The day after troubled North Carolina guard P.J. Hairston's reckless driving charge, the pressure on coach Roy Williams increased to find the best way to discipline his leading returning scorer.
Callers to North Carolina's largest sports talk show labeled Hairston a "rotten apple" and urged Williams to "cut a toxic player once and for all." Fans in the forums at Tar Heel Illustrated debated whether Hairston's string of legal trouble merited being dismissed from the program. Even famed ESPN analyst Dick Vitale weighed in on Twitter, encouraging Hairston to change his ways before he squandered his NBA potential.
"[You are] heading down a path of self destruction. Look in the mirror," Vitale wrote. "Get help now [before it's] too late. One must admit a problem [before one] can solve the problem. Stop embarrassing [your] family, team, coach and school."
[Related: UNC suspends P.J. Hairston indefinitely]
At the center of the maelstrom is Williams, who in the coming months must decide if the right approach to the Hairston saga is to suspend the junior guard part of the season or to cut ties with him altogether.
On one hand, Hairston might be more likely to turn his life around within the structure of the North Carolina program, plus the Tar Heels need their lone elite perimeter scorer to have any chance of contending in the ACC or nationally. On the other hand, Williams risks sending a bad message to current and future players by keeping Hairston on the roster, plus there's the chance Hairston could do something to further damage the image of the program.
"You can put the best interest of the player first, but what often gets in the way is what the public's take on it is going to be," former Duke player and current ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said Monday. "If you suspend or dismiss a player, you're taking them out of the structure and discipline that may be most beneficial to them. That's the hard part of the decision. Immediately the conclusion will be jumped to that you're keeping him on the team to win, but maybe I'm doing this because it's in the best interest of the player."
Hairston put his position on the North Carolina roster in jeopardy with a flurry of poor decisions this offseason.
He was charged with speeding in Durham on May 13 in a Camaro rented to a woman with ties to convicted felon Haydn "Fats" Thomas. He was charged with marijuana possession and driving without a license on June 5 in a GMC Yukon also rented by Thomas, though those charges were dropped earlier this month.
The NCAA is likely to investigate the rental cars from Thomas to determine if Harris received extra benefits that would result in a violation. Assuming the NCAA either rules no violation took place or only suspends Hairston part of the season, it will be up to Williams and the North Carolina administration to determine the rest of the punishment.
Though a speeding ticket wouldn't normally be a career-threatening mistake for a college player, the timing of it is especially bad for Hairston. It comes only weeks after Williams released a statement acknowledging Hairston "made serious mistakes" and promising "there will be serious consequences as a result."
Former Virginia Tech coach and current ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg doesn't think Williams will dismiss Hairston barring more trouble, nor does he think the North Carolina coach's rationale for keeping his star guard will be merely wins and losses. Greenberg suggested Williams may suspend Hairston and require him to attend drug or alcohol counseling because his motivation will be to help rehabilitate the troubled guard.
"As a head coach, you're going to be put in situations where you have to decide, 'Can I help this person get somewhere they can't get themselves or is it time to cut the bait?" Greenberg said. "Whatever decision Roy makes, it's not going to be to win a few more games. I think it's going to be in the best interest of P.J. Hairston and the North Carolina brand.
"Roy Williams didn't get into coaching to become a multi-millionaire when he was selling posters as a graduate assistant for Dean Smith. He got into coaching to change lives and make a difference."
If Williams allows Hairston to play for North Carolina again, he will be inviting criticism from rival fans who claim the Tar Heels operate under a different set of rules.
Those claims began when North Carolina escaped major punishment despite allegations of improper benefits in the football program and academic misconduct within the athletic department as a whole. NC State fans, in particular, have tried to hold their rival accountable, investigating the ties between Hairston and Thomas on internet forums and even petitioning the White House to look into special treatment received by the Tar Heels after charges were dropped against Hairston from his June 5 arrest.
Joe Ovies, co-host of a sports talk show on Raleigh-based 99.9 FM The Fan, said most North Carolina fans not surprisingly have a different view from their rivals on how the Hairston saga should end.
"I think Carolina fans want a punishment that can get the message to P.J. Hairston to stop being a knucklehead but still allow him to play," Ovies said. "Carolina fans aren't dumb. They understand they need P.J. Hairston to win some ball games next year. I don't know if it's plus or minus 10 games, but they need him."
There's no question North Carolina would likely struggle to replace Hairston's perimeter scoring punch if he doesn't play next season.
Hairston averaged a team-high 14.6 points per game as a sophomore, sparking North Carolina's late-season surge when he moved into the starting lineup midway through ACC play. He averaged 18.2 points during the Tar Heels' final 13 games, playing so well that he briefly considered entering the NBA draft this spring before announcing in mid-April that he'd return to school for his junior season.
Still, it may not be Hairston's production that would keep Williams from dismissing him from the program. It could be the idea of having to give up on a player.
The only other time Williams kicked a player out of the North Carolina program was when he booted Will Graves in 2010 after the sweet-shooting forward committed a team rules violation. Williams had previously warned Graves after a suspension a year and a half earlier the consequences of another slip-up.
"The most difficult thing was the finality of it," Williams told the Fayetteville Observer a few months after dismissing Graves. "I had given him a chance. I had suspended him a year-and-a-half (before) but there was always another chance. Yet this was the final straw. That was just so hard. Because it's almost like you're giving up on a kid. And I really struggle giving up on a kid."
Williams now faces the decision of whether to give up on another kid, this time one with more talent and a bigger role than Graves.
Williams felt he had no choice but to cut Graves loose. Hairston surely hopes his coach hasn't reached that point yet with him.
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