Was Hatchell’s suspension a sign of showing instability with UNC women’s basketball?

Cheryl Treworgy - TSN via PrettySporty.com
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Orin Day, Triangle Sports Network
Orin Day, Triangle Sports Network

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – You would hope it’s an aberration in conduct as part of enduring a challenging season while leading the North Carolina Tar Heels women’s basketball program.

However, it may be part of something bigger that could tarnish the image of head coach Sylvia Hatchell, the Atlantic Coast Conference’s (ACC) current reigning matriarch in the sport.

As announced by UNC’s athletic department on Friday, Hatchell was suspended for two games as the result of a game-related incident involving contact with an official as well as the result of committing an NCAA recruiting violation.

Currently holding 973 career all-time wins to her credit – 701 of those while leading the Tar Heels – Hatchell has been a master motivator in using her fiery energy during a game to rouse her team’s play.

With the Tar Heels currently playing with six scholarship players and posting an overall record of 12-10 and 2-5 in ACC play, having Hatchell absent from the sideline likely won’t help this young team.

She missed enough time, an entire season, two years ago as she battled and eventually overcame Leukemia.

Much of that team’s roster has either transferred or graduated, so why would she put herself in a position to be reprimanded and removed from leading a very young team that is struggling with success?

North Carolina is currently on a five-game losing streak.

Sure, in the heat of a rivalry game coaches do make mistakes, but also take action to get a reaction.

Jumping onto the floor and inadvertently getting in the way of an official could have been coincidental – at least that’s the way Hatchell described it initially.

However, by the time she completed her answer in the postgame press conference at Duke, she didn’t seem really contrite about the incident, and indicated more of an intended purpose for it.

“I was trying to get his attention,” Hatchell said following the Tar Heels’ 71-55 loss to the Blue Devils.

“I was not trying to hit him or anything, we just ran into each other. I was just trying to get his attention because obviously I thought that we were getting fouled. That was okay, it was worth it.”

It was worth it.

Trailing 56-45 with 6:03 to play, Hatchell made her move and was eventually assessed the technical for the inadvertent contact with the official.

Following that incident, the Tar Heels put together an 8-3 run and trailed 59-53 with 3:38 to play.

If it was intentional on her part, she was successful in getting her intended result as her team outscored the Blue Devils for a short stretch.

It was a tactic she used back in a pivotal ACC game against Maryland in January 2009.

It takes a lot for me to get a technical foul, but it was something that I felt I needed to do,” Hatchell said in her postgame comments back then.

Considering those details, getting a technical foul with her team trailing against Duke, was likely a calculated risk.

Even though the tactic didn’t ultimately lead to the Tar Heels staging a miraculous comeback, she did get a response from her players – all part of the learning process for this young team – one led by a sophomore and two freshmen.

After all, they did win a season-high six games in a row before making their current slide that has landed them tied for ninth in the league standings.

Though a desired response on the court resulted, it elicited one off the court with the announced benching of the coach.

This is where the story gets more interesting, particularly for anyone who’s followed this program in recent years.

When considering the announced suspension of the Hall of Fame coach, it didn’t seem consistent with Hatchell’s conduct on the court.

Though contact with an official is a no-no, if it was so severe at the time, one would assume that a game ejection would have resulted.

It didn’t.

Also, even without a game ejection, why was a University-issued suspension, not an ACC-issued suspension administered?

The UNC athletic department indicated that it conferred with the conference in making the decision.

In essence, it was a game-related instance that would be noted as a suspension on Hatchell’s record at UNC.

Upon further reading the release that included an additional one-game suspension for committing a Level III NCAA violation, it became a clearer that a bigger issue seemed to be in play.

The violation of NCAA Bylaw 13.6.7.9 which Hatchell as well as assistant coach Tracey Williams-Johnson were suspended for stated, “schools are not permitted to arrange a game day simulation for prospects at an event associated with an official visit.”

The violation occurred during the current season which was confirmed by an athletic department official when asked.

Have things got so desperate for Hatchell during her 41 years of coaching, 30 of them at North Carolina, that she, in addition to 17-year assistant Williams-Johnson, to commit such a violation?

Have they been forced to such an extreme in pursuit of stocking up the team’s roster for the future?

Maybe.

However, it would seem odd that if it happened once, then it probably happened before.

And if so, why had it never been acted upon with a similar consequence?

It is quite possible that it wasn’t caught or admitted to, but the timing of this all seems somewhat peculiar.

Committing a Level III violation and being reprimanded for it, and particularly when the team has hit its lowest point so far in the season really creates a negative portrayal of Hatchel and the state of the program she’s leading.

It paints a picture of a reputable and experienced coach making mistakes with overemotional on-the-court behavior, and additionally advocating taking measures to ensure prospects are wowed enough to attend UNC and play for her.

Has it gotten to that point for Hatchell?

Some would say no, and some would say yes.

By definition in the NCAA manual, a Level III violation, termed as breach of conduct, the occurrence(s) of such are described as:

“Violations that are isolated or limited in nature; provide no more than a minimal recruiting, competitive or other advantage; and do not include more than a minimal impermissible benefit.”

It’s a self-reported violation, although no confirmation was received if or when self-reporting took place, but it was confirmed that the violation occurred during the current academic year and season.

As per the 2015-2016 version of the NCAA manual, the suspension of the coach and related staff involved was one of nine possible punishments for committing a Level III violation.

With a current NCAA Notice of Allegations (NOA) case that UNC has responded to, and is awaiting a final decision on an amended version to be presented back within months, Hatchell’s suspension at this point is exclusive of that situation.

Though the stated Level III violation may look connected to the NOA, it shouldn’t alter that time process or require another amendment to the NOA, since apparently only Level I or II violations would require that.

It just seems that the optics and timing of it all may make this suspension bigger than it may actually be.

If Hatchell hadn’t made contact with an official and assessed a technical, when would the announcement regarding the NCAA violation and suspension have been made?

Or would it have been made at all?

For now, the drama and speculation of instability surrounding the program will only increase as Hatchell will watch from a distance during the team’s next two road games at N.C. State (Jan. 31) and Boston College (Feb. 7), sandwiching a home game on Feb. 4 against 14th-ranked Louisville which she’ll be on the bench for.

She will still be able to work with her team during practice and training sessions to keep the Tar Heels playing with the attitude of ‘don’t count us out’.

“Every day is an opportunity for this team to get better because they will all be back next year…and we have nine new players coming in, “Hatchell said following the Duke game.

“Do not count us out this year because we are going to be fighting in every game that we play. Every day is an opportunity for us to get better, and we are.”

If the Tar Heels program is indeed on shaky ground, expect Hatchell to work, and if necessary, fight to stabilize it.

You shouldn’t expect anything less of her, regardless of the circumstances.

It’s not her style.