I can pinpoint the exact moment in time when Sylvia Hatchell lost her grip on the North Carolina Tar Heels women's basketball program.
In 2013, the Tar Heels, Hatchell specifically, snagged probably one of the greatest recruiting classes ever assembled. In this class were future WNBA players Diamond DeShields (Chicago Sky), 2017 Rookie of the Year Allisha Gray (Dallas Wings) and Stephanie Mavunga (Indiana Fever). That team, with four true freshmen, two redshirt freshmen and three sophomores finished 27-10 and made it to the 2014 Elite Eight as an under ranked 12th seed all while Hatchell battled with acute myeloid leukemia.
DeShields, the little sister of Texas Rangers’ Delino DeShields, was the megastar out of this class, averaging 18 points per game and shooting just under 43 percent from the field as a true freshman. Gray went on to become a First-Team All ACC selection as a sophomore the following season. This team was on the cusp of being the best team Hatchell had since the 2006-07 Final Four team. (Led by Ivory Latta, that squad went 34-4.) This team was on the trajectory to give Hatchell her second national championship of all-time (the only one coming from the 1993-94 team).
But then it all went down in flames.
It was in 2010 when the first smoke of the now infamous academic fraud scandal investigation began. Two years later, the African and Afro-American Studies department was the initiator of the fire as numerous student-athletes were found to be enrolled in “fake” classes. The investigation lingered until 2017 when the NCAA basically washed its hands of it and ruled that no violations were broken.
The public’s focus was directed at the Tar Heel men’s basketball program (thanks due in large part to former Heel Rashad McCants’ proclamation of ‘You’re not there to get an education, though they tell you that’) but it was Hatchell’s women’s program that was really burned.
Due to the length of the investigation, it caused a mass exodus of that heralded freshman class like Moses was leading them. First, DeShields transferred to Tennessee. Then Jessica Washington (to Kansas), Gray (to South Carolina where she help lead Dawn Staley’s Gamecocks to the 2017 national championship) and then finally Mavunga (to Ohio State). And the program hasn’t been the same since.
A season later, in 2014-15, the Tar Heels went 26-9 and was narrowly beaten by South Carolina in the Sweet 16. Since then, Hatchell had three losing seasons and one tournament bid, this season when they were three games above .500 and lost in the opening round by 20 points to California.
So by coaching standards, Hatchell had run her course. (UNC hasn’t won the Atlantic Coast Conference since 2008.) That 2013 team was the pinnacle of Hatchell’s greatness, but it also inadvertently started her Doomsday Clock — a clock that hit zero this past Thursday night when she resigned as the head women’s basketball coach of North Carolina after 33 years, 751 victories (1,023 overall) and a Hall of Fame induction.
“The university commissioned a review of our women's basketball program, which found issues that led us to conclude that the program needed to be taken in a new direction. It is in the best interests of our university and student-athletes for us to do so. Coach Hatchell agrees, and she offered her resignation today. I accepted it,” UNC athletics director Bubba Cunningham wrote in a statement as reported by the Associated Press.
Hatchell released her own statement the AP reported, “The university will always hold a special place in my heart. The game of basketball has given me so much, but now it is time for me to step away.”
But Hatchell’s resignation tells of a much larger issue that is on the rise and plaguing college athletics. A plague that if not cured, will be the death knell of many of the old coaching regimes — the pacification of the college athlete.
This is Part 1 of a two-part commentary series that focus on the changing dynamic of the relationships between college athletes and their coaches. Read Part 2 Friday, April 26 in the Devils Lake Journal.
Chris Harris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter: @ChrisHarris_DLJ