Jimmy V – Butch …. and Mary

September01/ 2010

Comparing The Jim Valvano “Situation” at NC State to the current Butch Davis “Situation” at UNC is ludicrous.  The UNC/Davis situation is nowhere near a conclusion.    A comparison of circumstances, not conclusions.  This exercise will be entertaining; perhaps educational and certainly provocative.


Despite hyperbolic projections that it surpasses 9/11 in its devastating impact, the Butch Situation is 90% “developing” as of today.  Rival fans, smelling blood, exaggerate a bit.  The comparison is not of two men but (1) the circumstances of the situations at neighboring bitter rival institutions (2) involving the odd coupling of big time athletics vs legitimate academics as overseen by (3) two high profile coaches.

(We are extending the normal length of our column to give adequate coverage of each situation.)

The V Scandal is 20+ years old.  The historical facts and the hysterical faux-facts are so intertwined that Jimmy V could be Paul Bunyan or Charles Manson depending upon what color-coded path one chooses to follow.

Jim Valvano came to NC State in 1980 replacing Norm Sloan.  His coaching acumen won a memorable National Championship in 1983.  His contract with NC State was terminated in 1989 citing “inadequate oversight of players’ academic progress”.  He was diagnosed with cancer in 1992 and died in April 1993.

Within and beyond those timelines, Jim Valvano has been demonized and deified to a degree unmatched in the past 30 years of sports in the state of North Carolina.   The controversy surrounding the man and his legacy burns the hottest among the rival NC State and UNC fan bases.  The same fan bases now fully engaged over not dissimilar issues of “athletic academic oversight” under Butch Davis at UNC.

Valvano was charismatic and, to all but bitter rival fans, incredibly likable.  Davis is reserved and viewed as a polite corporate mercenary rather than a fully-engaged enthusiastic loyalist.  Neither Valvano nor Davis are “bad” or “evil” except to overly-caffeinated partisans.  Both men employed a common operational philosophy that is in place at a number of schools today.   It is, obviously, a high-risk philosophy.

The irony is that V’s trademark comic cleverness led directly to his undoing.  No one word causes acid reflux in a Wolfpacker quicker than “Amphibious”.  Just the word conjures up bitter memories of Charles Shackleford, who along with Chris Washburn in 1988, personified the charges that Jim Valvano was recruiting athletes of marginal academic prowess (!!).

The legend goes that Charles once attributed his adroitness with either hand to his being “amphibious” malappropriately intending to say “ambidextrous”.  Charles Shackleford never said that.  Jimmy V said it ABOUT Charles Shackleford. Further debunking that legend, V did not make that line up either.  As with Dean’s “8,000,000,000 Chinese don’t care”.  The last coach to actually make-up clever lines was either Abe Lemons or Al McGuire.

V’s using the lanky, sloe-eyed Shack as the butt of a “I’m so stoopid that ……” joke emphasized that he quite likely WAS “that stoopid”.   Combine that with Washburn’s notorious 475 SAT score and NC State’s academic reputation took more hits than Chuck Wepner aka “The Bayonne Bleeder”. 

With due respect to legend, it was NOT “just one pair of tennis shoes”, recruiting flim flaming, ticket scalping or $100 handshakes that took Jim Valvano down.  It was that he was blatantly recruiting athletes not remotely attuned to the academic expectations of an NC State undergraduate student.

Such a cavalier attitude towards academics is irrelevant at schools that are seen as diploma factories with fog-a-mirror admission standards.  NC State has never been of that gendre.

How seriously Dean Smith recruited Washburn and/or Kevin Madden’s SAT score notwithstanding, V flaunted the unflattering image of his academically deficient players ….. to his ultimate demise.

Wolfpackers will forever cite three N&O executives for orchestrating a witch-hunt to take down Jim Valvano – Publisher Frank Daniels Jr – Editor Claude Sitton

Vendettas CAN INDEED occur among the rich and powerful,

– Sports Editor Mickey McCarthy.  I can’t speak for/against the motives of any of the three.  Vendettas can occur among the rich and powerful especially when they buy ink by the barrel.

I maintain that the NC State administration – Chancellor Bruce Poulton and the Board of Trustees set Valvano up to be vulnerable thru his own proclivity to “work without a net”.   The dual title of Head Coach and Athletics Director provided no immediate supervisor to rein in his tendency to play fast and loose in his public life.   With the sycophant Poulton as his only upline, Valvano essentially had no boss.

Were any of his MacGregor Downs inner circle concerned that he was dancing too close to the flames?  Would he have heeded their concerns if they proffered them?  Jim Valvano was riding a post-Albuquerque confidence high ….. from which he fell with a most unfortunate crash.

His subsequent cancer, the well-documented fashion in which that was handled and the resulting legacy of The V Foundation are essential part of The Legend of Jimmy V but not relevance to our purpose here.  NOTE:  During his gallant fight with cancer, Jim Valvano DID become very quotable with inspirational lines that have become part of the American culture.

I never met Jimmy V but have had enough contact with The V Foundation and his close friends and family to have no negative opinions of the man.  Who among us has not fallen victims to our own liabilities?


Disregard for maintaining the semblance of academic integrity in a high profile intercollegiate athletic program has now percolated to the surface 28 miles west of Raleigh in Chapel Hill.

Through the early years of this millenium, Butch Davis emerged as one of college football’s Hot Coaches de Jour.   From Dallas’ Super Bowl dynasty, Butch “rebuilt” The U then had a tenuous tenure as an NFL HC.  An aura developed about him in the middle of this decade as “a celebrity get” for colleges looking to chase BCS glory.   UNC orchestrated its firing of John Bunting in 2006 to give it “first dibs” in the Butch Lottery.

Signing a mega-salary in 2006, Davis was commissioned to build a BCS contending football program and given a blank check to do it.  Davis has always been a “assemble the best talent” coach, not a “teach and game plan” coach.  He promptly began recruiting from the exact talent pool being fished by the “football factories”. That pool is notorious for its lack of concern for academic aptitude.  Butch Davis stocked Carolina’s FB roster with the 2010 equivalent of Jimmy V’s late 80s “student athletes”.   Assuring them academics at UNC would be as stress-free as “any other football factory”.

EVERY big time college FB or BB program hides “a few” academically challenged players.  In BB, maybe 2-3 at any one time.  In FB maybe 6-8.  UNC had kept within those limits for decades with only the occasional incident.

more than a few and it becomes “herding cats”…

A “few” can be managed through assigning chaperones for class attendance and finessing a series of non-challenging courses aka “eligibility majors”. More than a few and it becomes unweildy, like “herding cats”.  A dozen or more academic time bombs on a roster at any one time and it’s not “if” but “when” the UH OH is going to hit.  “When” was last week in Chapel Hill.

As with Valvano, I don’t consider Butch Davis “a bad guy” at all.  “Butch’s way” would work fine at Arkansas or Auburn or Florida State.  Has any one of higher authority at UNC ever made it perfectly clear to Butch Davis that UNC views itself of a different ilk than those “football schools“?

Had the UNC academic “birds & bees conversation” ever taken place prior to last Thursday evening?  When and by whom? THAT is the “institutional control” question of the day.  For sure no one ever explained that to John Blake.

The popular line in the SEC is “it ain’t cheating unless you get caught”.  Along with “if you ain’t cheatin’ you don’t want to win bad enough.”

Butch Davis, like Jim Valvano, knew that sheer athletic talent is the best ingredient to shift the winning odds in one’s favor.  Great athletes who are strong students do exist but are increasingly rare.  “OK” athletes who are legitimate students are abundant but winning with them is a crapshoot.  Davis and Valvano both gambled that they could “herd their academic liability cats” while satisfying their fans hunger for lots of Ws.

Finessing academic eligibility is an art.  The greater the quantity of athletic talent –the better the odds on winning.  The more academic hand grenades – the greater likelihood of a Uh Oh Explosion.

The recent Mary Easley Scandal at NCState had a similar fatal flaw.  There was a level at which Queen Mary’s bogus salary would have stayed under the radar and the politically-based scam would have succeeded.  $180,000 blew up the radar.  BIG Uh Oh – heads rolled.

Could Mary be happily employed today at $75,000?  Could Jimmy V have finessed Washburn OR Shackleford but not both.  Could Butch have herded 6-8 cats, but not 10-15?

Like a waiter grinding pepper over your entree, knowing “when to say when” is the difference between a delicious meal …… and a really glorious mess.

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