Uniformly Agreed — We Like 'Em!

I was in mid-matriculation when Carolina Football went from white helmets to various PMS-shades of blue helmets.  I bet you don’t know the “why” they did.  I bet not even Freddie Kiger knows this one!

Bill Dooley replaced Jim Hickey as UNC’s Head Football Coach following the 1966 season.   Dooley brought with him a different “attitude” towards college football and it’s overall seriousness in the grand scheme of things.  Duh! 
For Dooley and his SEC-bred staff it was akin to “war” best waged by socially-dysfunctional individuals of ill-temper.  A Bill Dooley quote (with a 58% chance of being apocryphal) went that:
 “Good guys wear white hats.  Our football team is not going to be ‘good guys’ any longer.”  …… Bye bye white helmets – Hello blue helmets.  Until this past Saturday.
Aside:  I have a theory that all “Coach (fill-in-blank) said” were actually said by Peahead Walker.  Walker was a notoriously goofy coach at Wake Forest (in Wake Forest) and other places in the 1940s-50s who supposedly said a number of malapropisms and other non-sequiturs regarding football and Life.   There is a companion theory that Peahead Walker himself never existed but is simply a catch-all source of any goofy saying by a football coach.   You decide.
Carolina football helmets have been various shades of “Carolina Blue” since 1968.  Dean Smith had five different PMS-shades of Carolina Blue he used for various purposes.  You really want to argue with Dean Smith?  I didn’t think so.
The interlocking NC has been the helmet decal all that time EXCEPT for several years under Dick Crum when he used a staggered UNC decal.  Most of the Crum-era has been power-washed from the collective memory of Tar Heels.  The staggered UNC was among the first such innovations to be dropped.   In Dick’s defense, I always liked his jersey numbering design.  Apparently I’m the only one who did.
Sports uniforms in general are not one of my hot-button issues.  I do think some of the ones over the past few years have been hideous.  I tend to be a traditionalist but you probably guessed that already….. Yankee pinstripes….. Cardinals’ bird-on-the-bat…..  a double gambler at The Rat….. etc, etc.   Rolls at the Porthole !!
I knew Saturday’s game was going to unveil the old/new white helmets but I hadn’t given it much thought until the team ran out on the field for VaTech.  The all-white head-to-toe look was BOFFO.   I did not get a tingle down my leg; but I really did like the look A LOT.
My immediate concern was “if we lose today will Coach Fedora forever outlaw the white helmets?”  Should we have unveiled them against Idaho-ho-ho to give them a chance as a good-luck charm?   The Fighting Fedorians solved the dilemma right where it should be solved – amid the lofty pines of Kenan’s greensward.
While many were marveling at Gio Bernard’s outstanding day, I was not at all surprised.  That all-white look from head-to-toe increased Gio’s speed by .262%.  Look faster – Be Faster.  Go Gio Go!
My advice to Coach Fedora and to Bubba is “blue helmets with blue jerseys” and “white helmets with white jerseys”.
Just so you don’t think I’m the only one; the several hundred former Carolina FB lettermen in the Choo Choo Lounge at halftime Saturday unanimously applauded the “new look”.  That included an old friend from Rocky Mount who knows a thing or two about wearing a Carolina white helmet.  A fellow by the name of Talbot.  Danny LOVED’em too!  As did the youngsters like Don McCauley who never knew “the whole story”…… until now.  
AND…… so did the Official Mascots of The Choo Choo Lounge – The Fabulous Comparato Twins – Nicole & Paige.  They thought they were “really cute”.   They know a lot about “cute”.
More BobLee?  Boblee@bobleesays.com


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.

Left: Ken Mack
Right: Don McCauley


“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.”


Eras of Imperfection

As Bubba Cunningham takes over and goes about the process of producing a winning football program we can all be proud of, it brings to mind past UNC coaching regimes and blips along the way that occurred in all of them.
The post-Choo Choo Justice era has been rife with distractions and interruptions, the largest of course being the sudden death of “Sunny Jim” Tatum in the summer of 1959. Tatum, a Carolina alum, had returned from Maryland after winning the 1953 national championship in College Park and embarked on building a similar power in Chapel Hill.
For those who have questioned football’s place at Carolina, athletic department graybeards remember how Tatum’s arrival created a reorganization of offices in Woollen Gym that resulted in basketball coach Frank McGuire being downsized into a space that was once the ticket booth.

Who knows what would have happened had Tatum not been fatally infected with Rocky Mountain spotted fever. The prospect has caused some remorseful fans to label Carolina’s football woes as “The Curse of the Tick.” But Tatum’s best team did drub Duke 50-0 on Thanksgiving Day 1959 under elevated new head coach Jim Hickey.
Hickey’s high-water mark was the Ken Willard-Chris Hanburger co-ACC champs of 1963 that blanked Air Force in the Gator Bowl 35-0. The post-season bid was secured when Max Chapman booted a clutch late field goal at Duke to pull out the 16-14 victory. But that was Hickey’s last winning team and he was fired following the 1966 season.
Bill Dooley, a 32-year-old coach with SEC roots (played at Mississippi State, worked for brother Vince at Georgia), took over and made spring and summer practices more like boot camps, weeding out those who thought football was supposed to be fun. Dooley gradually recruited his kind of players and began a string of six bowl games in eight years that included three ACC Championships in the pre-Florida State days. Only one subsequent Carolina coach won an ACC title and it was not Mack Brown.
When Dooley could not ascend to the dual role of football coach and athletic director (like bro Vincent in Athens), he left Chapel Hill for Virginia Tech, which was willing to give him both jobs. Neither Georgia nor Virginia Tech had a powerhouse basketball coach and program like Dean Smith’s Tar Heels, and if Smith didn’t want to be the AD (which he turned down), then the football coach wasn’t getting it. For sure.
Dooley’s “three yards and a cloud of dust” offense received regular ridicule, but history has made him Carolina’s most successful football coach in terms of conference titles and 1,000-yard rushers (Don McCauley’s UNC-record 1,720 yards in 1970 tops 20 such seasons from 12 different Carolina running backs). Dooley personifies the old cliché about not knowing what you have lost until you lose it.
Dick Crum came next and his decade on the job produced the other ACC title (1980), six bowl teams and eight of those 1,000-yard seasons. In a curious irony, Crum ran a wider-open offense than Dooley while remaining emotionless on the sideline — his squat body covered up by a baggy jacket or sweatshirt, wide-rimmed glasses and head phones that swallowed his ears . . . Coach R2-D2, the media jokingly called him.
When “the Crummer” stopped going to bowls every year, his professorial personality became more of an issue with fat-cat donors and alumni, and the school bought out his contract after the 1987 season. We needed a coach with more sizzle, a salesman who could recruit great players and help us raise money. Enter Mack Brown from Tulane by way of Appalachian State and Oklahoma (as an assistant).
Although Brown averaged nine wins his last six seasons, all ending with bowl bids, he never fully overcame the 1-10 records his first two UNC teams posted. He even poked fun at himself, repeating jokes he had heard about him and his program. But while he laughed (and sometimes cried) after games, his real mettle was in the sign posted for everyone to see in the football office: “It’s Not a Matter of IF — It’s a Matter of WHEN.”
Brown embraced Carolina’s football history, won over the lettermen and led the charge to build the Kenan Football Center. He nearly left for Oklahoma two years earlier (his wife went as far as house-hunting in Norman), but decided to stay. Since he had yet to move into his fancy new office, with the infamous fish tank, Brown was thought to be staying at least a few more seasons in Chapel Hill.
He was bitterly disappointed when his 1997 Tar Heels washed out 20-3 against Florida State in the game of unbeaten, top-10 teams on an electric Saturday night in Kenan Stadium. And, after posting Carolina’s first win at Clemson in 17 years, Brown was openly agitated when a sparse turnout saw the noon kickoff on Senior Day against Duke. Even after the fired up Tar Heels drilled the Blue Devils 50-14 to finish 10-1, Brown was still carping about the less-than-capacity crowd.
So, after accidentally bumping into Texas coaching legend Daryl Royal at the ACC all-sports banquet in Atlanta that December, Brown was still miffed enough to listen to a preliminary pitch and then stay over to meet with the Texas search committee. Of course, the engaging Brown said all the right things and was offered the job that he did not accept until UNC refused to up his salary to match that of basketball coach Bill Guthridge. Carolina finally did, but by that time Brown was burned up and ready to wear burnt orange. Today, he is among the highest-paid coaches in the history of college sports, his Longhorns upsetting Reggie Bush and USC for one national championship and losing a second BCS title game to Alabama two years ago.
While Dooley, Crum and Brown had their ups-and-downs during their respective 11-, 10- and 10-year stints at UNC, they won 210 games, those four ACC titles and earned 18 bowl bids over 31 years. No Carolina coach since has lasted six full seasons, won more than eight games and earned one (Carl Torbush), two (John Bunting) and three (Butch Davis) bowl bids.
So, regardless of how the NCAA rules, there is a lot of work to do to get back to where Carolina was in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, because clearly the 21st Century has not been nearly as good for the football Tar Heels. And the last two years have set their own unfortunate precedent.
That will be the challenge for the new permanent coach, whoever he turns out to be. Ironically, in terms of personnel and facilities, he will have it far better than any of his predecessors inherited. So the formula is simple if not easy.
Get the right guy in here, survive the NCAA sanctions, and in the long run the sky’s the limit.