North Carolina's Ill-Timed Firing of Butch Davis Will Compound Miseries

Derek JohnsonContributor IIIAugust 1, 2011

Former North Carolina coach Butch Davis
Former North Carolina coach Butch DavisStreeter Lecka/Getty Images

As Michael Scott from "The Office" would say, “Holden Thorp has screwed the pooch.” Thorp, the chancellor at the University of North Carolina, fired football coach Butch Davis last week after citing that NC’s integrity as an academic institution was at stake.

Davis had compiled a 28-23 record in four seasons with North Carolina. The Tar Heels looked poised to contend for the Atlantic Coast Conference championship last year before NCAA investigators arrived on campus in July 2010. 

All told, 14 players missed at least one game and seven were forced to sit the entire 2010 season. Just last month, the NCAA released a notice of allegations outlining numerous potential major violations.

Most curious was that Davis was recently allowed to participate in the ACC’s media day just prior to being fired.

Maintaining integrity is necessary and noble, but academic types who exist in ivory tower settings often fail to grasp real-world consequences to their actions. The pragmatic approach would have been to let Davis coach the 2011 season and then fire him in December.

By firing him in July, North Carolina has put the success of their program in far more serious jeopardy than was necessary, even in light of NCAA investigations.  

Up here in Seattle, we’ve seen firsthand the devastation that occurs when academic types make these kinds of decisions.

Back in the summer of 2003, the Washington Huskies hadn’t had a losing season in 28 years.  But when football coach Rick Neuheisel was discovered to have participated in a high stakes neighborhood gambling pool (and then played coy with NCAA investigators about it), he was fired by the UW. 

The official date of his termination was July 28, 2003.

With little time to find a replacement, Washington handed the program over to offensive coordinator Keith Gilbertson, who had failed miserably in his previous head coaching stint at California.

The wheels began coming off the Washington wagon later that year, with startling losses to Nevada and Cal. 

The next year, the Huskies finished 1-10 and Gilbertson was fired. This enabled new athletic director Todd Turner to hire Tyrone Willingham and give him an iron-clad contract. 

Willingham, who had just been fired by Notre Dame, proceeded to burn the Washington program completely to the ground, culminating in the infamous 0-12 season of 2008.

It can be argued that none of the misery suffered by the Huskies in the past decade would have occurred had Washington waited until the end of the 2003 season before firing Neuheisel. This would have given them ample time to conduct a proper coaching search. Instead, they left little choice but to hire Gilbertson off the existing staff.

Like Washington did eight years ago, North Carolina has now painted themselves into a corner.  In a press release issued last week, the school announced that, effective immediately, defensive coordinator Everett Withers will serve as the Tar Heels’ interim head coach.

Whether Withers is up to the task is somewhat irrelevant. The decision to fire Davis so close to the beginning of fall camp isn’t fair to the players, nor to Withers.

Strong and successful organizations need competence and stability. This decision undermines that foundation.

The North Carolina chancellor may be concerned by how his university is viewed across the country. And via the specter of the NCAA investigation, that is understandable. 

But by firing their coach before any penalties have been announced or appealed, the university has sacrificed the football program upon an alter of fear and self-recrimination. 

The ultra-competitive world of college football will exact a painful price upon the Tar Heels for such a foolishly-timed decision. 


Derek Johnson is the author of three books, including the recently-released Bow Down to Willingham. Read a free excerpt at