Marvin Austin, Robert Quinn and Greg Little were supposed to lead North Carolina's resurgence under Butch Davis this season. Instead, they never even stepped on the field.
And the trouble for the football program is still not over.
The school kicked Austin off the team Monday while the NCAA declared Quinn and Little "permanently ineligible" amid an ongoing investigation into whether players received improper benefits from agents.
Monday was the latest step in what has been a painstaking process that has inched along for weeks. The Tar Heels, who are also being investigated for possible academic violations, began the season with 13 players sidelined. The status of six players remains in question.
The investigations have damaged the reputation of the program and university. They also have raised the possibility of sanctions or vacated wins, even questions about a lack of institutional control for the program.
The NCAA said Quinn and Little received travel accommodations and jewelry, then lied about it to investigators in three separate interviews. Meanwhile, the school decided it wouldn't wait any longer to cut ties with Austin — a star defensive tackle at the center of the investigation since it began during the summer — after the NCAA provided preliminary information that Austin had received double the benefits furnished to Quinn and Little.
Athletic director Dick Baddour said the school wouldn't appeal the NCAA ruling.
"I'm also very sad and disappointed that these individuals made these extraordinarily poor choices," Davis said during a news conference. "Not only did they jeopardize themselves in their lives, they certainly have jeopardized this team, the university and I know that they're very remorseful about that. But it doesn't diminish the fact that these actions were poor choices in these kids' lives."
Baddour said Davis continues to have "my complete support" in resolving the issues, including better monitoring of players' activities, offseason travel and associations. He also said the school could hear rulings on more players later this week.
"I feel very strong about our compliance staff, about our compliance program," Baddour said. "I feel very strong about this football program, as I do the other programs that we have. I think we're in good stead. I'm going to fight the institutional control issues because of what we had in place and because of the way we're handling it."
In a one-paragraph statement announcing Austin's dismissal, the school said the decision involved violations of rules for agent benefits, preferential treatment and ethical conduct as the NCAA cited with Quinn and Little.
Christopher Lyons, Austin's Miami-based attorney, called it was "a very difficult day" for Austin. He also released a statement from his client apologizing for his actions and thanking those who supported him through the investigation.
"I want to apologize to the NCAA and the entire North Carolina Tar Heel community including my teammates, coaches, students and fans," Austin said. "I have let you all down and I am truly sorry.
"I deeply regret my actions and the embarrassment I brought to the university and to the football program. I will pay a severe price for my poor decisions by not being able to play my entire senior season."
Butch Williams, a Durham-based attorney representing Little, said they were "reviewing all of the information and the penalty to determine whether he will appeal."
The NCAA said Quinn, a defensive end widely regarded as a high first-round NFL draft pick, accepted two black diamond watches, a pair of matching earrings and travel accommodations to Miami for benefits worth $5,642. Little, a receiver who returned for his senior season, accepted diamond earrings, as well as travel accommodations for the Bahamas, Washington, D.C., and a pair of trips to Miami for benefits worth $4,952.
Baddour said those benefits weren't received during Little's 10-game stint as a reserve on the men's basketball team coached by Roy Williams during its Final Four run in 2008.
The NCAA also said the two provided "false information despite multiple opportunities to correct their assertions" and offered more accurate information only when faced with evidence that ran contrary to their claims.
Baddour said the decision to dismiss Austin — who has been suspended for violating team rules since Sept. 1 — came after the NCAA recently determined he had received between $10,000 and $13,000 in improper benefits.
The investigation began this summer focused on agent-related benefits, but expanded to include possible academic violations. Baddour said Austin, Quinn and Little weren't involved in the academic probe, which is running through the school's student judicial system.
Safety Deunta Williams, who returned last week after a four-game suspension for receiving improper benefits connected to trips, said fans needed to understand that "we're still people."
"Me, I don't judge anybody going through this situation," Williams said. "People may look at my situation and say, 'Hey, you did wrong. There's no big sin, little sin type of thing. I just feel for those guys. One choice could mess up what they've been wanting to do."
Since the opener against LSU, the number of players being held out has gradually declined. Tailback Shaun Draughn (one game) and safety Da'Norris Searcy (three) were recently to cleared after missing games, while cornerback Kendric Burney — another NFL prospect yet to play — is suspended one more game for improper benefits connected to trips.
The school announced Saturday that reserve safety Jonathan Smith, one of the 13 players sidelined to begin the season, wouldn't play this year. The university did not specify why.
Baddour said the program should've done more to monitor its high-profile players.
"We should've been doing something else," Baddour said. "We should've acknowledged the level that these guys are and that there were going to be people coming at them. ... I wish we had done more. I'd like to relive that part."