College Sports

UNC’s Sylvia Hatchell: ‘Hard not to say’ her program is scapegoat

North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell reacts to a call during UNC’s 82-72 overtime loss to Pittsburgh in the first round of the ACC Women’s tournament on March 2 at the Greensboro Coliseum in Greensboro.
North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell reacts to a call during UNC’s 82-72 overtime loss to Pittsburgh in the first round of the ACC Women’s tournament on March 2 at the Greensboro Coliseum in Greensboro.

Sylvia Hatchell doesn’t deny it nor does she dispute it, the perception that her women’s basketball program at North Carolina has been made into a scapegoat – the fall guy – amid a long-running NCAA investigation that has appeared to place her program in the crosshairs.

That perception has existed for more than a year, ever since the NCAA Enforcement Staff targeted Jan Boxill, the former UNC women’s basketball team’s academic counselor, in its original notice of allegations (NOA). And now that perception has only grown amid the arrival of an amended NOA.

The new notice that UNC received April 25 represented good news for the men’s basketball and football programs, which aren’t mentioned at all amid the five Level 1 allegations the NCAA has levied against UNC. It was bad news, though, for Hatchell and women’s basketball, which appears most at risk to endure significant sanctions.

“I’m real happy for the other sports – for football and men’s basketball, that they’ve sort of been taken out of this,” Hatchell, her voice cracking at times with emotion, said Tuesday. “And of course (football coach) Larry (Fedora) and (men’s basketball coach) Roy (Williams), they’re great guys. Great professionals, good buddies, so I’m happy for them.

“But I must admit that I’m heartbroken that this has happened to women’s basketball, that we’ve been put in this position. And so it’s hard to believe, to be honest with you.”

No mention of the men

The original notice that UNC received in May 2015 included references to men’s basketball and football, along with women’s basketball. According to that NOA, athletes from all three sports benefited from a long-running scheme of suspect African and Afro-American Studies courses.

In the amended notice, though, there is no mention of men’s basketball or football. Women’s basketball, it appears, is the only sport that faces a significant risk of serious NCAA sanctions, and that reality has fed the perception that Hatchell and her program are being left to take a fall.

“Well, you know,” Hatchell said, shaking her head at thought she’s heard many times in the past year – that women’s basketball is playing the role of a patsy, “it’s hard not to say that.”

Hatchell on Tuesday said some of the same things that other UNC coaches – including Williams and Fedora – have said during the past year about their sports: that there are no allegations specifically against women’s basketball.

I must admit that I’m heartbroken that this has happened to women’s basketball, that we’ve been put in this position. And so it’s hard to believe, to be honest with you.

UNC women’s basketball coach Sylvia Hatchell

It’s a more difficult argument for Hatchell to make, though, because of Boxill’s involvement.

Boxill, the former UNC professor who for decades served as the women’s basketball academic counselor, is charged with wrongdoing. Those allegations against Boxill, accused of providing impermissible benefits and improper help to players, have put Hatchell’s program at risk.

To Hatchell, the entire situation is heartbreaking and confounding. The NCAA investigation, after all, began in June 2014 with the intent of getting to the bottom of a long-running scheme of suspect African Studies courses that for nearly two decades helped players in many sports remain eligible.

Football and men’s basketball players used those courses in greater numbers than any other sport. Yet the classes themselves, the NCAA Enforcement Staff decided, didn’t constitute a violation of NCAA rules.

The amended notice focused less on the suspect courses and more on Boxill’s misdeeds, which could lead to significant penalties against Hatchell’s program. She has been attempting to make sense of it.

“There’s no allegations against women’s basketball, the coaching staff or anything with recruiting, eligibility or anything like that,” said Hatchell, a member of the Naismith Hall of Fame who recently completed her 30th season at UNC. “This is an academic issue.

“And because there are no allegations against the women’s basketball program, how can you have penalties if there no allegations against the program? And so I just believe the NCAA and the administration will do the right thing here.”

Protecting the program

Hatchell isn’t entirely confident that will happen, though, and that’s part of the reason why she has hired Wade Smith, a prominent Raleigh attorney, to represent her amid the ongoing NCAA investigation. Hatchell retained Smith nearly a year ago, she said, after UNC received the original notice.

Hatchell hired Smith, she said, because she “wanted to make sure that women’s basketball was protected.”

Whether she wanted to protect her program from UNC or from the NCAA, Hatchell didn’t say.

“I just think in general,” she said. “Because I don’t know that much about legal things. But I just felt like I needed someone to represent. Because I want to put all my time and focus on coaching the players and being the basketball coach at the University of North Carolina.”

It’s unclear, too, how long she’ll serve in that capacity. Hatchell’s contract is to expire in two years, and there hasn’t been any indication she’ll receive the kind of extension Williams received last summer.

His contract was set to expire after the 2017-18 season, too, but last June he agreed to a two-year extension. The lack of an extension for Hatchell, along with the drama surrounding her program amid the NCAA investigation, has created the obvious question of whether her job is in jeopardy.

After the 2014-15 season, three players who’d been members of what was considered the best recruiting class in school history transferred. Diamond DeShields, the most heralded member of that class, transferred the previous year, before the NCAA investigation began.

Last season, with a depleted roster that Hatchell cobbled together with the help of a tryout that was open to the student body, the Tar Heels finished 14-18 – Hatchell’s first losing season in 20 years. Yet she has no plans to go anywhere any time soon, and she said she doesn’t think her job is in jeopardy.

“I don’t know how it could (be),” she said. “Because I haven’t had anything to do with (the NCAA investigation).”

‘Best days ahead’

Hatchell’s situation contrasts with that of Williams, the men’s basketball coach. The arrival of the amended NOA has provided Williams and Fedora with more confidence that their programs won’t be affected by the investigation. Then there’s Hatchell and women’s basketball.

Williams said Tuesday he has spoken “a little” with Hatchell about her situation.

“But not a lot,” he said. “I mean, when you see somebody else going through the same sorrow, you don’t want to sit down and talk about it and say, ‘Woe is me.’ 

Meanwhile, athletics director Bubba Cunningham is attempting to lead UNC’s response to the notice, which is in due in July. Cunningham is aware, as seemingly everyone is, of the perception that surrounds women’s basketball – that it’s being sacrificed.

Yet he said that perception doesn’t reflect reality.

“I can understand why people feel that way,” he said. “But I think when you really study it and look at it, that’s a feeling – not a fact. And at this point, we’re trying to deal with facts.”

Hatchell walked out of the women’s basketball coaches meetings Tuesday wearing a broad smile. She has endured some of the most difficult years of her life recently – her fight against cancer that forced her to miss the 2013-14 season, and now another fight, this one for her program.

She said she felt more passionate than ever.

“We’ll get through it,” she said. “And so I really think our best days are ahead.”

Andrew Carter: 919-829-8944, @_andrewcarter