Holden Thorp's Cautionary Tale
Nearly a decade after the UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor’s resignation, the story of powerful outside forces, rocky relationships with governing boards, and a well-intentioned leader has striking resonance today // Art by Casey Robertson
Editor’s Note: The following is an adapted excerpt from Thomason’s upcoming book Discredited: The UNC Scandal and College Athletics’ Amateur Ideal.
This wasn’t how things were supposed to go for Holden Thorp. He was the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s favorite son, the boy genius who’d fallen in love with the chemistry lab and followed that love all the way to the Ivy League, only to look homeward, still.
He returned to Chapel Hill as a chemistry professor, but he was too talented to be kept off in a lab. So, he was tapped to lead the university’s planetarium, then its chemistry department, then its biggest college. When Carolina needed a new chancellor, he seemed perfect for the role. Few had more impressive academic bona fides, featuring stints in the faculty and the administration. He’d also started a business and raised money for the college, critical skills in the world of university leadership.
But perhaps most notably, the Fayetteville native was awash with school spirit. His father had sung him the university’s alma mater, “Hark the Sound,” as he drifted off to sleep. He’d cheered on the university’s legendary basketball team since he was a kid, starstruck by Dean Smith and his “Carolina Way” philosophy—an ethos of selflessness and excellence that must, admirers reasoned, be the source of the team’s success.
By the time Thorp took the podium for his inauguration, the Carolina Way no longer applied only to basketball. It was a kind of thesis statement for Chapel Hill, one that married its two prestigious halves: athletics and academics. Its teams won national championships and its students were Rhodes scholars.
But just a few years into Thorp’s tenure, the cracks in that gilded veneer yawned so wide that he decided he needed to tell the world about them.
He and his staff had spent the day playing detective, sifting through students’ emails to try and find evidence of rule breaking. Thorp hadn’t known in the morning that he’d be holding a press conference, so he had to call his wife to bring him a suit. A Carolina blue tie cinched around his neck, Thorp made a dark observation to those standing at his side.
So this, he said, is the funeral for the Carolina Way.
The private admission was only the start of Thorp’s troubles. Over the next two years he would fight to hold onto the reins as fans, journalists, and politicians fought over the meaning of an athletic scandal and what should be done about it.
Thorp’s ultimate downfall was just a prelude to a decade of similar drama. His successor, Carol Folt, found herself similarly besieged amid a political crisis over a Confederate monument on campus, ending in a sudden and surprising resignation. And her successor, Kevin Guskiewicz, is today embroiled in a governance crisis all too familiar to what Thorp endured just a decade ago.
The day Thorp formally assumed the chancellorship dawned warm and beautiful. Flanked by the stately portico of South Building, he faced an admiring audience of university leaders and others.
Thorp devoted most of his speech to outlining his vision of the university’s future, including the importance of research, town-gown relations, and service to the state. But before he did that, Thorp gave special thanks to one man. “To President Friday:” he said, “Sir, without you, none of us would be here.”
Thorp and Bill Friday, the legendary UNC System president, cut similar profiles. Both had degrees from Chapel Hill, and both were relatively young when they stepped into the roles that would come to constitute their campus legacies. Friday was just thirty-six when he became UNC System president, having served in a few minor administrative roles. Thorp, forty-three, was a grizzled veteran of the academy by comparison.
As a child he was a polymath, channeling the creative energy of his upbringing into jazz guitar and composing music. Once, while at a music summer camp, he read about a Rubik’s Cube competition in a magazine. Thorp had never solved a Rubik’s Cube for speed before, but he practiced for a week, and won. “His brain scared me to death,” recalled his childhood friend, Patti, who would later become his wife.
An undergraduate stint on a chemistry professor’s research team led him to Caltech to study inorganic chemistry, then to a professorship at N.C. State University, and soon back to UNC-Chapel Hill. The positions flowed from there: director of the campus planetarium, department chair, and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Then, in 2007, the chancellor courtship began.
He went into his first interview thinking he’d just give the group advice on what they should be looking for. But Thorp’s credentials were eye-opening and his story was striking.
A North Carolina native whose brain had taken him all over the world, even into the biotechnology sector, where he’d help start two companies. But he just couldn’t quit Chapel Hill. He seemed perfect for the top spot. “There will be no cultural learning curve for Holden Thorp,” said Erskine Bowles, the UNC System president who hired Thorp. “He knows the campus’s strengths and weaknesses inside out.”
But Thorp knew how to lead a college, not a university. A college or school, like the College of Arts and Sciences or the law school, is fairly self-contained. The modern research university contains multitudes—one of which is athletics. Thorp’s predecessor, James Moeser, and the longtime athletic director, Dick Baddour, had revived Tar Heel athletics from its nadir at the turn of the century, when Dean Smith had just retired and Mack Brown, the successful football coach, had left for Texas.
For years, both teams struggled. But by 2008 the programs were dominant again, with Roy Williams, a Smith disciple, leading the basketball program, and Butch Davis running football. In 2009, Thorp’s first full year as chancellor, the basketball team won the national title. The team also had the highest Athletic Progress Rate of any team in the tournament that year. The Carolina Way seemed as strong as ever.
But Thorp knew that casual fans like him know very little about the inner workings of the athletic department. So early on in his chancellorship, Thorp called Baddour and said, “Teach me.” He soaked up the information like a sponge.
Roger Perry, the chair of the Board of Trustees when Thorp was hired, recalled seeing the chancellor go from a man with a subdued interest in sports to someone who was extremely invested in UNC athletics. “It was just almost like it was an overnight transformation,” he recalled. “It didn’t take long.”
Implicit in Thorp’s early experience managing the athletics enterprise was the understanding that these systems would continue to run smoothly. He wasn’t prepared for what to do if something went wrong.
In the summer of 2010 Baddour called him with news of exactly that. NCAA investigators were coming to Chapel Hill.
On May 29, 2010, Marvin Austin, a Carolina defensive lineman, tweeted a quote from a Rick Ross song: “I live In club LIV so I get the tenant rate . . . bottles comin like its a giveaway.”
Austin later said he was actually at the Miami airport when he sent that tweet, not the famous LIV nightclub in South Beach. No matter: The tweet had caught the NCAA enforcement staff’s attention and it turned out at least three players had gone on travel paid for by someone else, thereby violating the NCAA’s strict prohibitions on outside gifts.
Thorp, Baddour, and other senior administrators adopted an approach of frenzied disclosure. Find out as much as possible and show it to the NCAA. An internal investigation ensued: who got paid, and by whom?
It was against this backdrop that Thorp ended up in Baddour’s office in late August, where the two reviewed a troubling new piece of evidence. A tutor named Jennifer Wiley had written portions of football players’ papers for them—a clear example of improper assistance.
As they talked, Thorp and Baddour saw an ominous update cross the ESPN screen crawl. The tutor whose academic misconduct they were about to reveal had also worked privately for Butch Davis’s family as a tutor for his son. This thing has just shot into the stratosphere, Thorp thought.
Under-the-table payments to athletes are one thing. Real-life academic fraud—especially at a university like UNC-CH, which prided itself on high academic standards—was quite another. The Carolina Way was as much about high academic standards as it was about athletic success.
Thorp resolved to come clean. He, Baddour, and Davis held a press conference, where backstage Thorp lamented the death of the Carolina Way. “To everyone who loves this university,” Thorp told the assembled crowd of reporters, “I’m sorry about what I have to tell you.”
Rapidly, more shoes dropped. Austin was suspended indefinitely, and twelve other players sat out of the LSU game, which Thorp spent lying on the floor of a private box, overwhelmed by both the suspense of the game and the weight of the burgeoning scandal.
The day after the game, an associate head coach named John Blake resigned. Later in the month it was revealed that Blake had been linked to one of the agents who had apparently bankrolled travel for the UNC football players. News of a corrupt go between inside the UNC program was yet another terrible development.
It also raised questions about whether this would be Davis’s last season. News of his relationship with Wiley and his trust in Blake brought the scandal even closer to his office.
Thorp and Baddour publicly supported Davis. “Competitive, big-time football is a hazardous undertaking,” Thorp said in September, “but the plan right now is for him to be the coach next year. He’s done everything we’ve asked him to do to get to the bottom of this, and we’re pleased with him.” In November, he told the Chapel Hill Board of Trustees that neither Baddour nor Davis were going anywhere.
Thorp sang a different tune in private, he recalled. He wanted to fire Davis. Before that November meeting, he met with six trustees at the chancellor’s mansion to take their temperature on a possible coaching change. (He chose six, he recalled, because that was the most who could congregate without triggering the state’s open meetings law.) But he didn’t have the support.
There was a wing of the board, Thorp recalled, that he and his South Building brain trust called “the sports trustees.” These trustees loved Carolina sports, Thorp said, and were invested in its success. They opposed firing Davis.
Bob Winston, the board’s chair at the time, said he didn’t recall a specific meeting in which Thorp floated the idea of firing Davis, but said during those months there was a constant back-and-forth between Thorp and board members over what to do with the embattled coach. “Holden was pushing more towards moving on Butch, as far as letting him go, and I was on the other side of that,” Winston said.
The reservations undoubtedly influenced Thorp. “I do think Holden felt the influence from me and some others to not make a move in the early stages,” Winston said.
With Davis safe in his post, for now, the university awaited the dreaded Notice of Allegations from the NCAA, essentially the association’s version of an indictment. It landed in June 2011 with a bang.
Although the university wasn’t hit with the harshest “lack of institutional control” charge, the allegations were wide-ranging and extreme.
Seven football players had pocketed more than $27,000 in benefits. Jennifer Wiley had crossed several bright lines both financially and academically. Perhaps most disturbingly, John Blake had been on the payroll of an agency firm, and he expected to use his position to direct athletes toward that agency.
If this had been it, the university could have moved on, sobered by a serious but isolated fissure in the university’s “right way” rhetoric. But the very next month, Thorp received news that the scandal might stretch far beyond the NCAA’s investigatory timeline—news that came from the unlikeliest of sources.
Message boards are unique places. These team-specific sites allow paying members to grouse, gossip, and give their own takes on the latest program news, such as signing a prized recruit, intrigue inside the athletic department, or even rumors of a chancellor’s resignation. If fans are a university’s online standing army, these sites are the soldiers’ barracks. And they’re primed not just to defend, but to attack.
Tucked away in an appendix to a 2011 lawsuit was a paper written by UNC football player Michael McAdoo. It didn’t take long for a user on the site PackPride.com, the digital watering hole for N.C. State fans, to dig in. The user, going by the screen name WufWuf1, got suspicious when he read the word “Mohammedanism,” an obscure and rarely used synonym for Islam, in the paper. So, he pasted sections of it into Google and found a clear example of plagiarism.
“LOLOLOL,” he wrote on a PackPride message board. “I can’t wait till the media gets this and breaks this down. Let’s help.” The users put together a marked-up and color-coded version of the paper that catalogued each instance of apparent plagiarism. A few blogs picked it up, followed by the Daily Tar Heel and the N&O.
The rival fans’ motivations may not have been pure, but the questions they raised were entirely legitimate.
“The worst academic/athletic scandal in 50 years continues to linger at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the clouds are darkening as more information is revealed,” wrote the N&O’s editorial board, adding that “neither Athletics Director Dick Baddour nor Chancellor Holden Thorp has demonstrated a grasp of just how serious this crisis is.”
An overzealous tutor was one thing; a football player’s plagiarized paper promised more attention, more questions, more scrutiny. The editorial may have influenced the chancellor’s thinking. Perry recalled sending it to the chancellor, who was on vacation. And although Perry didn’t tell Thorp to take any specific action, “I had recommended to him that now that he was under attack publicly by the newspaper that he needed to do what he needed to do to defend and protect himself.”
Thorp did an about-face. He called a meeting of what one attendee called “friends of the university”—current and former board members and administrators. There he announced his decision, which he presented as a fait accompli: Davis would be fired. Then he called Baddour, who lodged objections. The football season was just days away, and firing a coach would leave the team very seriously in the lurch.
But Thorp had made up his mind. On the evening of July 26, Thorp sat down with Baddour and Davis in his office and gave the coach his notice.
Thorp seemed to acknowledge the importance of symbolism. “I have lost confidence in our ability to come through this without harming the way people think of this institution,” he said in a statement announcing the firing. “Our academic integrity is paramount, and we must work diligently to protect it. The only way to move forward and put this behind us is to make a change.”
Some fans were furious, and Thorp got emails threatening him with violence the next time he stepped into Kenan Stadium. The university beefed up security at the chancellor’s mansion, and assigned security to Thorp during football games.
But others applauded Thorp for trying to wrest back control. The N&O’s editorial board, which had just that month ripped the chancellor for not appreciating the scale of the crisis, now credited him: “Thorp, an alumnus of the university and a man whose devotion to it cannot be doubted, does not deserve these most extreme reactions to what he did. And what he did happens to have been the right thing to do.”
Perhaps most important was the opinion of one very important retiree. President Friday had fifty years earlier taken decisive and symbolic action in canceling the popular Dixie Classic basketball tournament when gambling allegations had surfaced. History remembered that moment kindly.
Now Friday himself gave Thorp his stamp of approval in an interview with the N&O. “This sad story has now come to an end,” Friday said. “The university is a resilient institution and can turn this around. The university has suffered from it; there’s no doubt about that. But there will come a time when everybody will look back on this and say, ‘It’s time to lock arms and move ahead.’”
But Dan Kane, the N&O investigative reporter covering the scandal, soon unearthed more troubling information. In August 2011, just a month after reporting on McAdoo’s paper, he reported that Austin’s transcript revealed he had taken a 400-level class in the African and Afro-American studies department his very first semester on campus. And Austin’s professor in that class was the chair of the department and the same person who had graded McAdoo’s clearly plagiarized paper: Julius Nyang’oro.
Thorp decided he needed to act again. He called the general counsel’s office and asked them to get copies of the student rosters from Austin’s 400-level class and a handful of others. When the university’s public records officer had the rolls in hand, she got on the phone with Thorp. He asked her to read the names on the roster. As she ticked them off, his stomach sank. They were a who’s who of Carolina athletics. He hung up the phone.
Then he called his boss, Tom Ross, the president of the UNC system. He told Ross he needed to see him about something. When Ross responded that he was at dinner, Thorp said he would be on Ross’s porch when he got home. That night Thorp walked up to the president’s residence, a hundred-year-old house with a wraparound porch and two-story Corinthian columns framing the front door. He sat in a rocking chair, the class rolls in hand.
When Ross’s car pulled in, Thorp showed him the documents. They needed to investigate.
The rough contours of the story became clear to Thorp rather quickly, he recalled. A departmental secretary named Deborah Crowder had managed academically suspect classes with some degree of participation from Nyang’oro, and the courses probably stretched back as long as each had been there, to the early 1990s. (Years later, an investigatory report would detail that thousands of students took the courses, which were known to many people on campus—including, notably, the athletic department’s academic-support office.)
With evidence that athletes had seized the opportunity to take these improvised courses, the university alerted the NCAA, which was in the final stages of its investigation. Meanwhile, the university started its own internal probe. Thorp based the investigation’s charge on a records request the university had recently received from Kane: to look at the period between 2007 and 2011. Two deans started digging up old course records and interviewing members of the department. At the administration’s urging, Nyang’oro agreed to resign as chair.
The university alerted the NCAA to what it knew just days after the N&O published the story about Austin’s transcript. Thorp fully expected the association to add a charge to the list of allegations against the university, which would be heard by the Committee on Infractions—essentially the jury in cases like this—in October. A combination of the association’s investigators and university officials set about conducting interviews about the dodgy classes. Jan Boxill, who had that summer become the university’s faculty chair, was among the people they interviewed.
Minutes before she went into the room, Thorp talked with Boxill by phone. He was worried about her. If there had been heavy enrollment, broadly, among UNC athletes, then Boxill, who had been a women’s basketball adviser for decades, might have been at the heart of it. If she needed to tell them something she didn’t want to admit, Thorp wanted to know about it. So, he asked her point-blank:
Jan, did you think faculty were grading the papers for these classes?
Yes, the answer came back. I thought Julius was grading the papers. Boxill herself recalled being surprised at the question. What other possibility was there?
Thorp accepted that answer. Then, a little over a week after the university notified the NCAA of what it had discovered, he got a call from the university’s general counsel, Leslie Strohm. It was the Friday before the first football game of the season, and the attorney had unexpectedly good news. No players would need to be held out of the game. And the NCAA hadn’t found anything wrong with the classes; they were going to let it lie.
Thorp was floored. “I said, ‘You gotta be kidding me,’” he recalled. “I mean, how could that have possibly been true?” Amid the good news came one caveat. The NCAA had instructed the university to keep the decision quiet. It would be a year before the university revealed that the NCAA had given the classes a look and decided not to pursue them.
Even as the fast-unfolding investigation of the paper classes did not play a part in the active NCAA investigation, the university still braced for penalties. In September, UNC announced it was vacating football wins from several prior seasons and imposing scholarship bans and a $50,000 fine on itself. The action was viewed by observers as an effort to keep the NCAA from being too harsh in its penalties.
No such luck. In March of the next year, 2012, the NCAA handed down a scholarship penalty and a postseason ban, declaring that the university had failed to monitor the program. “The university did a great job of investigating it,” said the chairman of the infractions committee. “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 penalties were more severe than Thorp had anticipated. He would not have the luxury of an untainted football season ahead.
And the ongoing university-level investigation threatened much worse. In May, the deans released their report. Nine courses from 2007 to 2009 were declared “aberrant,” meaning there was no evidence that the professor listed actually supervised the class. An additional forty-three courses, all taught by Nyang’oro, seemed to have been taught not as the lecture classes that they were supposed to be, but as independent study courses. Signatures on grade rolls for the nine classes appeared to have been forged. The report laid blame at the feet of Crowder and Nyang’oro, who officially retired shortly after the report’s release.
The new report was a shock. Revelations of forged signatures and fraudulent courses would have been unthinkable two years before. Crowder and Nyang’oro had engineered academically deficient courses. Two major unknowns remained.
The first was scope: what if this scheme went further back than 2007? The second, and most important, was why.
In the days after the report’s release, Kane revealed that a whopping 39 percent of the enrolled students in the classes covered in the report were football and basketball players, although such players represented a minuscule percentage of all students on campus. Maybe these classes existed to boost the GPAs of athletes.
UNC and the NCAA weren’t the only bodies with the authority to conduct an investigation. After the university’s internal review, the State Bureau of Investigation launched a probe into the classes under the suspicion that Nyang’oro had been paid for classes that had not actually been held.
On the horizon was the third fall semester in a row that Thorp would spend under an athletic controversy. The scandal, which Thorp had sought to end by firing Davis, was only beginning.
The revelations continued throughout the summer of 2012. A public-facing “test transcript” hosted on UNC’s website turned out to belong to star player Julius Peppers. A PackPride user discovered it, and noted that Peppers had taken twelve courses in the African and Afro American Studies department, including three independent-study classes.
Meanwhile, Thorp was getting more pressure from the outside. After the internal review was released, the N&O’s editorial board wrote that the saga “does not reflect well on his leadership.” Someone started a Change.org petition calling on Thorp to resign. “As you forced out Coach Davis without cause, as leader of the University you SHOULD RESIGN over this scandal,” wrote one person. One email with the subject line, “What more do you need?” simply said: “You can’t blame Coach Davis for this fiasco.”
Emails from the public were one thing. But pressure was building from the board that hired Thorp, the UNC System’s Board of Governors.
Burley Mitchell, then a member of the board with well-known ties to N.C. State University, wrote in an email to Thorp and another member of the board that “a real investigation by an independent source is needed, but if only those of us from NCSU say so I’m afraid it will be painted as us just picking on Chapel Hill.”
“You are exactly correct,” the board member responded, forwarding the chain to Tom Ross, the system’s president. He forwarded it to Thorp with a piece of advice: “You may want to consider taking the time to call each of our Board members within the next few days and discuss this matter with them.”
If Thorp wasn’t in the hot seat yet, he would be soon. He was caught between three forces: athletically minded supporters of Chapel Hill who viewed further digging as pointless and masochistic; reform-minded observers and journalists who craved answers; and fans of rival teams who wanted to see Carolina suffer.
When August came, Thorp announced another investigation. This one would go back further than 2007, and it would be led by a figure whose loyalties couldn’t be questioned: Jim Martin, a former Republican governor. He also announced that he would bring in a panel, led by the prominent academic leader Hunter Rawlings, that would help “analyze the proper future relationship between academics and athletics.” He won praise for both. “Your creation of the Martin Commission is an excellent move,” wrote the critical board member, Mitchell, to Thorp after the announcement.
It seemed that Thorp may have righted the ship again. But in September, a new scandal cropped up in an area that had been key to Thorp’s ascent: fundraising. The university’s chief fundraiser, the N&O reported, had tried to hire his girlfriend, who was also the mother of a former UNC basketball star, for a fundraising position in his office.
Thorp had prevented the hiring, citing the university’s nepotism policy, but records showed that he flew on private university planes with the couple after the girlfriend had been hired for another fundraising position that did not report to the chief fundraiser.
Just as with the Davis firing, Thorp realized he had not done enough to stem the controversy.
So, on September 17 he announced he would resign at the end of the academic year. “I will always do what is best for this university,” Thorp said in his release. And what was best, he believed, was for him to step down.
Years later, Thorp would be able to spot his mistakes.
When he wanted to fire Davis after the 2010 football season, he should have followed through, even though it may have meant daring the powers that be to send him packing. When the NCAA walked away from investigating the paper classes, Thorp should have publicly disclosed that decision and what the university knew about the classes. The university should have been more transparent, he said, revealing what it knew more often.
“What happens is that there comes a time when you have to stop trying to figure out how to bring everybody together and put your shoulders up and say, ‘I’m the chancellor of the University, and this is what we’re going to do,’ and then deal with the consequences,” Thorp told the Daily Tar Heel years later.
But as Thorp prepared to relinquish the chancellorship, he hadn’t realized all that. “When you’re in the blender,” he said, “you don’t know what’s going on.”
After his announcement, Thorp was buoyed by a wave of support. Faculty members asked him to reconsider. Supportive students and employees held a rally outside his office, encouraging him to change his mind and stay on. But his mind was made up.
Now a lame duck, Thorp didn’t shy away from public commentary. The same month he announced his resignation, he went before the N&O’s editorial board to announce the university’s admissions office was working on a new formula to better predict athletes’ academic success. That formula, Thorp said, would allow the university to raise the bar for athletes who would be admitted to UNC. “Academics are going to have to come first,” Thorp said. “And it’s clear that they haven’t to the extent that they should.”
The resulting article, with the headline “Thorp: UNC’s Standards for Athletes Will Rise,” caused a stir among Chapel Hill faithful. A former trustee emailed Thorp and the board chair, Wade Hargrove, with praise. “Couldn’t agree with you more,” Hargrove responded. “But already, emails to the contrary are coming in.” An alumnus emailed the trustees expressing his displeasure: “UNC will soon be mediocre on the playing field in sports like men’s basketball and football, if Thorp is allowed to implement his crazy plan.” One of those trustees confided to another over email that “HT stepped in it.”
A few weeks later, Roy Williams seemed to drive the final nail in the coffin. “I’m not trying to criticize my chancellor here, because I love him to death,” Williams said of the N&O story, “but there are some things that can’t be done.”
It was clear that some university constituencies had no interest in plans that might make Carolina less competitive athletically. So Thorp decided the best thing he could do in his final months as chancellor was to be honest about the choice Chapel Hill was making.
He’d been taken in by the Carolina Way, he admitted, but now saw it was just a hallucination. UNC had decided it needed to continue being in the big-time sports business, so it needed to be realistic about the price, he told a panel.
For two-and-a-half years he had tried to play for a tie between Chapel Hill’s sports fans and principled reformers. A tie was impossible. The fans would win.
In other words, as Thorp told a local columnist, “We thought we were different from Auburn, but now we know that we’re not.”
In October 2012 a fittingly morbid piece of news came just on the heels of Thorp’s resignation. Bill Friday, who had helped author the idea of presidential control, who preached against the influence of athletics, and who influenced the Carolina Way mythology, had died at ninety-two. State and university leaders gathered for a memorial service on campus.
Thorp sat in the front row, taking in the Shakespearean irony of it all. He’d followed Friday’s lead, trying to protect UNC’s reputation while also trying to mollify the constituencies that kept him in charge.
In doing so, he’d been dashed against the rocks. Hodding Carter III, once president of the reform-minded Knight Foundation, stood at the podium and hailed Friday and his partners in the reform group.
“If, as cynics often remark, theirs was a quixotic mission, their targets were not windmills,” Carter said. “They were and are real destructive dragons and as recently as only yesterday they have done sickening damage to institutions as diverse as Ohio State, Penn State, USC, Harvard, and Chapel Hill.” Carter again invoked the scandal by name, quoting Friday from an interview he’d given in The Washington Post shortly before he died.
“There are thousands of alumni who look upon what happened with serious concern and I don’t think they’re going to tolerate it,” Friday had said. “People don’t want their lifetimes to be measured by how much their football team won or lost. There is something valuable they want measured on that intellectual tombstone when the time comes, and it will come.”
But Thorp, who always revered Friday, nonetheless ended up jaded by his experience with the genie Friday longed to put back in the bottle. People did want their lifetimes to be measured, in part, by the success of their teams. They didn’t want reform. The work of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, Thorp came to conclude, was nothing more than a waste of time.
Those who worked with Thorp lamented the circumstances that sent him packing. “We probably did Holden a great disservice by hiring him to be chancellor at that moment in time in his career,” said Perry.
Winston, who’d urged Thorp to act cautiously in firing Davis, said he felt similarly about Thorp’s downfall. “He got a raw deal because he was a great leader who walked into a real tough situation that went from bad to worse,” Winston said.
Months after his resignation, Thorp got an offer to become the provost of Washington University in St. Louis, an elite private institution that competed in Division III athletics. The traditional offer to rejoin the Chapel Hill faculty still stood. Instead, the favorite son left.
Andy Thomason is an assistant managing editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education. He’s the author of the forthcoming book, Discredited: The UNC Scandal and College Athletics’ Amateur Ideal, from which this essay is adapted.
Disclosure: John Drescher, The Assembly’s contributing editor, was executive editor at the N&O during Thorp’s tenure, and helped oversee Dan Kane’s coverage.