The NCAA infractions committee has hit North Carolina’s football program with a one-year postseason ban, a reduction of 15 scholarships and three years of probation following an investigation into improper benefits and academic misconduct.
In a ruling Monday, the committee said the school was responsible for multiple violations, including academic fraud and a failure to monitor its football program. It also issued a three-year show-cause penalty for former assistant coach John Blake, who had received personal loans from an NFL agent.
“This case should serve as a cautionary tale to all institutions to vigilantly monitor the activities of those student-athletes who possess the potential to be top professional prospects,” the committee stated in its report. “It should also serve to warn student-athletes that if they choose to accept benefits from agents or their associates, they risk losing their eligibility for collegiate competition.”
The postseason ban is for this fall and prevents the Tar Heels from playing in either the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game or a bowl game. The scholarship reductions would be five per year, also starting in the fall.
In September, North Carolina announced it would impose several penalties of its own, including vacating all 16 wins for 2008 and 2009, reducing nine scholarships over the next three academic years and putting the program on two years of probation.
The school also issued a self-imposed $50,000 fine but it didn’t impose a postseason ban in what the school called “difficult but necessary steps.” But the committee decided that wasn’t enough.
“The university did a great job of investigating it,” infractions committee chairman Britton Banowsky said in a teleconference with reporters. “They tried to get to the truth, and that’s not always the case, but in this case it was clear that they did. … Nevertheless, it was a serious case and we had aggravating factors.”
The ruling caps a nearly 2-year case that ultimately led to the firing of coach Butch Davis as well as the early departure of longtime administrator Dick Baddour as athletic director. The scandal included players receiving jewelry and other gifts from people outside the program, as well as a tutor providing improper help to players on term papers.
School officials said Monday afternoon they won’t appeal penalties that chancellor Holden Thorp called “more severe than we expected,” opting instead to move on.
“Obviously this has been a painful and difficult experience,” Thorp said on a teleconference with reporters. “We don’t like to have this kind of attention brought to any part of the university, especially one as visible as the athletic program.”
Fourteen players missed at least one game in 2010 and seven were forced to sit out all that season, with four of those either dismissed from the team or ruled permanently ineligible by the NCAA. Among that group was defensive end Robert Quinn, defensive tackle Marvin Austin and receiver Greg Little. All three players were chosen in the first two rounds of last year’s NFL draft.
School officials appeared before the infractions committee in October, as well as Blake and his attorneys.
Blake’s close friendship with late NFL agent Gary Wichard became a focus of the investigation, including $31,000 in money transferred from Wichard to Blake that Blake’s attorneys have characterized as loans from one friend to another during financial trouble. Both Blake and his attorneys have publicly denied there was any agreement for Blake to steer players to sign with Wichard once they reached the NFL.
But the NCAA ruled that Blake had worked as an employee for Wichard’s firm after being fired as Oklahoma’s coach in 1998 and “continued recruiting clients … even after he returned to coaching in 2002,” according to the report. In addition, the committee found that the financial transactions “were made to compensate (Blake) for his work for the sports agency and the access he provided to NFL-caliber student-athletes.”
The show-cause penalty would prevent Blake from performing any recruiting duties, which essentially prevents him from being able to coach.
Both Blake and former tutor Jennifer Wiley, who graduated from the school in 2009, were cited for unethical conduct. The committee found that Wiley had provided several players with too much assistance on research papers, and also provided about $4,100 improper benefits in travel, parking expenses and free tutoring.
Wiley refused to be interviewed by investigators. The school has formally disassociated itself from her as well as former player Chris Hawkins, who had hung around the program in recent years and socialized with players until the school learned he was regarded as a prospective agent by the NCAA.
Thorp fired Davis a week before training camp, citing the cumulative damage to the university’s reputation by the probe. The Tar Heels went 8-5 under Davis in both 2008 and 2009, losing each time in the Meineke Bowl. Davis, now working as a special assistant for the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, has never been tied directly to or cited for any violation in the probe.
The day after the school fired Davis, Baddour announced he would step aside early from his planned retirement this summer so that his successor could hire the next football coach. The school hired Bubba Cunningham from Tulsa as AD. He then hired Larry Fedora from Southern Mississippi as the new coach.
Defensive coordinator Everett Withers served as interim coach last season and guided the Tar Heels to a 7-6 record along with an appearance in the Independence Bowl. Withers is now assistant head coach under Urban Meyer at Ohio State.