North Carolina pulls the plug on Butch Davis, just in time to beg for the NCAA’s mercy

On Monday, Butch Davis confidently insisted that he has never considered resigning over the scandal that's plagued North Carolina for the last year, even after the NCAA dropped a payload of alleged violations on his program's doorstep last month. On Wednesday, North Carolina made the decision for him:

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - University of North Carolina Chancellor Holden Thorp announced this evening that Butch Davis has been dismissed as head coach of the Carolina football program. Davis was informed by Thorp and Director of Athletics Dick Baddour of the decision.

"To restore confidence in the University of North Carolina and our football program, it's time to make a change," said Thorp. "What started as a purely athletic issue has begun to chip away at this University's reputation. ... I have lost confidence in our ability to come through this without harming the way people think of this institution. Our academic integrity is paramount and we must work diligently to protect it. The only way to move forward and put this behind us is to make a change."

Thorp said the decision was not related to any change in the NCAA investigation, but that it was the result of the cumulative damage to the University's reputation over the past year.

Last October, Davis openly lamented the day he hired an old friend, John Blake, who by then was already well on his way to going down as one of the most prolific outlaws in recent NCAA history for allegedly steering college stars to another one of his old friends, an NFL agent. Even then, Davis seemed to have an eye on this day: Without the connections facilitated by Blake as defensive line coach — by all accounts, behind his boss' back — there's a good chance the NCAA never has a reason to come calling.

From the moment that a stray tweet from Marvin Austin's Twitter feed prompted investigators to stick their heads under the hood, though, the sheer scope of the violations on Davis' watch were too corrosive for the story to end any other way. When the dust cleared, 14 Tar Heel players had missed at least one game as a result of the probe, seven had been accused of accepting improper benefits from agents and former teammates and six had been ruled permanently ineligible — including three players who were eventually taken in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft.

At some point, the assumption that Davis didn't know that his best players were surrounded by people with "NCAA violation" stamped on their foreheads became as damning as the suggestion that he did know.{YSP:MORE} His name didn't appear a single time in the NCAA's formal notice of allegations, but once academic fraud was added to the charges — allegedly facilitated by a tutor who had once been hired by Davis to help his son, no less, and who subsequently refused to cooperate with the investigation — his fate was inevitable.

That is, it was eventually inevitable. Which brings us to the great mystery of the night: Why now?

The ultimate scope and thrust of the violations were well-established a year ago; Blake was fired after the first game last September. The university won't make its all-important appearance before the NCAA's Committee on Infractions until November, and won't receive any notice of possible penalties until the new year, after the season — including a bowl game — has ended. Why not fire Davis last September, too? Why not last December, after the season? Or in January, after the improbable, emotional win in the bowl game? Why not fire him last month, after the arrival of the heavy-handed (though wholly unsurprising) findings from the NCAA? Why let him go in front of the cameras at ACC media days earlier this week to defend himself and the university?

Why wait until a week or two before the start of preseason practices, essentially throwing a second season down the well? With more lost years likely to come after the committee returns a verdict?

The only possible answer, barring any new revelations that the school declined to reveal, is that Carolina hopes purging Davis is the first step toward earning a reprieve in that verdict. It's following the Ohio State plan: 1. Ditch the coach, 2. Repent, 3. Claim reform.

It's the kind of preemptive strike only a defense attorney could love. By all appearances, the NCAA has bought OSU's attempts to saddle former coach Jim Tressel with the blame for all of its misdeeds, hook, line and sinker, and now seems unlikely to hit the Buckeyes with the heavy scholarship losses or bowl ban that seemed inevitable just a few weeks ago. Tennessee is attempting the same approach with its former rogue coach, Lane Kiffin, arguing that it went above and beyond to school Kiffin in the ways of the NCAA recruiting rulebook even as he repeatedly defied them.

North Carolina knows the game: It led the way by throwing Blake to the wolves last year. Today it was Davis' turn, before they threatened to make it any higher up the ladder.

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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.