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Here's the big question about Butch Davis' firing: Why do it now, UNC?

If someone does the right thing at the wrong time, is it right, or is it wrong? Or is it a little of both?

Maybe there is another explanation. Maybe a revelation is forthcoming that will make the timing of the firing of North Carolina coach Butch Davis make sense. Maybe a smoking cell phone record surfaced. Something. Anything.

"To restore confidence in the University of North Carolina and our football program, it's time to make a change," Chancellor Holden Thorp said in a statement. "What started as a purely athletic issue has begun to chip away at this university's reputation."

If North Carolina's Board of Trustees fired Davis on Wednesday for the sole purpose of protecting the reputations of the program and of the university, the trustees fired Davis about seven months too late. If they wanted to protect only the health of the program, the trustees fired Davis about four months too early.

North Carolina officials didn't need a year to figure out Davis needed to go. Ohio State's brain trust needed a little more than four months to cut loose Jim Tressel, a coach with a far greater record than Davis. In January, Ohio State officials learned Tressel had knowingly played ineligible players and lied to the NCAA about it. He was fired on Memorial Day. No one in Columbus wanted to fire a coach who went 9-1 against Michigan and won a national title and seven Big Ten titles, but Ohio State's leaders understood the program had to be bigger than the coach. The decision for North Carolina officials should have been much easier. Davis is a good coach and a heck of a recruiter, but he's no Jim Tressel.

In UNC's case, the NCAA had already investigated and issued its Notice of Allegations. Shockingly, Davis wasn't named once in spite of the fact that the list of accusations was a Pu Pu platter of NCAA no-nos. Multiple players were accused of taking money from agents. Assistant coach John Blake was accused of acting as a runner for an agent. Former tutor Jennifer Wiley -- who once was employed by Davis to work with his teenage son -- was accused of helping players commit academic fraud. Yet on paper, Davis remained untouched by the slime.

Few outside Chapel Hill believed Davis could be oblivious to everything going on around him, and that's why it seemed logical that Davis would get fired after the 2010 season. He needed to go, if only so the program could begin with a clean slate. By December, the NCAA had effectively wrapped up an investigation that began more than a year ago. North Carolina officials, who had sat in on interviews and reviewed records, knew exactly what evidence the NCAA had. This includes records from the 216 area code phone Davis owns that have become a cause célèbre among Tar Heel haters. The trustees could have fired Davis then. They could have sought a new coach, or -- lacking candidates because of uncertainty about potential sanctions -- named an interim coach to shepherd the program through the 2011 season. Failing that, they could have kept Davis and fired him after the Committee on Infractions hands down UNC's punishment, which probably won't come until late December at the earliest. That timing would have made sense, and since Davis hadn't been named in the Notice of Allegations, his presence at the helm probably wouldn't have affected the severity of the penalty. Instead, UNC officials let Davis sign another recruiting class, coach spring practice and go through an entire offseason as the head coach before pulling the plug a week before preseason practice begins. Only this past Monday, Davis represented the university at ACC media days.

"This is the most important issue that has faced the University of North Carolina probably in many, many, many years and maybe even many decades," Davis told reporters. He may wish he hadn't said that now. The trustees probably didn't need a reminder of the shame the investigation has brought.

And it has been the gift that keeps on stinking. Even after the Notice of Allegations codified the accusations on June 21, the case wouldn't lay still until the Oct. 28 Committee on Infractions hearing. Defensive end Michael McAdoo, permanently banned by the NCAA after he was charged with taking $110 in extra benefits and three instances of academic fraud, sued the school and the NCAA on July 1. UNC's honor court had cleared McAdoo on two of the academic fraud counts. On the third, McAdoo had been found guilty of getting improper help on a works cited page. Among the evidence for a hearing for a preliminary injunction (which wasn't granted), McAdoo's attorney included a copy of the paper in question. After the (Raleigh, N.C.) News & Observer posted the paper on its website, it didn't take long for rival message-boarders to discover that huge chunks of the paper had been cut and pasted from various Internet sources. The same package of evidence includes a transcript of McAdoo's appeal hearing with the NCAA. During the hearing came this gem from the mouth of UNC attorney Steve Keadey. "This work reflects his ideas exclusively," Keadey said. "It is not a rip-off."

That episode certainly must have rankled the trustees, who typically frown when the academic reputation of their university gets doused with mud. Those trustees shook up their ranks Wednesday. A new chairman was elected, and two new members took office. Maybe a shift in the power structure allowed the anti-Davis forces to overcome the pro-Davis forces. Thorp's statement didn't offer any hints at a deeper explanation.

"I have been deliberate in my approach to understanding this situation fully, and I have worked to be fair to everyone involved," Thorp said in the statement. "However, I have lost confidence in our ability to come through this without harming the way people think of this institution. Our academic integrity is paramount and we must work diligently to protect it."

In the process of being deliberate, UNC officials raised questions of competence by keeping Davis. Then, months after they should have reached a conclusion, UNC officials raised questions of competence again by firing Davis when they did.

Thorp and athletic director Dick Baddour will meet with reporters late Thursday morning to explain where the program goes from here. Maybe they'll also shed a little more light on why it took so long to reach an obvious conclusion.

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