If anything, former North Carolina football coach Butch Davis looked relaxed and confident when he spoke at ACC Football Kickoff media day on July 24.
Three days later, Chancellor Holden Thorp announced Davis was fired. One day after that, former UNC athletic director Dick Baddour resigned.
Davis’ firing and impending sanctions from the NCAA left the prospects of UNC’s season both on and off the field hinging on almost nothing but uncertainty.
Everett Withers took the interim position and experienced varying success on the field. The Tar Heels (7-5, 3-5 ACC) maintained a winning record for the fourth consecutive year, but UNC ticket sales and attendance declined.
On the whole, average attendance was down by 2,250 fans per game this season, and pre-game ticket sales dropped by an average of 2,510 per game compared to the 2010 season.
New athletic director Bubba Cunningham, who began his duties Nov. 14, knows it’s crucial to stop that slide, because mediocrity in football is something the Tar Heels might not be able to afford.
“It’s good to be successful in everything that you have, but economically we need to be successful in football as well, because it can support a lot of other things within the department,” he said.
Getting cheeks in the seats
Soon after Davis’ firing, the website www.fireholdenthorp.com was erected and planes were even hired to fly “Fire Holden Thorp” banners over Chapel Hill.
“It certainly wasn’t anything that we wanted to happen right before the season started, but for the most part everybody hung in there,” said Karlton Creech, Rams Club director of capital projects.
What the University and football program’s staff were most concerned with was that people continued to support the team.
“Most of the season ticket sales campaign is completed at that time, so you’re just more working off the individual games and a lot of that is going to be dictated just based on wins and losses,” said Clint Gwaltney, associate athletic director of ticket operations.
But wins and losses didn’t necessarily match attendance. The Tar Heels sped to a 5-1 start this season for just the second time since 1997, but those first six contests included the four lowest attended home games in 2011.
“Unfortunately, Rutgers, Louisville and James Madison didn’t draw out that many folks,” Gwaltney said.
How bad it hurts
UNC finished the season 2-4 after that, but attendance was up in its final three home games, as would be expected against Miami, Wake Forest and Duke.
On the whole, average attendance was down 3.9 percent while pre-game ticket sales fell 6.3 percent from the 2010 season.
That may not seem like a drastic drop, but it adds up.
If each of those unsold tickets cost $50 — the cheapest seat in Kenan Stadium — that’s still $878,500 in missed revenue, and that’s only if those empties were nosebleed seats.
That much alone could fund the budget of UNC’s baseball program twice — its fourth most expensive program to operate — and still leave $71,050 to spare.
It stands to show how crucial football money is in the life of a large athletic program like UNC’s.
The reality of that is being felt at the University of Maryland, where its athletics department will cut eight of its 27 varsity sports. There are many other factors in that decision, but it certainly didn’t help Maryland that it averaged 76.7 percent capacity for each home football game during its 2-10 season.
UNC doesn’t want to find itself with a similar problem while trying to support its 28 varsity programs.
“Football and basketball are the most public (programs) we have and the ones that generate the most revenue,” Cunningham said. “You want to have a broad-based program, but you need to be successful in the ones that generate revenue.”
Still on a hinge
North Carolina did make an effort to keep attendance numbers up, and Withers, by all accounts, did a fine job building excitement and handling the unusual circumstances he was thrust into.
“I think Coach Withers has done a really good job of trying to keep all the focus on the student athletes,” Cunningham said. “But the reality is there is some turmoil, and there is some ambiguity about the future.”
That ambiguity could refer to a number of things — future NCAA sanctions for UNC’s infractions prior to the 2010 season, or the vacant head football coach position.
Withers officially interviewed for the position last week and hopes to receive it, but if the UNC position is as good a job as Cunningham believes it is, Withers may have some stiff competition.
“I think it’s the best job out there,” Cunningham said. “I think the location, the academic reputation of the school and the conference. I think it’s an outstanding job and I think people view it that way.”
It’s Cunningham’s job to strive for success in each of UNC’s programs, and he believes UNC can be nationally competitive in not just basketball, but also in football.
He said that starts with the people running the program, making his football hire seem all the more important.
Cunningham knows there’s a difference in winning and losing in football.
It’s the same way that $878,500 makes a difference.
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