CHAPEL HILL North Carolina football coach Larry Fedora had just spent some time with Holden Thorp and his wife, Patti, during the Tar Heels’ recent trip to Louisville.
There had been no indication then, Fedora said, that Thorp, the university chancellor, would soon announce his intention to resign.
But that announcement came Monday, and Fedora said he was “shocked” by it. Other members of the athletic department – past and present – reacted with similar surprise.
“I had no inkling that that was coming,” former athletics director Dick Baddour said during a phone interview. “I recognize that Holden is demonstrating uncompromising love for the University of North Carolina and I’m assuming that he’s made a decision that this action is in the best interest of the university.”
Thorp, who announced he will leave office on June 30, 2013, became North Carolina’s 10th chancellor in July 2008. During his tenure, the athletic department experienced unprecedented strife.
Amid a multifaceted NCAA investigation into academic fraud and impermissible benefits, Thorp fired former football coach Butch Davis in late July 2010. The decision, which came just days before the start of preseason football practice, was unpopular among some athletic department boosters and fans.
The NCAA ruled in March, among other penalties, that the football program serve a one-year postseason ban for those improprieties. But the NCAA’s verdict didn’t bring the much-anticipated end point for which university leaders and coaches had hoped.
Instead, more revelations surfaced that called into question the quality of education for North Carolina athletes.
The university released results of an internal investigation in May, identifying 54 problematic courses over a range of four years in the African and Afro-American Studies department.
Athletes, particularly football and men’s basketball players, represented a large percentage of enrollments in many of the problem courses, which included no-show professors and unauthorized grade changes.
Then, in August, Julius Peppers’ college transcript became public after it was inexplicably posted on an obscure page on North Carolina’s website. The transcript showed that Peppers, who plays for the NFL’s Chicago Bears and is one of the most recognizable athletes in Tar Heels history, was barely eligible to compete during his years at the school.
The NCAA has not launched another investigation at North Carolina, but amid a continuous stream of embarrassing revelations, Thorp became a target of ire among frustrated fans, who routinely lambasted him on Twitter and other public Internet forums.
“This has been a very difficult time for all who love Carolina,” basketball coach Roy Williams said in a statement. “But I can’t imagine what it has done to (Thorp) and his family.”
Williams and Bubba Cunningham, whom Thorp hired last fall to replace Baddour as athletics director, expressed respect for Thorp’s decision to announce his resignation. In a statement, Cunningham said it would be “difficult to express the level of respect” he had for Thorp’s decision.
“He believes that his stepping down is in Carolina’s best interest and will help our campus community move forward,” Cunningham said.
In a time of economic hardship, Thorp leaves a legacy defined by successful fundraising and improved faculty retention. But the problems in the athletic department during the past several years – problems that publicly overshadowed Thorp’s work in other areas – will remain a part of his legacy, too.
Baddour defended Thorp’s tenure as chancellor and credited him with construction of the Blue Zone, the $70 million addition to Kenan Stadium that added premium seating, suites and a “center of excellence” for athletes.
“While I realize that people will focus on the Butch Davis decision,” Baddour said, “we should also be reminded that without (Thorp’s) support we would not have the Blue Zone. We would not have that wonderful facility that will serve student-athletes and on the financial side help the (athletic) department.”
Williams described Monday as a sad day because of Thorp’s announcement. Thorp was a regular at Tar Heels basketball games at the Smith Center, where he usually watched from his seat at midcourt, a few rows up.
His relationship with the athletic department didn’t stop with the football and basketball teams, Baddour said.
“He had a great love and appreciation for all of the sports at Carolina,” Baddour said. “He was tremendously supportive of those. He would frequently ask me about other coaches and how they were doing and how those programs were coming. He really enjoyed bringing his family to sporting events.”
He had done that just last weekend, at the football game in Louisville. Days later, after more than a year of criticism and scrutiny that resulted from mishaps in the athletic department, Thorp announced his end as chancellor was near.