To the true believer, there’s nothing quite like an autumn Saturday in Chapel Hill. There is charcoal to light, libations to concoct, old hands to shake, beanbags to toss, crystalline air to ingest, Carolina-blue skies to revere, well-worn paths coursing through the towering pines to tread. There are Justices and McCauleys, Blys and Bernards to cheer. Hopefully, three hours into the proceedings in Kenan Memorial Stadium, the band director will lift his baton and signal from his musicians those six sublime notes opening the faucet of happy voices in the stands:
There’ll be a Car-o-li-na vic-to-ry …
Tucked in the middle of the bustling campus at the University of North Carolina is Kenan Stadium. Now nearly ninety years old, the stadium has been the centerpiece for generations of Carolina students, alumni and fans to enjoy an autumn Saturday. At times, the team has been terrific, about as good as anyone in the country—witness high-water marks of the Carl Snavely, Bill Dooley, Dick Crum and Mack Brown eras. And just recently the Carolina squad under fourth-year Coach Larry Fedora did something no other team had ever done in a century and a quarter of football in Chapel Hill—win eleven games in a row.
“You guys are special,” Fedora told his players after a season-ending win against N.C. State. “You’ve done something that’s never been done, never at this University. Talk about a legacy for you seniors. Wow. Wow. It’s everything you ever dreamed about.”
Yet each pinnacle is followed by a trough in the program’s fortunes. One coach dies. Another wants a dual post as coach and athletic director that he cannot have at UNC and finds it elsewhere. One is lured away by a suitor with bottomless cash and football swagger. One falls prey to storm clouds away from the field. And there’s the requisite reboot and rebuilding job that follows each time—which is largely why the program has won only around fifty-four percent of its games since 1888.
The constant, though, is the beauty of Kenan Stadium, the ritual of pre- and post-game tailgate parties and the return to campus for nostalgic old grads, and of course the crescendo of noise that builds in The Tar Pit as the third quarter of an important game in November unfolds. The venue holds a happy nook in most every student’s memory bank—storming the field and vaulting the fallen goal posts after a big win, the antics of a favorite “mic man,” the heroics of a revered tailback, the secret ingredient of a perennial tailgate dish, the smile of a winsome coed, the saucy lyrics of a popular post-game entertainer such as Doug Clark and the Hot Nuts, the bequeathing of a diploma after four years of all-nighters in the Undergrad Library, a nocturnal rendezvous with that special someone and an official “Stadium Club” membership card at the end.
The Tar Heels’ competitive record on the field of Kenan Memorial Stadium could best be charted with a pogo stick—impressive highs and stupefying lows—and its footprint in the center of the Chapel Hill campus limits the generation of pre-game energy you find around of some of the massive parking lots surrounding other stadiums.
But its wooded setting and the field’s placement in the base of a natural ravine meld to give the structure an aesthetic ambiance unrivaled among the major players in college football and those not situated next door to a river (a la Michie Stadium at Army and Neyland Stadium at Tennessee) or a lake (Husky Stadium at the University of Washington). And even at that, I’ll take Kenan over that giant “erector set by the river” in Knoxville any day. Name another college football stadium in the nation where you can stand exactly thirty yards from an exterior fence and actually be blocked from viewing the structure by a wooden thicket of oak, pine, hemlock and maple trees.
“One moment you are deep in the green and the blaze of autumn leaves, and the next the curtain has disappeared, the land falls away and the panorama of long, graceful lines and gently sweeping curves spreads out … The picture fits exactly; it was made for its frame and its frame for it,” said the Carolina Alumni Review upon the stadium’s opening in 1927.
It’s the Wrigley Field and the Merion Golf Club of college football.
For years I have wanted to produce a coffee-table book celebrating the singular ambiance of Kenan Stadium. In my files are content outlines, printing quotes and financing proposals for books in 1997 and 2009. I have thirty-five millimeter slides from photographer Bob Donnan taken during the 1997 Virginia game, a 48-20 Carolina rout during which Donnan shot from the visiting sideline aiming across the field, focusing on the Tar Heel bench area and the student cheering section behind it. The idea was to capture an instant of time when the players, coaches and fans were exploding in celebration and put that image on the cover of a book titled Rock The House, the name taken from a popular cheer and band routine at the time.
Those books never materialized for one reason or another, but the idea was incubating all along as I went about writing and editing books in Pinehurst and for other golf clubs celebrating anniversaries and continued to cover Tar Heel football for Goheels.com and the Tar Heel Sports Network.
I dusted those plans off again last spring in a fit a pique over another bratatatat of machine-gun fire at the University from a national media source and Carolina grad who was pissed off over the academic scandal and returned to Chapel Hill to wax sanctimonious. Certainly the University deserved a black eye for the academic fraud scandal that began coming to light in the summer of 2010. It didn’t deserve a dozen rounds at ten paces from a howitzer, as the transgressions in no way were the result of a systemic scheme to cheat. As Chancellor Carol Folt has so precisely noted, “It was the bad actions of a few and the inactions of many.”
My thought was that if you buy real estate or the stock market when there’s blood in the streets, now was as a good a time as any to publish a book on some element of the Carolina experience that would make folks smile, that would remind them of the good life in Chapel Hill. Back in the summer as the concept was germinating, I knew the Tar Heel football team would be better in 2015 than it was the previous year, but I can’t say I envisioned 11-3.
And so we come to the threshold of a fun new project, a book that will roll off the presses late this summer called Football in a Forest, the title borrowed from a line the late and great Tar Heel grad Furman Bisher (UNC ’39) wrote in a column in the Atlanta Journal in 1980.
The book will be two hundred pages plus, large-format, full-color throughout, chock full of nostalgia and sepia-tones and the magic of a drone-mounted camera circling the stadium at dusk during the Miami game in November. A handful of accomplished authors and talented photographers will lend their reflections and snaps to the pages. The Kenan Stadium experience beyond football will be well-preserved; already I’ve landed a nice essay from a local music writer with a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the Bruce Springsteen concert in 2003. The three marriage proposals that were consummated in Kenan Stadium in the fall of 2015 are fun story fodder. So, too, is the tale of the gal who sought closure from her marriage breakup by burying her diamond on the fifty yard-line; she walked away and no one ever found that ring. And who knows how we might weave the creative juices of students, townsfolk and alumni into the mix with their omnipresent cameras and social media forums at the ready?
“If only Kenan could speak, and now through this book it will. What a terrific idea,” says former UNC System President Erskine Bowles.
I created this blog last spring as a place to detail my progress along the way, and now it’s time to “go live,” as they say. Check back often for updates. Never before has anyone attempted such an ambitious publishing project on an integral element of Carolina football.
Why not, indeed? The afterglow of an historical season provides the perfect backdrop.
Ideas, stories, photos, memorabilia to contribute? Send them along to email@example.com. And be quick about it.
(Aerial photo of campus circa early 1930s and student section 1950s courtesy N.C. Collection/Wilson Library in Chapel Hill. Tailgating photo from Bob Donnan).