James Moore Tatum, one of the premier college football coaches of his time, took a pay cut to return to his alma mater, the University of North Carolina. That, of course, made the signing even more of a coup.

“Sunny Jim,” Class of 1935, was highly professional, charmingly charismatic and unusually successful. Tatum boasted the nation’s best record between 1946 and 1955, with 76 victories in 95 games at Oklahoma and Maryland. Three of Tatum’s Maryland squads went undefeated in regular-season play; the 1953 Terrapins were acclaimed the national champions in the Atlantic Coast Conference’s first year of existence.

“He was larger than life,” recalled Greensboro journalist Irwin Smallwood. “Tatum was probably dominant because he was years ahead of his peers in organization.”

Raleigh News & Observer columnist Dick Herbert wrote of Tatum’s arrival at Chapel Hill, “That the Tar Heels will be a more formidable foe on the football field is almost certain.” The 1956 North Carolina football media guide happily welcomed the coach, proclaiming “Jim’s Back Home.” Tatum, the guide said, is “a man who is sure to be recorded in football history as one of the great coaches of all time.”

Media guides and sports columnists are not noted for their prescience. Tatum died of Rocky Mountain spotted fever at age 46 after compiling a 14-15-1 record in three seasons at UNC. He is largely forgotten today.

So, too, is the intense internal debate that accompanied the decision to hire Tatum, according to William Friday, the university system’s emeritus president. “There were a lot of people that just didn’t want him,” Friday said. “He symbolized big-time college football.”

How quaint.

In this era of mega-conferences, carpet television coverage, lavish coaching contracts, ubiquitous corporate sponsorships and unending competitive pressures, the notion that there might be something corrupting about the embrace of big-time athletics is as old-fashioned as plowing with a mule. Talk of institutional control and academic reform buzzes perpetually around college sports, but decisions made long ago continue to define the debate. And that debate remains fixed on dollars and victory, on bowls and polls, on remaining competitive with the least savory but most successful of opponents.

Pity, then, UNC football coach John Bunting. There is no question that, in his sixth year directing the program, Bunting has enjoyed only sporadic success on the field. There is also no question that, were Bunting not such a nice man, so fiercely proud to be coaching at his alma mater, calls for his firing would be unrelenting.

As it is, Bunting was booed by home fans following his team’s fifth loss in six games this season, a 37-20 defeat at the hands of unheralded South Florida. The Heels’ sole win came against Furman, a team from a lower division in which teams offer fewer scholarships.

The norms of big-time football define Bunting as a failure. Thus one N&O sports columnist circles the coach in print like a buzzard eagerly anticipating a ripe carcass. The paper also periodically prints heat meters illustrating the columnist’s view of the job status of the Triangle’s three ACC football coaches.

Ted Roof (left), John Bunting (center) and Jim Grobe (right): Only one of these three coaches is not worried about his job.

Absurdly, the meter routinely runs hottest for Duke coach Ted Roof, in his third full season as captain of a dinghy attempting a transoceanic voyage.

The Blue Devils entered this season with 18 wins over the previous decade, nine victories during the 21st century. They have yet to win in six tries this year, including shutouts in three of their first four games. This fecklessness is nothing new. Since the advent of two-platoon football in the mid-1960s, Duke has enjoyed eight winning seasons. Two came during three late-’80s seasons when Steve Spurrier, something of a genius at his craft, was head coach.

Duke was considered Maryland’s equal as a football power when the ACC was founded. Much as schools today move to Division I in order to improve their national stature, so the private school had used football to enhance its profile 75 years ago.

“The definitive event in the shaping of our modern athletic program occurred in 1931 with the arrival of Wallace Wade as head football coach and director of athletics,” according to a 1969 report by the Academic Council Ad Hoc Committee on Duke Athletics. “It may even be doubted that, at the time, there was a conscious intention to bring Duke into ‘big-time’ athletics, though this was the clear result of the appointment. As much or more than any other person, Mr. Wade was responsible for putting Duke ‘on the map’ in terms of its national visibility.”

Wade, a Hall of Famer, established his reputation at the University of Alabama, then led 16 Duke teams to 110 wins against only 36 losses and seven ties. That’s 19 more victories than the combined total achieved by the seven Duke coaches since 1979.

Clearly the Devils were not competitive in football even before the ACC, and over the objections of Duke and North Carolina, voted to expand to a dozen teams starting last season. Now the ACC is richly populated with schools that glorify football, some of them to dubious effect in the classroom and community.

The ACC traded propriety for profit on the playing field as well. Miami has attempted to rehabilitate its image as an outlaw program, but resurrected that past when its players eagerly participated last weekend in an ugly on-field brawl with Florida International. Thirty-one players were suspended for a game, 13 from Miami. Virginia Tech regularly countenances without punishment unsportsmanlike acts such as the gratuitous stomp by quarterback Marcus Vick on a Louisville opponent’s leg during January’s Gator Bowl, or defender Aaron Rouse’s vicious, concussive late hit to the head of Duke’s quarterback earlier this year. In neither case did Hokie coach Frank Beamer, avidly sought at North Carolina before it settled upon Bunting, so much as bench the offender for a single play.

Discussions of the football future at Duke and North Carolina are defined in comparison to such programs. Mention dropping to a lower level of play, or accepting second-class status within the ACC, and fans, sportswriters and athletic administrators bristle.

Tellingly, arguments against such moves quickly turn to economics­­­­–making good on multimillion-dollar investments in facilities, securing multimillion-dollar shares of ACC football swag derived from bowls and TV, shouldering multimillion-dollar burdens occasioned by supporting other sports. These are realities, but realities within the narrow scope of big-time athletics.

Why not assure job security for any football coach whose players behave like gentlemen on and off the field, who graduate at the same rate or better than ordinary students? Why not redefine competitiveness in a way that supports improvement and teamwork ahead of victory? Why not, at schools adept at fund-raising, decouple the fate of Olympic sports (volleyball, swimming, track, and the like) from the revenues generated by football?

Even applying more generous standards, it might be time to replace Bunting. He has had twice as long as Roof to establish his program, and there is little sign of progress. Post-game questions now directly address his job security.

But whether or not Bunting and Roof keep their jobs, leaders at UNC and Duke should articulate expectations that do more than replay big-time norms. The alternative is to keep lavishing funds on football and shuffling the coaching cards in hopes of hitting the jackpot now and again, as Duke did with Spurrier or as Wake Forest has with Jim Grobe.

The Demon Deacons are 6-1 this year. With more bowl berths available than winning Division I-A teams to fill them, six wins assure Wake a breakeven record and a probable postseason appearance. Not to mention a heady sense of achievement at a small private school with seven winning seasons in the past quarter-century.

Wake’s success under Grobe has come within parameters Duke and UNC might embrace. His Demon Deacons have more losses than wins in Grobe’s six years at Winston-Salem. Their last winning record came in 2002. But Wake is routinely competitive, the school’s academic standards remain strong, and there are no signs of misbehavior.

Unfortunately, once a Grobe or Spurrier excel, more prestigious programs are apt to lure them away. In the absence of a clear vision of something different, all that remains, then, is another spin of the coaching carousel, along with the expectations and demands that inevitably bring the buzzards, hungry for their next meal.