The moment five potential draft picks all decided to return to North Carolina for their senior year in January, the Tar Heels began gearing up for a rare run at the ACC title and a BCS bid. Judging from the NCAA's mysterious appearance on campus this week to talk to some of those players, it was also the moment a swarm of agents and other opportunistic middle men began to make a beeline for Chapel Hill:
A source at North Carolina told ESPN.com's Joe Schad on Thursday that UNC football players were interviewed by the NCAA this week and asked questions about agents and whether anyone had received gifts or extra benefits.
Defensive tackle Marvin Austin, one of several Tar Heels who passed on the NFL draft this spring, was among the players interviewed, according to the source.
The source said the NCAA's questions to players were intended to "make sure no Reggie Bush stuff is going on."
Both sources used the word "hectic" to describe the agent activity surrounding North Carolina football since multiple players passed on the NFL draft.
UNC's athletic director confirmed the NCAA was on campus, asking questions. Another source told Schad projected draft picks had been asked to submit phone records, names of people who provided rent and travel, and any agents they may have met with. Specifically, Schad Tweeted Thursday night, they wanted to know why Austin had been spotted driving former teammate Kentwan Balmer's vehicle, and whether he'd stayed at Balmer's apartment. (Balmer was a first-round pick by the 49ers in 2008.)
The anonymous compliance officer behind the Bylaw Blog notes that an NCAA presence could be just a lot of smoke or the beginning of a raging wildfire, depending on who was doing the questioning. If the investigators were from the Agents, Gambling and Amateurism staff, they may be simply following up on a rumor or lead that may or may not amount to anything. If the enforcement staff was poking around, though, it's a good bet a case is already being built.
We do know this from the sanctions handed down against USC in the Reggie Bush case last month: The NCAA isn't playing around when it comes to agents. It doesn't sound like any of the activity in question extends far enough back to cost Carolina any of last season's eight wins in the books, but if investigators turn up anything whatsoever, some key individual seasons are on the line.
Carolina fans should look on the bright side: They wanted to know what it's like to field a big-time football operation for a change, and an impromptu game of cops and robbers between the NCAA and shadowy money men is the surest sign yet that they've got one. Butch Davis really has brought the Heels a long way.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.