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UNC Tar Heels still paying price for timing of Butch Davis firing

By Luke DeCock - staff columnist
Luke has worked for The News & Observer since 2000. He covered the Carolina Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a sports columnist in August 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania.
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The timing of Butch Davis’ firing may end up costing North Carolina not one or two football seasons, but three or more.

Former Chancellor Holden Thorp’s long-delayed decision to fire Davis on the eve of training camp in 2011, precisely the right move at exactly the wrong time, ended up costing the Tar Heels a wasted season that fall, as expected.

Looking back, from the perspective of North Carolina’s surprising and disappointing 1-4 start to this one, the impact on recruiting has cost the Tar Heels at least two seasons. And given the players leaving after this season, possibly a third as well.


“There’s definitely an impact,” North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said. “It’s not something that we really dwell on because we have the players that we have. These are our guys. It’s not going to change. What we’re trying to do each and every day is just improve with the guys that we have.”

The immediate consequence of Thorp’s procrastination on firing Davis was the long slog through the 2011 season under interim coach Everett Withers and the rest of Davis’ former staff, ending in what may have been the worst bowl experience ever, the loss to Missouri in Shreveport.

Scores of innocent players and fans uninvolved in the shenanigans of John Blake and Jen Wiley were caught up in the collateral damage of Thorp’s poor timing, but by season’s end a new athletic director and new football coach were both in place, and it was high time for everyone to move on.

Lost recruiting classes

Yet here we are, in the fall of 2013, and the consequences are still being felt.

Some of that is due to the scholarship restrictions imposed by the NCAA as a penalty for the transgressions of the Davis regime, costing the Tar Heels 10 recruits in the past two classes, but the more pressing reason for the talent gap is the two lost recruiting classes caused by the departure of Blake in 2010 and the accompanying uncertainty surrounding the Davis regime, followed immediately by the understandable ineffectiveness of the interim staff in 2011.

That’s two recruiting classes worth of talent that isn’t available to Fedora and his staff right now. Those are the redshirt freshmen and sophomores who aren’t contributing on the offensive line and on defense, in all the positions where players take longer to develop, the positions that are the biggest problem areas for the Tar Heels right now.

“I’m sure that has played a part for us,” Fedora said. “It is what it is, and we’ve got to find a way to overcome it.”

When you’re clearly inferior to East Carolina in both areas, that’s testament to the work Ruffin McNeill has done in Greenville, but it’s also an indictment of North Carolina’s overall talent level. No ACC team should be this much less athletic and less physical than an in-state Conference USA rival.

It could get worse before it gets better. There’s still one full, unfettered class of Davis/Blake recruits on the field, including Bryn Renner, James Hurst, Kareem Martin and others, but this is its final season. So not only are the Tar Heels 1-4 heading into next week’s Thursday night home game against 5-0 Miami, the outlook may not be much better next season.

DeCock:, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947
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