- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
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The Butch Davis era began at North Carolina in November 2007 with high hopes. It ended Monday in the dreadful, funereal ritual of the release of a report of the NCAA Committee on Infractions.
Just coincidence, said committee chair Britton Banowsky, the Conference USA commissioner, that the report came out the day after North Carolina became a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament for a national-record 14th time. But the timing provided a reminder of what the university hired Davis to achieve and how spectacularly he failed to do so.
Over the course of the 1990s, Mack Brown had built the Tar Heels into a national power. He commandeered the resources to build one of the first Taj Mahals in the sport -- a $50 million palace of offices and facilities that announced to recruits and rivals that North Carolina took football seriously.
As much as Brown achieved, he couldn't lift the Tar Heels into the BCS hierarchy where the Florida States played. Though Brown left for Texas after the 1997 season, he had planted the seed. Nine years of mediocrity under Carl Torbush and John Bunting failed to dim the potential that Brown had kindled in the program.
Davis rebuilt a Miami team struck down by NCAA penalties and took them to the precipice of a national championship. When Davis left after the 2000 season for the Cleveland Browns, Larry Coker, his top assistant, took over and won the next 23 games. With the foundation assembled by Davis, Coker coached the Hurricanes within a double overtime of two consecutive crystal footballs.
That builder is who the Tar Heels assumed they hired. And Davis, a coaching lifer who traveled from Oklahoma high schools to the NFL, wanted to create a football empire on Tobacco Road.
"I feel like I have tortured my wife. That's the hardest part," Davis said in his first spring in Chapel Hill. "That's when you'd love to get to a place like this and say, 10-12-14 years, you'd like to stay someplace and actually put down roots and really become a part of the fabric of the community."
When Davis arrived in Chapel Hill, more than one commentator referred to it as the perfect job. He had the resources to compete at a national level, yet a fan base that remained more focused on March than January. As long as Davis kept winning and didn't embarrass the university, he had the equivalent of academic tenure.
Davis lasted four-and-a-half years before the university fired him because of the violations detailed Monday. The NCAA penalized the Tar Heels for violations involving improper benefits provided to players and former assistant coach John Blake by agents, as well as improper academic assistance by a former tutor.
Though Banowsky, the commissioner of Conference USA, praised the university for its cooperation, the committee delivered a harsh punishment. The NCAA cut 15 scholarships from the Tar Heels over three years -- six more than North Carolina self-imposed -- added a postseason ban for the 2012 season, and gave the school three years of probation, one more than the school gave itself.
It is the first penalty the NCAA has ever imposed on the North Carolina football program. Given that Dean Smith built North Carolina into a basketball power with an almost self-righteous adherence to the rules, given that former chancellor William C. Friday has been a leader in NCAA reform for the past 25 years, the report released Monday is a black eye on a perennially virtuous face.
"Obviously, this has been a painful, difficult experience," chancellor Holden Thorp said in a conference call Monday. "We don't like to have this kind of attention brought to any part of the university, especially one as visible as the athletics program."
Former athletic director Dick Baddour stressed that there still is a "Carolina way" of doing things, and reminded the media that Smith took over the Tar Heel basketball program when his boss, Frank McGuire, resigned after the NCAA put his program on probation. That turned out pretty well.
Davis started out doing just what North Carolina hired him to do. He recruited some of the top players in the nation. No school had more players selected in the NFL draft last April than the nine Tar Heels, including five in the first two rounds. But three of those five -- defensive end Robert Quinn, defensive tackle Marvin Austin, and wide receiver Greg Little -- were suspended in this investigation and never played a down in 2010.
That team, a preseason top-20 pick, went 8-5, which matched the Tar Heels' victory total in the previous two seasons. Davis went 28-23 in his four seasons. North Carolina went on probation Monday.
Now it is up to Larry Fedora to take North Carolina football where neither Davis nor Brown nor Hall of Famer Jim Tatum nor any coach has been able to take the Tar Heels. Bubba Cunningham, Baddour's successor, said that the university gave Fedora a seven-year contract just in case the NCAA added sanctions to the university's self-imposed penalties. It did.
North Carolina won't go to a bowl game in 2012. Its seniors may transfer without sitting out a year. The university must wash off two years of mud stuck to its reputation. The Tar Heels ended the Butch Davis era further from the Promised Land than when they began it.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.
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