CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- About 10 days before the start of the season, North Carolina coach Butch Davis was informed 13 players would be held out of the LSU game as a result of a two-pronged NCAA investigation into athletes receiving improper benefits from agents or anyone else, and academic misconduct.
While many outside the program deemed Carolina's season over before it started, Davis was focused on trying to beat LSU with the team he had.
"I knew it wasn't over," he said.
Neither was the public relations nightmare that has followed the team through the first eight weeks of the season, nor the embarrassment that has tarnished the university's once shiny academic reputation. It was only the start of what has turned into a major self-examination of the entire program, including its compliance office, academic support center and hiring process.
While the football team has won four straight heading into Saturday's game at Miami and remains in the hunt for the ACC's Coastal Division title with a 4-2 record (2-1 in conference), North Carolina officials are trying to clean up their mess and hold each other accountable as the NCAA investigations come to a close. UNC athletic director Dick Baddour said the university has finished its investigation into academic misconduct involving the football team, and is starting to shift its focus into a thorough review of what the department can do better from an academic and compliance standpoint to help prevent further embarrassment.
About 15 university staff members are working to figure out what went wrong and how to keep it from happening again, but the two men with the most to answer for are at the top -- Baddour and Davis.
"Sure, I have responsibility for it," Baddour said. "I'm the athletic director. I'm responsible for anything and everything that happens in my department. It keeps me awake at night. It tears at me. But I also see it as a chance for us to get better and I don't say that in the sense that it just sounds good and well. I also see it as an opportunity to lead. There are a lot of responsibilities. Coach Davis has clearly accepted responsibility. We'll find out more about where there are signs we missed, and what those signs are."
A total of 16 football players have been affected by the investigations into academic misconduct, receiving improper benefits and improper contact with agents. Three players' careers are over, three more have been ruled ineligible for this season, seven have returned to the team, and three remain in question (see inline box). The roster has been so depleted that walk-on offensive guard Peyton Jenest lined up at defensive tackle against Virginia.
"You've got to accept responsibility for everything that you go through," said safety Deunta Williams, who served a four-game NCAA suspension for receiving improper benefits. "People made bad decisions and that's how we got here."
They also made bad hires. Defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator John Blake, who was reportedly a target of the NCAA's investigation into possible improper conduct with agents, resigned in September, and while Baddour said he's "not sure what it is that everybody knew" about Blake, they'll now ask coaching candidates about their relationships, including with agents.
Could Davis have been a better judge of character?
"Well, obviously some of the stuff that we've been going through is an eye-opening realization of 'How do some of these kinds of things transpire?'" Davis said. "As the head football coach, you're always, regardless of what the trials and tribulations are, you're always looking at ways to look at what you're doing. Is there a better way to do it? What can you learn from it?"
ACC commissioner John Swofford, a 1971 graduate of North Carolina, wasn't available for comment, but he told the ACC Sports Journal the situation was "disturbing."
"By policy, we don't comment on ongoing NCAA investigations, but I will say that anytime one of our schools, no matter which one, is involved with NCAA compliance issues it is disturbing," Swofford said. "Our conference, over the past 15 years has had far fewer NCAA major violations than any of the other major conferences, and we want to keep it that way. The balance of academic performance, athletic achievement and integrity truly matters in this league."
North Carolina will no longer allow any meetings with financial planners or agents outside of the building. School officials are writing to former players to let them know it's impermissible to provide benefits to current players, even when done "in good faith," and they're writing to parents to "intensify that education." A more stringent "sign-out" program will require more details from the athletes when they leave campus as to where they're going and with whom.
"Some of our issues are not related to agents," Baddour said. "They're related to impermissible benefits."
Williams said it's "very tempting" for NFL prospects to be lured by benefits when outsiders constantly come calling.
"It's very hard," he said. "It depends on your situation, the environment you're from. You see people doing it all the time, so sometimes you think that it's OK, or your friends doing stuff like that. It's just one of those types of things."
Davis said he wishes the program would have spent more time educating players about unscrupulous agents and receiving improper benefits from anyone before they became draft eligible.
"We've obviously started this year trying to educate the freshmen, educate the sophomores, because one of the players that, unfortunately, was dismissed from the program was a kid that was just a sophomore," Davis said. "He had only been on campus for basically 18 months. It's an opportunity for us to look at what we're doing and try to do it better."
Some have called into question whether Davis was doing enough to know what was going on in his own program.
"You expect anybody, any head coach, a head of any unit that we have to have reasonable expectations about that they would have knowledge of what's going on in their program, but there are just certain things that you can't know it all and there are times when people work to keep information from them," Baddour said. "It's just really difficult to know all the time what is going on. What would be critical would be there are no signs that someone ignored what was going on and there's absolutely no evidence of that whatsoever in this situation."
There was enough evidence, though, to derail the season of 16 different players and one assistant coach.
Davis is right -- the season isn't over, but the college careers of three players are.
Heather Dinich is ESPN.com's ACC football blogger. She can be reached at email@example.com. Check out the ACC blog.