For the first time since 1986, the North Carolina women's basketball head-coaching position is open. North Carolina announced late Thursday that Sylvia Hatchell was resigning after 33 years at the school following an independent investigation into player and staff complaints that she made racially insensitive remarks and put pressure on injured players to play.
People will evaluate what happened very differently. Some might see it as players and staff standing up to abuses from a coach and being believed. Others might see it as millennials and their parents leading the charge against a coach for being tough on them, and then being able to end that coach's career.
There are always gray areas in these situations, but there's no doubt that coaches must adjust to the times in which they are working. Did Hatchell truly lose touch with her current athletes, to the point of them believing she wasn't looking after their physical well-being was insensitive to remarks they found hurtful and offensive? If that was the case, then it was time for the school and coach to part ways.
But it's still fair to say that no one wanted to see Hatchell -- a Naismith Hall of Famer, and one of six women's college coaches with 1,000 victories -- go out like this.
Hatchell promoted women's basketball for decades and pushed for more women to coach. Elon's Charlotte Smith, a former Tar Heels assistant who likely will be a strong candidate to succeed Hatchell, is among those who got into coaching with Hatchell's encouragement. Smith said in 2017, when Hatchell was on the verge of her 1,000th victory, that her former coach had "always been a pillar in my life."
Tar Heels players such as Ivory Latta and Erlana Larkins -- both of whom, like Smith, played in the WNBA -- strongly supported Hatchell in a television interview by WRAL on April 8 in the wake of the allegations against her. Latta and Larkins credited Hatchell with motivating them to reach the level they did, and they dismissed allegations of racism against her. At the same time, they referred to today's players as "different," and said they weren't trying to invalidate their experiences.
And that's an inescapable part of this: Everyone seems to believe there is a generational gap in what is perceived as "tough" and "abusive" behavior from a coach. Although just how wide the gap is, and what ages are on which side, are both subject for debate.
Hatchell leaves behind a program she led to the 1994 NCAA title and also to the 2006 and 2007 Final Fours, losing in the semifinals both times. But North Carolina sometimes has been seen as an underachiever nationally, considering the talent that the Tar Heels have had.
What's next? North Carolina's athletic administration has to commit to whether it genuinely wants its women's basketball program to be great. Not just pay lip service to that, not just deliver platitudes. But really want to do it. Because there's no reason it shouldn't be great if the athletic department supports it.
North Carolina is one of the biggest "brand-name" basketball schools there is. Yes, that emanates largely from the men's side. And the athletic department's academic scandal that dragged on for years had a negative impact. But UNC has so many advantages, going forward, there's no excuse for the women's program to miss the NCAA tournament three years in a row as it recently did.
The renovation of Carmichael Arena a decade ago brought it up to standards, and it's a perfect size for the women's team. It should be one of the more formidable home courts in the country, with a team that's a perennial Final Four contender.
ACC newcomers Notre Dame, Louisville and Syracuse have all played in the Final Four in the past few years; the Irish won the 2018 NCAA title. If you're a North Carolina fan, it should irritate you seeing Notre Dame win five of the last six ACC tournament titles, and Louisville winning the other in that stretch. It should bug you to have watched the Irish and the Cardinals playing each other for the ACC title in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 2018 and '19.
They are both great programs. But how did they so easily take over a conference rooted with four schools in North Carolina? The Tar Heels and Duke won 16 of 20 ACC tournament titles from 1994-2013. Duke has missed the NCAA tournament two of the last four years. NC State, under coach Wes Moore, has moved ahead of both North Carolina and Duke in ACC women's basketball for now.
Nothing against any of these schools that have had recent ACC success. Good for them. But think how much the North Carolina-Duke rivalry means in the men's college basketball world. The women might not get that kind of attention, but it should be a major marquee matchup. Not the afterthought it has turned into. (Duke's women have to hold up their end of this, too.)
There will be raw feelings involved in North Carolina's separation with Hatchell; some have welcomed it, others have not. But as has been the case at Tennessee with Kellie Harper following Holly Warlick, there should be a reuniting behind the next coach in Chapel Hill. The coaching changes at North Carolina and Tennessee happening at nearly the same time could create a seismic shift in the women's game.
Harper faces challenges as Tennessee's coach that she didn't as a player in the 1990s. The Lady Vols were the best program in the country when Harper played, winning three consecutive NCAA titles. Now, Tennessee isn't even the top program in the SEC.
Yet with a huge fan base, eight national championship trophies and the energy boost of trying to restore what was, Tennessee looks to Harper to lead the way back. North Carolina was never in the same realm of consistent excellence as the Lady Vols, but going forward, it should aspire to be.
This is a new era for the first time in more than 30 years for the Tar Heel women, and North Carolina needs to get this right.