UNC ex-football coach Butch Davis says he’s scapegoat in academic scandal

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Former University of North Carolina head football coach Butch Davis believes he is being scapegoated by his former university as it deals with the largest academic fraud scandal in the history of college sports.

Davis, in an interview with CNN on Tuesday, said, “I can tell you with every fiber in me that I did not know about cheating.”

His statements come after a caller identifying himself as Tydreke Powell, one of Davis’ former players, told North Carolina radio station WJMH that “everyone” in the athletic department knew about so-called paper classes, and that Davis even told his players, “If you all came here for an education, you should have gone to Harvard.”

Powell played from 2008 to 2011, under Davis until 2010. Whether he was the person speaking to the radio station Monday could not be confirmed by CNN, and efforts by CNN to reach Powell were not successful.

Davis, who was fired from UNC as the scandal began to unfold in early 2011, told CNN he read about what Powell purportedly said on the radio, but Davis said his own words were taken out of context.

Davis, now an analyst with ESPN, said he made the Harvard remark to his players, but portrayed his remarks as being “halfway joking, teasing, and half tongue-in-cheek.”

He admitted the comment was a poor choice of words, “but it was never intended to be anything other than, ‘life is tough for student athletes,'” adding that he told the players something similar to, “Guys, I know how hard your day is … your life is tougher than non-student-athletes. If you just wanted an education, solely, you should have gone to Harvard.”

Last month, former federal prosecutor Ken Wainstein released a scathing report, the product of an eight-month investigation into fake classes at UNC, and found that about 30 administrators at the university knew that athletes who were failing or were at risk of failing were shuffled into classes where a single paper was required and where plagiarism was overlooked.

Wainstein portrayed rampant and systematic cheating, spanning 18 years and affecting 3,100 students. About half were athletes.

His report came five years after the scandal was first uncovered, and follows several other internal investigations. But it was by far the most comprehensive to date, for the first time implicating staff in the scheme.

Davis said he feels his interview with Wainstein was mischaracterized in the summary.

“I do feel like there have been things that it looked like it would be the easy way — blame it on the football program and maybe it will all go away,” Davis said.

Wainstein’s report found that when an athlete was on the brink of eligibility, advisers in football and basketball and other sports would often enroll the athlete in a paper class, sometimes suggesting the grade they needed to stay afloat academically. This, in part, was done because many athletes at UNC were admitted to the university even though they were unprepared.

Wainstein’s report says that Davis admitted to knowing about easy classes in the African-American (AFAM) Studies department, and knew that these classes were keeping athletes eligible.

It cites a 2009 PowerPoint presentation in which Davis was told that many of his players were in these classes and that they “didn’t go to class… didn’t take notes… didn’t have to meet with professors… [and] didn’t have to pay attention or necessarily engage with the material.”

But Davis said that episode, too, was mischaracterized. Davis said he was under the impression the situations being discussed had only happened in the past, and he insisted that coaches were not involved in the academics of student-athletes.

“The coaches and athletic department has no control over degrees they choose, the course — that had nothing to do with me,” Davis told CNN. “Every year they would say, ‘When do you want to have practice, and we’ll work around it.’ I may have told Wainstein that those classes helped kids stay eligible, but I didn’t know it was crooked until after I left the program.”

Davis said he believed that the independent studies in the AFAM department were the same as independent studies courses in any other college in the school.

Davis said — and this is backed up by Wainstein’s report — that he had no idea that plagiarism was accepted, or that the papers weren’t graded by the professor, Julius Nyang’oro, but by his clerical assistant Debbie Crowder.

“How would I, as a football coach, know that a secretary is grading the papers?” Davis said.

Wainstein acknowledged that both Davis and basketball coach Roy Williams took steps to improve the academics of their athletes while coaching at UNC. Davis reduced the number of athletes admitted who were underprepared. And Williams took steps to reduce clustering, Wainstein said.

According to Wainstein’s report, the paper classes, which began in 1993, were Crowder’s idea. Wainstein reviewed transcripts and found that they were most prevalent between 1999 and 2009. Davis and Williams both coached during those years, and Williams won two national championships in basketball during that time.

Nyang’oro, who resigned after the scandal emerged, was charged with fraud in connection with the case, but the charge was dropped after he agreed to cooperate with the criminal investigation. No charges were filed against Crowder, who retired in 2009.

Neither Crowder nor Nyang’oro has spoken publicly about the scandal, and both declined requests to speak to CNN.

Davis said he doesn’t get enough credit for raising his players’ grade-point averages and graduation rates during that time period, although critics say paper classes were part of the reason those GPAs rose. One adviser even characterized them in the Wainstein report as “GPA boosters.”

But Davis said Wainstein’s team also neglected to interview some of his assistants who would have backed up his story.

“These are things that are disturbing,” he said.

The Wainstein report says all assistant coaches were given the opportunity to talk, but some did not respond.

Davis said he feels the attention should be focused now on the advisers who steered athletes to the sham classes, not on the coaches.

“All academics at UNC fell outside the realm of the athletic department, which is one of the things that I liked,” he said. “All of the tutoring … was handled at the (university’s) College of Arts and Sciences. This should be about the College of Arts and Sciences, and leave the coaches out of it because we didn’t have anything to do with it.”

The university issued a statement in response to CNN’s request for comment: “We appreciate Butch Davis’ cooperation with the independent investigation conducted by Kenneth Wainstein. Mr. Davis was one of 126 individuals interviewed about their knowledge of or role in the irregular classes. We believe that this was the most thorough and complete investigation possible. Mr. Davis is entitled to his opinions about the final content of Mr. Wainstein’s report.”

Wainstein’s report found that Davis’ predecessor, head coach John Bunting, admitted to some knowledge of the paper class scheme. But the report cleared Williams, the current basketball coach.

Former interim head football coach Everett Withers refused to cooperate with the Wainstein investigation, as did football director Cynthia Reynolds. Withers is now at James Madison University, and Reynolds is at Cornell University.