October 24, 2000 CHAPEL HILL - Two years after flunking miserably in his first major test as North Carolina's athletic director, Dick Baddour finds himself looking square in the face of another extremely important decision. Will he pass this time?
In the fall of 1997, as the football Tar Heels were putting together the 11-1 season that gave them the first back-to-back top-10 AP finishes by an ACC school (other than FSU) in almost two decades, Baddour was in charge of arguably the nation's No. 1 athletic department. UNC recently had been awarded the Sears Cup, given annually to the Division I program that earns the most points in an across-the-board, sport-by-sport statistical analysis of each school's athletic teams. The Heels finished near the top of those rankings every year, largely on the strength of men's basketball and a handful of programs (women's basketball, field hockey, men's lacrosse, women's soccer, wrestling, etc.) that gained national prominence in the 1980s and/or '90s under former AD and current ACC commissioner John Swofford. During Swofford's tenure (1980-97), the Heels captured an amazing 123 ACC championships and 24 national titles. In the 1994-95 season, perhaps the best year for one of the most consistently successful athletic programs in the history of college athletics, UNC won an ACC-record 12 conference titles. "In some ways John got lucky, in other ways he deserves an awful lot of credit," one high-ranking UNC supporter recently told the Sports Journal. "With Dean Smith in place, he inherited the most stable situation possible with one of the two major sports. On the football side, he inherited a program that was doing well under Dick Crum after a very successful stretch under Bill Dooley.
"The odd thing is that John only had to make one vital hire in 17 years (as AD), and here's poor (Baddour) having to replace Dean Smith and Mack Brown in his first two years on the job, and now Carl (Torbush), too. That's three huge hires in three years. "John's most important hire in 17 years was finding the right replacement for Crum when the football program started going downhill. You still get a lot of disagreement (among UNC fans) about Mack Brown, but anyone with half a brain knows that he took an absolutely horrible program, made it a winner in three years ... and a very big winner soon after that. When you put the emotions aside (over Brown leaving), John deserves an A-plus for that hire. "It's obvious now that Dick made a big mistake with his handling of the football transition two years ago. If Carl isn't replaced, there are going to be a lot of unhappy people around here. If Carl stays and he's not forced to make some major changes on his staff, Dick will lose all credibility ... and all hell will break loose around here." Baddour, a life-long UNC man of unquestionable loyalty and good intentions, has taken a lot of heat from fans and alumni for the A-to-Z breakdown of the UNC athletic department in recent years, but the fact is he's made only a few mistakes - incredibly large mistakes, yes, but only a few. UNC supporters rightly cringe every time the athletic department casts their proud and outstanding university in a negative light - and that's been an awful lot lately, perhaps more than at any time in history - but Baddour had little or no control over most of those situations. He can't be blamed for the fact that football player Brian Norwood (now in prison), prior to arriving at UNC, decided to have sexual relations with an underage girl, or that a handful of football players got into a fight last year, or that a couple of disgruntled ex-players decided to file a hard-to-believe lawsuit against women's soccer icon Anson Dorrance, or even (most recently) that basketballers Ed Cota and Terrence Newby recently stumbled into a brush with the law. That kind of embarrassing stuff happens everywhere and, believe it or not, history has shown that it happens less often at UNC (and, indeed, at most ACC schools) than it does in - to use our favorite and completely accurate examples - the old Southwestern Conference or the current Southeastern Conference. All it takes is one trip to the library, or the police blotter, to prove that. Despite the occasional black eyes, UNC's reputation for having good people, strong academics and a willingness to do things the right way is strong enough to withstand even these, most trying, times. Instead, Baddour's two elephant-sized mistakes have been (1) permitting the UNC basketball program its almost limitless level of self-governance, and (2) showing absolutely no leadership, foresight and/or insight into the UNC football program. On the basketball side, we'll be brief. When a basketball player creates the on- and off-court persona of a cheap-shot artist, pathological liar and all-around thug - the way that Makhtar guy did a few years ago - it is absolutely unacceptable for an athletic director to sit idly by when the basketball staff shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that it is unable and/or unwilling to keep the player in line. When the basketball office's time-worn "let us handle it" policy is obviously insufficient in a particular case, as it was with Makhtar, it's the AD's job to step on some toes if he must - even if they happen to be the toes of someone as accomplished and respected as Smith or Bill Guthridge. Baddour didn't, and the university paid for it dearly. Similarly, it's completely unacceptable for any coach or other athletic department official to have so much power that he or she can unilaterally make off-the-field, UNC-related decisions without the knowledge of the AD. That, of course, is exactly what happened a few years ago when Smith, Guthridge and the rest of the basketball office decided to "internally" handle Phil Ford's drunk-driving conviction in Michigan. (This, mind you, was a separate incident from Ford's recent drunk-driving arrest in North Carolina.) The fact that Baddour was unaware of that Ford conviction, as he recently admitted, was both a striking blow to Baddour's credibility and a testament to Smith's occasionally power-hungry, secretive ways. "We all have confidence in Coach Smith, and he can pretty much do whatever he wants to do and nobody is going to question him," the high-ranking UNC supporter said. "But it's an embarrassment when your basketball coach is making important decisions behind the back of your athletic director. That's a subversive act, no matter how good the intentions were. I'm almost afraid to know what else we don't know about." But back to football.
Three years ago, the Sports Journal suggested that UNC might want to think about tying Brown up with a long-term contract. Nobody listened. Two years ago, we suggested that the Tar Heels should conduct a national search for what had become a very attractive head coaching vacancy. Nobody listened. At the same time, we wrote (1) that history suggested hiring a proven Division I-A head coach - we even suggested Tulane's Tommy Bowden, for crying out loud!! - is much more frequently successful than elevating an assistant, (2) that the new coach's national name recognition and people skills would be much more important than anyone likes to admit, and (3) that personal friendships, non-football coaches' recommendations and players' opinions should have absolutely nothing to do with the selection of Brown's successor. Again, apparently, nobody listened. Baddour, of course, picked Torbush - a defensive assistant (breaking another long-held and apparently sound football belief, that offensive coaches make better head coaches) who is loved by those who know him but whose personality always has put everyone else to sleep. The result has been one of the most horrendous collapses in the history of ACC football, and that's no exaggeration. No team in league history has decreased its win total by nine or more in a span of two years or less. (Remember, UNC was 11-1 in 1997, so 2-9 or 1-10 this season will set a record that may never be broken.) The only ones who dropped as many as eight in such a short span were Maryland's Tommy Mont (from Jim Tatum's 10-1 team in 1955 to Mont's 2-7-1 in 1956) and Duke's Fred Goldsmith (from 8-4 in 1994 to 0-11 in 1996). Neither Mont nor Goldsmith will ever be mistaken for Newt Gingrich, much less Knute Rockne. To recap, here's Baddour's football report card. Letting Brown go was a mistake. Hiring Torbush was a bigger mistake. Grading Torbush an "A-plus" after UNC's ugly, disorganized and uninspiring 1-4 start this season made many wonder whether or not Baddour - unlike Swofford, not a gridiron player - had any understanding whatsoever regarding the sport of football. In the end, keeping Torbush after this season would make any brain-functioning football fan question Baddour's leadership, intelligence, sanity and general mental stability. At the time of Torbush's hiring, there was some gray area surrounding his decision; you could at least make a logical argument in his support. The decision was wrong, but at least it was somewhat defensible at the time. But the gray area is gone now: There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that Torbush is the right man for UNC's head coaching position, and there is an overwhelming mountain of evidence that he's the wrong man. When handed an ACC media guide and asked to pick out the worst-coached football teams in history, one former ACC coach and regular Sports Journal advisor responded: "I can only speak from about the 1970s on, but the ones that jump out are Tommy West's Clemson teams, Barry Wilson's Duke teams, Fred Goldsmith's Duke teams, Bill Lewis' Georgia Tech teams, Mark Duffner's Maryland teams, Tom Reed's N.C. State teams, Dick Bestwick's Virginia teams ... and this North Carolina team." Because Torbush is such a nice, honorable guy - remember, if such things were all that mattered, everyone from Ken Hatfield to Les Robinson would still be coaching in the ACC - it's almost painful to itemize the ways in which the last two years have proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that he's in over his head as a head coach. However, because some UNC athletic officials have persisted in their almost unbelievable state of delusion, it's our duty to our loyal readers. - Good head coaches have personality and charisma. We've explained the need for this many times. Torbush has neither. It's a difficult concept to accept, but being a nice guy who works very hard isn't always enough. Blood, sweat and tears - without a grand plan behind them - does little beyond running up the laundry bill. - Good head coaches hire quality assistant coaches. We explained this last time, too. This is absolutely, positively essential to building a good program, and this is clearly Torbush's most serious area of incompetence. Take a look around the league. The assistants - and especially the coordinators - at the top programs are either proven coaches (Clemson's Rich Rodriguez and Reggie Herring, FSU's Mark Richt and Mickey Andrews, Tech's Ralph Friedgen, Maryland line coach Elliot Uzelac, N.C. State line coach Robbie Caldwell, UVa's Gary Tranquill and Rick Lantz, etc.), excellent recruiters (Clemson's Rick Stockstill, FSU's John Lilly, UVa's Bob Price and Danny Wilmer) or both. UNC's defensive staff was in place before Torbush took over, and the offensive staff - does failure and mediocrity mysteriously follow Darrell Moody everywhere he goes or what? - has been one unqualified disaster after another. - Good head coaches understand the strengths and weaknesses of their players ... before it becomes obvious to everyone else on Saturdays. Clemson's Tommy Bowden tailored his offense around the fact that he had no breakaway tailback, a shaky offensive line, one quarterback who can't run and another who can't throw. He didn't need five regular-season games to figure it out; he saw it during spring ball and made the appropriate adjustments. Bowden took several shaky parts, installed an offense that inspired confidence, and produced points. Torbush and his staff took several shaky parts, installed an offense that inspired confusion, and produced turnovers, penalties and an occasional field goal. That, folks, is the difference between great coaching and horrible coaching. - Good head coaches win big when their talent level is high and figure out a way to survive when their talent level is low. Few expected nine wins from this UNC team, but the Tar Heels had comparable or better talent to nine of their 11 opponents - yes, even after the injuries - and, with even competent coaching, should have finished 7-4 or 6-5. UVa's George Welsh has had teams with shaky quarterbacks, teams with shaky tailbacks, teams with shaky offensive lines, teams with shaky receiving corps - you name it - but he always figures out a way to get to seven wins. That's not mere coincidence. Tech's George O'Leary inherited a bad team from Lewis, but he still managed to go 6-5 and 5-6 in his first two years. Remember, Torbush inherited a pretty good team. - Good head coaches understand their personnel. Bowden arrived at Clemson and moved players all over the place because he couldn't project them into any of the offensive plans he had in mind. Tailbacks became fullbacks. Tight ends became offensive guards. Guards became tackles. Former backups became starters. Former starters left the team. At the same time, Torbush didn't see the fact that Rufus Brown and Anthony Saunders are too slow for tailback, wideouts Kory Bailey and Jason Peace can't beat one-on-one coverage, several offensive linemen can't move a blocking sled, Sherrod Peace is too small for defensive tackle, Tim Burgess and Shawn Woodard are too slow for linebacker, Anthony Anderson and Jason Horton are not ready for cornerback, etc. When there are better players behind them, a head coach must see this in advance and give them a chance. When there aren't better players behind them, a head coach must see this in advance and change his offense/defense to reflect the personnel. When these things are done properly, you don't lose to Houston (at home), Maryland, Furman (at home) and Wake Forest (at home). Period. - Good head coaches inspire confidence and toughness. The Clemson, FSU, Georgia Tech and Virginia offenses know, going into every game, that they will succeed as long as they execute. Great personnel is part of the reason at FSU and Tech, but Clemson and Virginia don't have that same luxury. Witness the way UVa upset Tech with a starting QB (David Rivers) who had spent his entire career as a long snapper. The UVa system was good enough to survive the injuries and the attrition. Or how about the way Clemson has lit up the scoreboard with two different one-dimensional quarterbacks? UNC's offense is one of the most ill-conceived schemes in the history of college football; while Clemson's fast-paced offense is designed to confuse defenses and keep them off-balance, the Tar Heels' slow-paced offense succeeds only in confusing their own players. It puts absolutely no pressure on the opposing defense, and that's a problem that goes far beyond personnel issues. - Good head coaches understand and inspire quality recruiting. This includes the ability to make a logical plan, evaluate talent, then get that talent excited about playing for your particular school. It also includes a prudent selection of a youthful, energetic recruiting coordinator. (Torbush chose the unexcitable and perpetually recycled Moody, and the Heels appear headed for an awful class after a highly ranked one last year.) As for whether or not Torbush gets players excited about UNC, one football recruiting writer recently asked several hundred kids to list the top three reasons (coach, facilities, academics, whatever) they liked a particular school. This is the frequency with which the names of the nine current ACC head coaches popped up: Bobby Bowden, Tommy Bowden, Mike O'Cain, Ron Vanderlinden, George O'Leary, George Welsh, Carl Franks, Jim Caldwell ... and Torbush. In addition to their mutual friendship, Baddour and Torbush have another common bond: They both royally screwed up the most important hire of their careers. Baddour hired Torbush. Torbush hired offensive coordinator Steve Marshall.
Sonny and Cher, oil and water, Arabs and Israelis ... it's tough to come up with a worse match than Marshall and UNC. (Although many knowledgeable observers still believe he would be a good offensive line coach if he would accept the demotion.) Marshall believes in an offensive philosophy that is short on deception and long on in-your-face intimidation and physical domination. UNC, of course, has had the worst offensive line in the league for most of the decade; the Heels' guys up front would have trouble pushing around FSU's cheerleaders, much less their defensive linemen. Many UNC fans didn't like Brown's coordinator, pass-happy Greg Davis, but he led a unit that averaged around 30 points a game with a similarly bad offensive line. Under Marshall, the Heels actually went 14 quarters with only a single touchdown and were absolutely dominated by mediocre Houston, Maryland, Furman and Wake Forest teams. "Every offensive scheme works if you have the personnel you were thinking of when you drew it up on the chalkboard," the former ACC coach said. "The true test of an offense is how it performs when someone gets hurt at a key position, or when the talent level is down for a year or two. That's when the scheme, and the coaching behind it, is most important. "What's happening at Clemson offensively, without great talent, is the perfect example of great coaching. What's happening at North Carolina offensively, without great talent, is the perfect example of horrible coaching. It's that simple." The only thing certain at this point is that Marshall will not be UNC's offensive coordinator next season; he'll either accept a demotion or be fired. In addition, Sports Journal sources said the only way Torbush will remain at UNC next season is if the new head coach wants him as a defensive coordinator. If that scenario played out, it might be the first time in NCAA history that a head coach accepted a demotion to coordinator. However, if it could happen anywhere, it could happen at UNC, which seems to take an incestuous approach to all of its athletic department decisions. Among the possible Torbush replacements, though, most probably would want to bring their own staffs with them.
One of the first names floated for the expected UNC vacancy was Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer, but you can forget that one. It simply won't happen. The reasons are too many to list here. Another prominent name mentioned very early was Georgia coach and former UNC assistant Jim Donnan, who turned down the job two years ago, reportedly because the timing wasn't right. He has a lot of good friends at UNC, some of whom are prominent boosters, and he certainly would have the support of Baddour and the rest of the administration. However, one Sports Journal source close to the Georgia football program said he would be "absolutely stunned" if Donnan left the Bulldogs for the Tar Heels. Another Sports Journal source said Georgia wouldn't be extremely disappointed to see Donnan leave. We may soon see who was right. Other possibilities from the Division I-A head coaching ranks include former Auburn coach Terry Bowden, Southern Mississippi's Jeff Bower, Kentucky's Hal Mumme, Marshall's Bob Pruett, Alabama-Birmingham's Watson Brown (just kidding) and Louisville's John L. Smith. Many college assistants have been mentioned as well, including Virginia Tech assistant head coach Billy Hite (a former UNC player), but none of them is expected to develop into a serious candidate. Assuming Baddour doesn't make the monumental mistake of allowing Torbush to continue as head coach, it should be relatively easy for UNC to attract quality candidates. FSU's Bowden recently called the job "one of the best in the nation," and the glow of the top-10 seasons is still fresh enough to make a difference. The idea of two more years of QB Ronald Curry, plus a roster whose talent rests mainly in the freshman and sophomore classes, also helps. For now, though, it's up to Baddour. The UNC athletic department can't afford for him to mess up again this time.