CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — William Friday has seen the best and worst of college sports in a lifetime devoted to higher education.
But at 92, he never thought he would live to see the scandals that have unfolded in his own backyard, at North Carolina, the flagship campus of the University of North Carolina system that he ran for 30 years.
In the past two years, football coach Butch Davis has been fired and North Carolina’s athletic director forced to step down because of improper activity by agents. NCAA sanctions followed. Then came reports of academic fraud, in which a disproportionate number of football players stayed eligible by earning good grades in classes that never met. And last month, Chancellor Holden Thorp announced he’ll resign at the end of the school year as a result of a scandal involving a university fundraiser and the mother of former basketball star Tyler Hansbrough, who was given a fundraising job with the chancellor’s blessing.
The erosion of North Carolina’s reputation for “doing sports right” was lampooned in a caustic editorial cartoon in the Charlotte Observer, the state’s biggest newspaper, that portrayed the UNC logo, emblazed with the phrase “Academic Integrity,” morphing into the image of a skull-and-crossbones. A photocopy sits on a desk in Friday’s Chapel Hill home.
In many respects, it has broken the heart of a man who made reforming college sports his calling through the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, which he co-founded in 1989.
In many ways, the Knight Commission has tilted at windmills. While the NCAA eventually embraced the commission’s call for higher academic standards and greater financial transparency, problems in big-time college sports remain. Only the dollar figures have escalated. And on the heels of football-driven scandals at Ohio State, Miami, Penn State and even Harvard, it’s clear that priorities have been equally out of whack at Chapel Hill, where Friday earned his law degree.
“This university should never be a part to a thing like that,” Friday said in an interview last week. “The University of North Carolina has suffered a humiliation unlike anything it ever had before.”
Friday believes what happened at North Carolina speaks to the troubled landscape of college sports.
“We’re in a very dangerous situation, I think,” Friday said. “We have really reached a point where there is no control, in some spots.”
Still, he’s not conceding. He insists it’s possible to compete in big-time sports without compromising values. And he believes that North Carolina’s ills mark a turning point that has roused trustees, faculty, alumni and students to speak out the next time athletics start running amok.
“There are thousands of alumni who look upon what happened with serious concern,” Friday said. “And I don’t believe they’re going to tolerate it. . . . People don’t want their lifetimes to be measured by how much their football team won or lost. There is something valuable they want to have written on that intellectual tombstone when the time comes. And it will come.”
Friday’s stamina is not what it once was. He had a valve replaced following a heart attack in 2009, and he has been in and out of the hospital since May because of other ailments. But his mind is sharp and his spirits good, and he is determined to lend his voice to the cause that has consumed him these last 23 years.
“Bill Friday didn’t get to where he is by being pessimistic,” says former Knight Foundation president Hodding Carter III. “He has absolutely refused to allow the idea of reform in college sports to go away.”
It has been 51 years since Friday confronted his first crisis in intercollegiate athletics, incurring the wrath of basketball fans statewide for canceling the annual Dixie Classic, a wildly popular tournament featuring North Carolina, North Carolina State, Duke and Wake Forest, in the wake of a 1961 point-shaving scandal that involved gamblers and guns.
He views today’s corrupting influence as TV networks — specifically, the billions they pay to broadcast college games and the failure of major conferences and university presidents to avoid selling out their teams for the spoils.
North Carolina recently spent $70 million to enclose an end zone of Kenan Stadium while raising tuition beyond the means of many of the state residents the campus was meant to serve.
“How do you justify that?” Friday asks. “Yes, money flows in from the television networks. But when you expand stadiums and pay big salaries, you’ve got a debt burden. And it’s there; it’s fixed. It will not go away. And institutions get to be known as commercial enterprises there for the benefit of the networks. That is a deadly thing.”