of Butch Davis' firing," Brown said. "They feel like their investment was based on Butch Davis being the head coach ... and the public reassurances over the past year that he would remain the coach. ... They want answers."
You can be sure that if this request is granted, the press will want to be in on it too, and things could get even more interesting. The records could shed considerable light on the tension between the quest for athletic success and academic integrity at a major university. Most of the struggle between these often competing objectives takes place out of public view.
The delayed response by UNC's administration in addressing the Davis issue can be viewed in two ways: either they weren't paying attention, or alternatively, they failed to act, in effect by giving Davis carte blanche in deference to the influence of the booster crowd. Either way, the administration clearly fumbled the ball.
Ken Tysiac's story in today's Charlotte observer, "What UNC missed in probe" suggests to me it was a bit of both. At every turn, clear signs of serious problems were brought to the attention of the UNC administration. And every time, the administration looked the other way. They either thought they were bulletproof or were hopelessly naive.
Several years ago, Bobby McCormick made the case to anyone who would listen that the managerial competence of a university administration was almost impossible to assess from the outside, and that this difficulty in monitoring led to incompetence and inefficiency. But one window through which an administration's managerial ability would be visible to an outsider is through athletics. McCormick's model suggests that the Davis case may be a surface manifestation of larger problems at UNC. The resignation of the Athletic Director and changes at the Board of Trustees are consistent with his story.
Changes in personnel may mitigate UNC's problem in the short run, but as the events in Columbus and Eugene illustrate, the problem is national in scope. Every NCAA institution is tempted by the same forces, which stem from the enormous popularity of college athletics. This is why reform is front and center on the agenda of the NCAA's retreat for university presidents. But will the presidents do anything more than pay lip service to these issues? History suggests we should be skeptical. Tomorrow, I will post an essay on this topic "Subversion of the Academy," spurred by the crisis at UNC and written by Bobby and our colleague Bob Tollison.