The once vaunted academic reputation of UNC– Chapel Hill lies in shreds on the field of play. The NCAA is re-opening a probe into shenanigans involving money sport athletes (basketball and football); a special investigator — with U.S. Justice Department experience – is finishing up a probe instigated by the UNC system’s Board of Governors into phantom classes attended by athletes; and most recently, an academic tutor for scholarship athletes is suing the school for defamation after UNC officials attacked her in public for research she unearthed indicating 60 percent of money ball recruits were reading on an 8th grade level. Now a former star basketball player has agreed with Willingham.
Thinking back, I know when the problems arose regarding athletics wagging the academic tail at UNC. I sat beside Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner John Swofford during a luncheon at the Kenan-Flagler School of Business at UNC in 1990, the day of the announcement Florida State University was joining the conference in 1991. Little did I know I was a witness to history to come when I asked Swofford why a conference composed of top-level institutions of higher learning was accepting a former all-female teacher’s college with scant scholastic prestige. The answer? Georgia Tech had informed the conference it was pulling out to join the Southeast Conference unless the ACC landed a Florida TV market school.
Excuse me for being naive, but weren’t we proud of the ACC’s elite status? After all, member schools had denied entry to Joe Namath and Pete Maravich, now considered legends in football and basketball. Both were recruited but denied a scholarship due to the now quaint-sounding restrictions adhered to by all ACC schools until the 1980s and early 1990s: Athletic scholarships could be granted only to athletes who made an 800 on the SAT and possessed a 1.6 Projected Grade Point Average based on high school transcripts. This requirement resulted in 50+point losses to Notre Dame and Oklahoma in football, but ACC teams could walk off the gridiron with satisfaction that they played for a school that protected its academic prestige. Today, Swofford is ACC commissioner and the league a money machine with little regard for academic standards.
UNC, once thought the paragon of ACC athletic purity and prestige, is up to its waist in the sewerage of scandal directly related to the abandonment of recruiting standards for signing big money athletes in basketball and football. Yet the myth, called the Carolina Way, continued until just recently – that UNC (and the ACC) was above the tawdry athletic antics of an Auburn, or a Miami. Until 2010, when Chancellor Holden Thorp received a call from the NCAA informing him the college sports regulatory body had evidence UNC athletes had received improper benefits from “runners” working for sports agents recruiting Tar Heel football players for the NFL and pro leagues abroad.
Thorp was the personification of the Carolina Way, a true-blue Tar Heel who was deluded by the myths aura of the school’s past. He was bred believing scholastics and honor prevailed in university athletics. Thorp was the Everyman for most Carolina alumni, who saw themselves as above the fray of coarse behavior regarding recruitment and retention of big money jocks. Not so elite as the Ivies perhaps, where academic scholarships are bestowed on athletes, but clean and good compared to the rest.
Since the call, UNC has wallowed in hypocrisy and obtuse public communications. The public relations firm the school hired has mirrored the incompetency perceived by the public. Although the Board of Trustees, in conjunction with the UNC system Board of Governors, has hired a G-Man, all else has failed to improve the sudden fallen image of the school.
Chancellor Thorp has gone, replaced by Carol Folt, a female from Dartmouth where girls field hockey and badminton represent the sports tradition. Folt was the choice of the faculty, another example of wardens capitulating to the inmates. (As an aside, Bill Roper, respected dean of School of Medicine at UNC, offered his services to replace Thorp. He was willing to absorb a huge pay cut to save the university. He was rebuffed so a female token could take the helm, whether qualified or not).
No matter, there is no hope UNC will ever recover anyway. Its insides are corroded with destructive radical scholars running the academic side, money-focused cowboys directing the athletic program and third-rate political appointees making administrative decisions on the Board of Trustee level and system-wide Board of Governors.
The Carolina Way is a sad joke. And the Carolina Blue sky cloudy and overcast.