Butch Davis had seemingly survived the most dangerous days of the NCAA investigation into improper benefits and academic misconduct within his North Carolina program.
He kept his job all last season even as embarrassing allegations kept surfacing, from the conduct of his associate head coach to the behavior of players and their tutor. He won supporters by leading a team decimated by suspensions to top players to eight wins and a bowl victory, earning the praise of his bosses along with the assurance that he'd be back for a fifth season.
Yet on Wednesday, the school reversed itself and fired Davis, saying the past year of turmoil amid the NCAA probe was doing too much damage to the university's reputation. Now the Tar Heels are heading into next week's training camp with no long-term coach and an entirely new set of distractions hanging over their heads.
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Davis arrived in Chapel Hill in 2006 with a clean reputation after bringing probation-saddled Miami back among the nation's elite in the 1990s. But in a statement from the school, chancellor Holden Thorp said that while there had been no changes in the NCAA investigation, he had "lost confidence in our ability to come through this without harming the way people think of this institution."
Last month, the NCAA sent a notice of allegations to the school outlining numerous potential major violations, though none connected to Davis himself. The school is scheduled to appear before the NCAA infractions committee in October.
"Our academic integrity is paramount, and we must work diligently to protect it," Thorp said in a statement. "The only way to move forward and put this behind us is to make a change."
The school has scheduled a news conference for Thursday morning to discuss the change, which followed a closed-door meeting of the school's board of trustees. Team spokesman Kevin Best said plans for an interim coach would be discussed Thursday. North Carolina's players report for training camp Aug. 4 and start practice the following day.
In a statement Wednesday night, Davis said he was "honestly shocked" by the dismissal and called it "a sad day."
"I can honestly say I leave with the full confidence that I have done nothing wrong," Davis said. "I was the head coach and I realize the responsibility that comes with that role. But I was not personally involved in, nor aware of, any actions that prompted the NCAA investigation."
The news caught current and former players off guard, including T.J. Yates -- the quarterback who served as de facto team spokesman last season during the height of NCAA scrutiny.
"In shock about Coach Davis, that man put Carolina football back on the map," Yates, a Houston Texans draftee, posted on Twitter. "And to do it right before training camp starts is just wrong."
Another former Tar Heel now in the NFL, Kansas City Chiefs offensive lineman Mike Ingersoll, tweeted: "I have always supported my alma mater... but I can't support this. I support Coach Davis. Thank you for all you did for Carolina football."
Davis' dismissal comes just two days after he fielded questions about the aftermath of the investigation from reporters at the Atlantic Coast Conference's preseason media days in Pinehurst. The coach said he found the university's public support "reassuring" and said he had never considered quitting. He also talked about how the coaching staff and university had taken steps to correct past mistakes.
While no violations were tied to Davis, he said Monday he "fully and completely" takes responsibility as the head coach.
"Anything we can do to make sure this doesn't happen again, that's part of my responsibility," Davis said. "I regret greatly that these things have transpired and these things have happened. I don't take them lightly. This is a very, very serious issue. It's caused a tremendous amount of embarrassment and a tremendous amount of hard times for Carolina alums and fans. But we're going to get through this. And because of it, we're going to come out of it, and we're going to be better than we were before."
Davis compiled a 28-23 record in four seasons with the Tar Heels after taking over for John Bunting. His program looked ready to contend for an ACC championship and a BCS berth last year before NCAA investigators arrived on campus last July.
They were initially focused on improper benefits connected to defensive tackle Marvin Austin and receiver Greg Little, but the probe steadily expanded to include potential academic violations. In all, 14 players missed at least one game and seven were forced to sit the entire season.
The allegations included unethical conduct by former associate head coach John Blake. The NCAA said Blake worked to steer players to late NFL agent Gary Wichard and reported Blake had received more than $31,000 from Wichard, though Blake's attorneys had previously described the transactions as loans from one friend to another during financial troubles. Davis had said he knew nothing of the loans and that he was "sorry" he trusted Blake, a longtime friend who resigned in September.
There were also numerous issues connected to tutor Jennifer Wiley, who had tutored Davis' teen son, and improper assistance given to players on school work -- including some after she had graduated and no longer worked for the school.
Though Davis' personal cell phone records are scheduled to be released soon, a source said that no new allegations had been brought forward.
Thorp and athletic director Dick Baddour had remained publicly supportive of Davis over the past year, including at a joint appearance with the school's trustees in November.
"I believe you were the right fit when we hired you and I continue to believe that," Baddour told Davis in front of the trustees. "In fact, I believe it even more strongly now."
The decision to fire Davis could be beneficial when penalties are being decided by the NCAA Committee on Infractions at a meeting in October. UNC is facing a possible loss of scholarships, vacation of wins and probation and less likely a bowl ban.
"It helps if UNC argues a coaching change was needed to ensure comprehensive monitoring of the football program by the head coach," said attorney Michael Bucker, who represents schools and programs with NCAA issues.
If UNC has no claim to fire Davis "with cause," he would be owed $3 million to $4 million.
Safety Deunta Williams said he was "sad" to hear of Davis' dismissal. Williams was one of many Tar Heels found by the NCAA to have received an extra benefit from a third party last year.
"Part of the reason is the things we did and I feel bad about that," he said. "He was a good coach to all of us. I hope he can land on his feet."
Information from ESPN's Joe Schad and The Associated Press was used in this report.
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