NCAA probe lingers over Tar Heels

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Butch Davis has talked with his North Carolina players about the importance of ignoring distractions. An NCAA investigation hovering over the program for the past month is making that easier said than done.

The Tar Heels are still waiting to find out whether two key players will be eligible for the opener against LSU and beyond. But the inquiry into agents and benefits has evolved to include concerns about a cross-country trip involving two Tar Heels as well as a longtime friendship between an assistant coach and an agent that has attracted the NCAA's interest.

"I know everybody just wants this whole deal just to be over with so we don't have to worry about it anymore, so we don't have to wonder anymore about all this stuff," quarterback T.J. Yates said Thursday at the team's preseason media day.

"It's kind of annoying when new stuff keeps coming out on the news and we don't even know about it," he said. "We go into the lunchroom and there's another thing up there on ESPN. It's like, 'Geez, come on, let's get it over with,' you know? We're all ready to move on."

The NCAA notified the school in late June that it was examining whether defensive tackle Marvin Austin and receiver Greg Little received improper benefits from agents. The NCAA visited the campus July 12 and 13 to interview players and then returned last week for another two-day visit.

Athletic director Dick Baddour said the NCAA has repeatedly told the school not to comment publicly, though he has said the school is cooperating fully and that he has no timetable for a decision.

"I believe we have been as responsive as we possibly can be," Baddour said. "We have not hidden from this."

The North Carolina Secretary of State's office has launched its own investigation about potential misconduct by agents. The state requires agents to register and prohibits them from offering gifts before a contract is signed. Violations can lead to criminal or civil penalties.

The office has sent a letter to the more than 100 agents registered with the state notifying them of the investigation and instructing them not to destroy records, office spokeswoman Liz Proctor said. The Associated Press has obtained a copy of the letter; named in it are Austin, Little, safety Deunta Williams, cornerback Kendric Burney and linebackers Bruce Carter and Quan Sturdivant.

Those six players were all considered NFL prospects who returned to school for their senior seasons.

There have been similar NCAA investigations at Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, with links to a South Beach party attended by players from several schools earlier this year. But the North Carolina probe has seemingly become more problematic.

A person familiar with the inquiry said the NCAA also talked with assistant coach John Blake during the second visit about his friendship with California-based agent Gary Wichard. The person spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because the investigation is confidential. Blake is the Tar Heels' associate head coach and defensive line coach.

Davis, preparing for his fourth season, was asked about whether he had concerns over Blake's connections to Wichard when he hired him in December 2006. Davis responded by saying he wouldn't talk about anything connected to the NCAA probe.

Wichard -- who founded the Pro Tect Management agency in Westlake Village, Calif. -- hasn't returned a call or e-mail from AP seeking comment, while the school hasn't made Blake available for comment. In a recent interview with Yahoo! Sports, Wichard denied wrongdoing, saying he has been close friends with Blake for years and that "there's nothing to investigate."

In addition, former Tar Heel Cam Thomas confirmed Wednesday that ex-teammate and current San Francisco 49ers defensive tackle Kentwan Balmer -- a Wichard client -- paid for Austin and Thomas to travel to California and train at the Proactive Sports Performance facility in summer 2009. Thomas, now a rookie defensive tackle with the San Diego Chargers, wouldn't comment on the specifics of the trip during a brief post-practice interview.

Thomas and Balmer played two seasons together in Chapel Hill, while Austin was a freshman during Balmer's senior season in 2007 and the two developed a close friendship. Balmer was a first-round draft pick in 2008 and earned a five-year, $8 million deal.

It's unclear whether the trip would violate the NCAA rule prohibiting preferential treatment for athletes. Both Thomas and Austin played in all 13 games last year, raising the question of whether the Tar Heels would have to vacate their eight wins from 2009 for using ineligible players if the NCAA ruled it a violation.

Balmer has been unavailable for comment at the 49ers training camp. He was excused from practice Monday and Tuesday to deal with a "personal issue," but he has yet to return and coach Mike Singletary has said his absence is now unexcused.

The Proactive Sports facility lists Balmer, Thomas and Austin as past clients on its Web site. It also lists some notable Wichard clients in Indianapolis Colts All-Pro defensive end Dwight Freeney and Baltimore Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs, along with all five of Pro Tect's 2010 draftees -- including Carolina Panthers quarterback Jimmy Clausen and Buffalo Bills running back C.J. Spiller.

Pro Tect's offices are located about two miles from the Proactive Sports facility, though Wichard told Yahoo! Sports he didn't speak with Austin during the 2009 trip.

The North Carolina Secretary of State's office has sent a separate letter to Wichard and other agents requesting to speak with them specifically in the inquiry, though Proctor wouldn't confirm how many have gone out or to whom because it's an ongoing investigation.

The rest of the Tar Heels can only worry about what's happening in practice.

"You've just got to kind of keep the mentality that there's nothing we can do to change it," tight end Zack Pianalto said. "What's going on with the NCAA review is what's going on and that's out of our control. All we can do is be here and be focused on football."