Kenan Stadium used to be unlike any other stadium in the country. Pine trees stood so close to the stadium it seemed fans could reach out and touch them. The Kenan Field House, built in the 1920s, still had that terra cotta roof in the east end zone. You could see the stands and part of the field if you stood at nearby Rams Plaza, with the videoboard obstructing just enough of view to force you to buy a ticket.
That all changed last year when North Carolina's booster club funded the $70 million project for a massive brick structure that added a student-athlete center for excellence and 3,000 swanky seats for some of the more fortunate UNC fans.
The House that Butch Built, people have called it. The Butch Mahal. Davis Towers. Call it what you want, but before Davis wrapped up his first season with the Tar Heels -- a 4-8 campaign in 2007 -- he had already made plans to build a major addition to scenic Kenan Stadium with his contract extension through the 2014 season.
The Blue Zone is now finished, and despite a flurry of NCAA violations that jeopardized the program's immediate future, fans were still buying seats to see Davis lead the Tar Heels to what they hoped would be national prominence. So when Chancellor Holden Thorp announced Wednesday that he had fired Davis after leading the program into a year-long scandal that ranged from improper agent benefits to academic cheating, he not only was left to foot Davis' $2.7 million contract buyout, but also the millions tied up in the Blue Zone that have yet to be paid.
"We recognize that $2.7 (million) may be what this ends up costing us," Thorp said at a press conference Thursday. "I've reached the conclusion that even though this is a terrible time, the athletics program will pay whatever it needs to pay to make the separation happen."
Thorp pulled the plug on Davis despite saying that no new evidence regarding the investigation came to light, but instead, that cumulative damage had been done to the university's reputation. Thorp was in an old-fashioned Catch-22, where he can't fire the guy with cause after backing him for a year despite there being obvious cause all along. Davis did not maintain the first duty listed in his contract: "directing and conducting the football program in keeping with the educational purpose of and the traditions, integrity, and ethics of the UNIVERSITY."
Now a week separated from the start of training camp, Thorp executed his decision with interesting timing, to say the least. But it should come as no coincidence that his decision also came the day a new Board of Trustees chairman was elected.
Bob Winston had long been known as a Davis supporter. The board's chairman since 2009, Winston and UNC administrators bent over backwards to show their support for the coach any chance they got. At a November meeting with Thorp and athletic director Dick Baddour, the board confirmed that Davis would be the head football coach in 2011. But a change of tune comes in July, already a month after the NCAA finally delivered its notice of allegations (which, by the way, had nothing in it that surprised anyone paying attention) and comes the same day Winston is no longer the board's chairman.
With a new sheriff in town in Raleigh lawyer Wade Hargrove, the sentiments toward Davis likely shifted in the meeting's closed session, and Thorp finally handed Davis his pink slip a few months tardy. But what does firing Davis actually cost UNC?
When the Blue Zone began, the Rams Club decided that half of the cost would be paid for through ticket sales and the other half through private donations. But their projections were based largely on the success the Davis-led team would have during the next five seasons, which took a massive hit with the NCAA investigation last year and a five-finger death punch with Wednesday's news. Firing Davis at this point has set the program back at least a decade when Mack Brown went on to greener pastures at Texas and UNC flubbed the next two searches for a new coach.
Look for yourself at how the private donations end is coming along. Seriously, take a look. Very few of the high-end naming opportunities have been scooped up while many alumni publicly stated Wednesday they were calling to cancel their long-standing membership to the school's booster club.
"We know that this decision will be upsetting to many of our fans as we set to open one of the finest facilities in the country that will serve 800 student-athletes, and a lot of people have stepped up to make that happen," said Baddour, who unsurprisingly announced Thursday that his contract would not be renewed at the end of next year. "Our hope is that our fans will rally around our student-athletes and our programs and the coaches that we have and understand that these are difficult times and that this is when we need them the most."
Irreparable damage has been done to UNC's image. Long thought as a basketball school with high academic integrity, the university is now the basketball school that tried at football and dirtied itself all the while. Originally intended to be the bastion of things to come for the program, the Blue Zone is now a scarlet letter on the university; an albatross around its neck.
No, Davis will never see the $73 million check. But UNC will surely feel the pain.