Sylvia Hatchell, North Carolina women’s basketball, and true desolation

Sylvia Hatchell might not be an innocent figure. She and her women’s basketball program at the University of North Carolina might deserve the punishments which likely await in the future.

Nevertheless, after the NCAA’s release of its amended notice of allegations on Monday, it is hard to escape the idea that Hatchell and UNC women’s basketball are not victims of gender… and money… and circumstance.

The twist in the tale: As awful as Hatchell might feel in the wake of everything that’s happened — and everything that might soon happen to her program — this is hardly the biggest challenge the coach has faced in her life. It’s all part of a story too big to easily digest.

Sylvia Hatchell — what she’s achieved and overcome, what she’s enduring and about to suffer from — has lived in sunshine and shadow. Her story is a classic portrait of how quickly life can and does change. It’s a representative example of how perspective — a sense of what really matters — can be radically reshaped by previous experiences and struggles.


The story of Sylvia Hatchell must be preceded by a brief analysis of what the revised NOA means for North Carolina athletics. In the linked story above, from Luke DeDock of the Raleigh News and Observer, the summary of a very complex situation emerges. You’ll find this summary in most — if not all — reactions to Monday’s news:

North Carolina men’s basketball — a major cash cow for the school, the ACC, and the NCAA — will almost certainly escape significant punishment. Football, even in the ACC, also provides a lot of revenue. Even at a school where basketball retains cultural centrality, pigskin pays a lot of bills as well, and so it will also avoid profoundly damaging penalties… so the analysts say.

Women’s basketball? It’s not as though Hatchell’s program is viewed to be any better than the men’s program or the football operation, but what must eat at Hatchell after Monday’s revised NOA is that her program is being singled out… for not being lucrative or prominent enough in the grand scheme of things.

Kevin Trahan, a contributor to TSS partner sites The Comeback and Awful Announcing, filed this piece for VICE Sports on the North Carolina mess:

The main takeaway from the revised NOA — what it means, what it suggests — is not necessarily that the men’s basketball program is getting off easy, though plenty of people in the state of North Carolina might reach such a (justifiable) conclusion.

What emerges — from Trahan’s report and other sources of documentation — is only this: The NCAA sure seems a lot more vigorous and robust in its efforts to nail women’s basketball than the men’s program or the football shop. Phrased more simply: The results of this revised NOA aren’t the biggest issue, even though they certainly raise eyebrows and, for many, a deeply-felt sense of outrage. What should really alarm all interested observers is the process which led to these results.

Differences in terms of assessments and verdicts are one thing. Not making as much of an effort to pursue one program relative to another — or conversely, UNC making more of an effort to protect men’s basketball and football relative to women’s hoops — is the truly conspicuous aspect of this larger theater of intrigue in Chapel Hill.

Such a realization could reduce Sylvia Hatchell, the coach at UNC for the past 30 years, to ashes.

It won’t… even though what’s likely to fall upon her shoulders in the coming years represents a spectacular disappointment.


Anyone who lives and breathes Carolina Basketball — regardless of gender — watched Kris Jenkins of Villanova beat Roy Williams and the Tar Heel men for the national championship at the beginning of April. Tar Heels at least 35 years of age probably remember where they were 22 years before Jenkins’ buzzer-beater against their beloved team.

It was the spring of 1994.

One year after Dean Smith won his second national title in Chapel Hill, Hatchell won her first thanks to a different Smith:

Charlotte Smith put North Carolina on the happy side of a national championship-winning buzzer-beating shot. The 3-pointer she launched to defeat Louisiana Tech was — in the perhaps-overused parlance of sportswriters — a “do-or-die” attempt. North Carolina trailed by two; Smith’s triple was a win-or-lose proposition. Hatchell didn’t lose that battle.

Two decades later, the reality of “do-or-die” became a lot more serious for this coaching lifer.


Sylvia Hatchell, as this story from Lindsay Schnell of Sports Illustrated tells in fuller detail, walked through the valley of the shadow of leukemia, beginning in the autumn of 2013. Coming face to face with cancer forced her to sit out an entire season. Her passion — her field of expertise — had to be put on hold in order to merely survive.

Hatchell is now cancer-free, and has spent ample time trying to raise money and awareness for cancer research.

Had this revised NOA come out five years ago, one can imagine what Hatchell would have felt and thought. This news isn’t any more pleasant or reassuring in 2016, and Hatchell must feel that she hasn’t been supported by her employer to the fullest possible extent, but at the very least, Hatchell can know that this is not the most shattering development in her life.

One supposes that overcoming cancer just to run into this brick wall of misery is a vicious turn of events. One can’t really argue with that statement.

However, events are what they are. The power of perspective is rooted in the refusal to give events any more (negative) power than what they deserve. Desolation, like so much else in life, is relative.

Expect Sylvia Hatchell to be steadfast, knowing she’s cleared bigger hurdles before.

While holding that expectation, though, spare a thought for her anyway. Because her name isn’t Roy Williams, and because she doesn’t coach men’s basketball, Sylvia Hatchell is left to deal with the storm clouds that are rolling in her direction at the University of North Carolina.

About Matt Zemek

Editor, @TrojansWire | CFB writer since 2001 |