The Blue 'War' Zone
When UNC football lurched into trouble with the NCAA in the summer of 2010, and the probability increased of probation and that head coach Butch Davis might actually get fired, a slow panic began to grow among alumni and fans.
Those who had seen so much promise in Davis’ last three years wondered how all this would affect recruiting. Davis, himself, said the bad publicity was the subject of every home visit and becoming an obstacle to signing another stellar freshman class.
The real panic, however, was at the Rams Club, which was in the middle of constructing the $70 million Loudermilk Center for Excellence, more commonly known as the Blue Zone. Enough seats had been sold to secure financing, but those loans had to be paid off by selling the rest of the suites and club seats. If Davis were fired, the Blue Zone would open in a deep debt, perhaps one that could never be paid. So much of the initial money coming in was from donors who supported Davis and believed he would survive.
“There was a lot going on before the firing, with anxious phone calls every day,” said Ken Mack, Major Gift Director for the Rams Club. “Much like it is now, for another reason, there was seemingly a story in the news every day that mostly recycled what had already happened.”
But, in late July, when Davis was fired and Athletic Director Dick Baddour stepped aside, the manure really hit the fan. Calls to the Rams Club tripled in number and lengthened in duration from angry donors wanting out of their Blue Zone pledges and, in some case, their memberships completely.
The conference room on the second floor of the Williamson Athletic Center became more like a War Room in the Pentagon. The staff met steadily over two or three days with Executive Director John Montgomery, debating courses of action and finally hashing out an action plan.
“A canned public statement from the Rams Club wasn’t going to do it,” Mack said. “Neither were personal emails. We knew we had to address every single phone call, one by one. And that wasn’t going to be easy.”
All Rams Club employees, from Montgomery down to the secretaries, were fielding calls and taking messages. Although members and donors deal with any number of a half-dozen on the executive sales team, the plan was for Mack and former UNC All-American running back Don McCauley to make the return calls.
Mack was a three-year letterman for the Tar Heels in the late 1970s and on the Tar Heel coaching staff between 1996 and 2000 before moving into fund raising. A smart, sensible, affable guy, Mack let the angry mob vent without reacting. McCauley, of course, needed no introduction to most of the Rams Club members.
“It was decided that Don and I, having worn the uniform and played here, were going to call them back, one by one,” Mack said this week on the dawn of a new season and era of Carolina Football under Larry Fedora.
“They weren’t short phone calls either, sometime 45 minutes to an hour. People were mad at the Chancellor, Butch, at the world. We listened, gave them time to share their opinions and vent.”
Then, when an appropriate pause in the conversation came along, Mack and McCauley followed with a simple question: “Are you mad at our student-athletes?”
“None of them were mad at the kids,” Mack said.
“We acknowledged that they were angry, and rightfully so, but that it was time to take a stand, stay with us 6 months to a year, and if things did not get better than they could leave, we’d let them out of their pledges.
“We said by leaving, you hurt the athletes at a time they need to know we’re behind them. And I said, ‘We will not turn our backs on our young people.’”
McCauley likened it to “talking a lot of people off the ledge.”
“I told them how much it meant to me, when I played, to see the stands full and the alumni, fans and students supporting us,” said McCauley, still Carolina’s single-season and three-year career leading rusher. “I said when there’s a problem, that’s when the family needs to come together. I asked them, as a personal favor to me, to give us a year to try and figure out where this thing was going and meanwhile support the players.”
“After they got to vent, most of them stayed with us. Butch was gone and these were tough times, but I promised we’d be a better athletic department and program for it.”
Mack admitted it took him a little longer to get through to some of the disgruntled donors.
“I had to explain to people that I was a recruited scholarship athlete, I was an assistant coach here and what I do now,” Mack said. “So I knew a little about what these kids were going through. It gave me some credibility.
“But Don McCauley needs no introduction to most of our people; he’s an icon and when he calls, you want to listen to him.”
Mack said it was more intense than any game, any season, he had ever prepared for or played in. He spent 8-10 hours a day on the phone, being patient but persistent that the Rams Club was there for the Carolina athletes.
“The calls wore us out, some of them got very personal,” Mack said. “At the end of each day, I went home flopped on the couch and did not want to even see a telephone. Then, the next morning, we came in and went back at it.
“In the end, we lost 10-12 members, a significantly small number considering all of the calls we made. Most of our members stayed and decided they did not want to hurt the student-athletes.”
He called it a “roller coaster” ride with a lot of members rallying around interim coach Everett Withers early in the 2011 season and then having anxiety over a new athletic director coming in. Meanwhile, Mack and McCauley did not see much football on home Saturdays.
“I had to go home and watch the replay,” Mack said. “During the game, we were on the move, giving tours, talking to people, offering the three unsold suites to prospects. We HAD to get those seats sold.”
It picked up momentum when Bubba Cunningham was introduced as UNC’s new athletic director in October.
“Once Bubba was hired and got on campus, people gained confidence in the new direction we were going,” Mack said. “I will tell you this, our organization, and those who know him, would follow him off a cliff. We all adore him.”
While Davis retains some loyalists who still believe he was fired wrongly, or at least at the wrong time, the next tide came when Cunningham introduced Fedora in early January. His rat-tat-tat energy and confidence further excited the fan base, and the Rams Club kept working toward their goal of selling out the Blue Zone.
“We’ve sold all of the suites and about 90 percent of the club levels,” Mack said, estimating that 60 seats remain in the lower club and about 100 in the upper club. “Some members moved over from the lower bowl and we gained some new members because you have to be in the Rams Cub to be in the Blue Zone.”
Once all the anger simmered down, Mack said the Blue Zone basically sold itself.
“It’s a different experience and any time you can see a game like that, you’re going to attract some attention,” he said of the reserved seating in the East end zone with private amenities that include buffet food with spirits.
“The concourse levels are just a great way to experience the game. It’s safe, you come in with your kids, have no trouble parking, don’t have to do all the work that tailgating requires. A number of people who bought seats had become tired of tailgating, especially the women, who do the grocery shopping, prepare the food, set it up and take it down. By game time, they are exhausted.”
Montgomery, who steered the lilting ship back into calm waters, explains it simply: “Carolina people will pay for a special level of service.”
McCauley summed it up by saying it was hard work delivering a simple message that some season ticket holders had forgotten in their anger. “I reminded them that when things get back to normal, there isn’t a better place to be on a fall Saturday afternoon, a day in Chapel Hill to support our football team.”