Weathering the Storm

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – T.J. Thorpe awoke in a panic in the middle of the night back in September, haunted by nightmares of not being able to play at North Carolina due to the ongoing NCAA investigation.

In the dream, the early enrollee was flipping through the channels on the television when he saw the following words on a scrolling sports ticker: "T.J. Thorpe is not allowed to play at Carolina anymore due to the investigation."

The 6-foot, 180-pound wide receiver's first thought was, "Well, why was it only me?" Then he quickly went through his mental Rolodex of coaches that he had already turned away, only to have his mother interrupt him by entering the room and screaming about his college playing career being over.

And then Thorpe woke up.

Despite the late hour, it was UNC wide receiver coach Charlie Williams that Thorpe called to settle his nerves.

"He said, ‘Just relax – if anything pops up, you'll be the first to know,'" Thorpe said. "He basically said, ‘You're my son now as far as coming to Carolina, and so I'm going to treat you just like that. If you have any questions, feel free to call me. As far as I know, your dream is incorrect. You just need to get prepared on Friday."

And with that, Thorpe was able to go back to sleep.

While Thorpe may be the only member of North Carolina's 17th-ranked recruiting class that is willing to admit to having that type of nightmare surrounding the NCAA investigation, he's not alone in having had to balance his concerns for his future with his desire to be a Tar Heel over the past six months.

National Signing Day came and went on Wednesday with a deep sigh of relief for North Carolina fans that worried incessantly for months about Butch Davis and his staff's ability to keep this promising class together amidst uncertainty surrounding the NCAA investigation and a tidal wave of negative recruiting.

But the coaching staff displayed none of that anxiety; instead, they trusted their information and employed a straightforward approach with recruits and their families in addressing any concerns.

"First and foremost, we were always honest with the kids that we recruited," Davis told reporters during his press conference on Wednesday afternoon. "We told them exactly what transpired during August and September. We told them absolutely everything that we knew about things that had transpired. We never tried to paint a picture of something that wouldn't be realistic... What we tried to do as a coaching staff and as a University was to focus on all of the positive things."

The lack of closure, however, opened the door for other programs to step in and attempt to plant seeds of doubts in the minds of a majority of UNC's 25-member recruiting class. Highly sought-after players such as four-star quarterback Marquise Williams (Charlotte, N.C.) and four-star linebacker Travis Hughes (Virginia Beach, Va.) found themselves battered with negative recruiting, both by coaches and fans of rival schools.

Williams told reporters on Wednesday that he stopped using Facebook due to fans writing negative things on his wall on a daily basis. Another recruit was even given a loaded three-ring binder full of documents concerning UNC's investigation.

Davis termed the amount of negative recruiting that his staff encountered as "pretty significant."

"It's very disappointing," Davis said. "We place a great deal of personal integrity on our coaching staff to just recruit and talk about North Carolina… Obviously, it's disappointing that a lot of people didn't take that approach."

The negative recruiting succeeded in steering five-star running back Savon Huggins (Jersey City, N.J.) and four-star cornerback Demetrious Nicholson (Virginia Beach, Va.) away from Chapel Hill, but the lone Tar Heel commitment that was convinced to jump ship was four-star quarterback Everett Golson, who signed with Notre Dame.

Ironically, North Carolina delivered a Signing Day splash by landing five-star defensive tackle Delvon Simmons, a McKeesport, Pa. product that had dropped UNC from consideration once the NCAA arrived in town last summer.

"The staff responded as well as could be expected to the negative recruiting," said Don Callahan, football recruiting analyst for "The fact that there still hasn't been any finality to the investigation made things very difficult. Regardless, UNC held onto guys like Marquise Williams and Travis Hughes, despite the efforts of others."

A significant factor in UNC's ability to limit its defections was the coach-player relationships built long before July rolled around. Eleven of the signees had committed by July 13th, two days before the news of the investigation went public. Other players, such as Hughes and defensive tackle Devonte Brown, also had North Carolina as frontrunners for their services during the summer months.

Those forged relationships were able to withstand the stress of the tidal wave that hit Chapel Hill. How else do you explain Thorpe's willingness to call his future position coach at one o'clock in the morning?

Davis credits his signees for staying on board and not jumping ship.

"As resilient as our football team and our coaching staff was during the season, these recruits were the same way," Davis said. "Very few of them really ever wavered or vacillated. They listened to some of the negative talk and they listened to the challenges of other offers and opportunities to go someplace else, and I think that they were pretty strong.

"For 17-, 18-, and 19-year-old kids in the face of an enormous amount of pressure and negative things being told to them – most of it was out-and-out lies – those kids could see through it and their parents could see through it. It says an awful lot to us about their character and integrity and their willingness to stay committed and decide to come here."

Thorpe's not having those nightmares anymore. And while it will still be awhile before UNC hears back from the NCAA, Tar Heel fans are able to breath easier knowing that what could have been a disastrous Signing Day ended up being yet another top-25 recruiting class.

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