History of UNC-ECU includes cigars, spies, videotape
Posted September 26, 2013
This series between the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and East Carolina University began against the backdrop of the battle over the ECU Medical School. Then-Chancellor Leo Jenkins wanted to train doctors in Greenville, and he took his campaign to the North Carolina General Assembly. In October of 1973, the ECU football team, which counted Jenkins as its No. 1 fan, played in Chapel Hill, on the one campus which already had a medical school supported by the state.
North Carolina had beaten the Pirates, 42-19, in the first meeting between the schools in 1972, but that was one of the three best teams in Tar Heel football history, and ECU returned most of its key players the following year. While one athletic contest should never influence an important decision regarding higher education, clearly, another UNC blowout win was not going to help Jenkins persuade legislators that ECU deserved a four-year medical school.
East Carolina’s defense in that era was known as “The Wild Dogs.” For two years, the Wild Dogs, led by Danny Kepley, had shut down every opponent except North Carolina State and UNC. And for the first three quarters that late October day in Kenan Stadium, ECU held the Tar Heels to a single touchdown.
Somehow, UNC rallied to win 28-27, still the largest fourth quarter comeback in the 100-plus year history of Tar Heel football. But East Carolina had made its point.
“The one thing we wanted was for these people to respect us – something they’ve never done,” emotional sportscaster Sonny Randle said after the game, adding, “If there’s one person here today who doesn’t respect us, he needs to see a psychiatrist.”
UNC System President William Friday, who had been concerned the state could not afford to fund two medical schools, changed his position in late 1974, and the General Assembly approved the funds.
Dye’n for a Cigar
Then in 1975, the Pirates returned to conquer. Pat Dye had become the coach, and though he described his undersized Pirates as a bunch of “skinny-legged kids,” his wishbone offense gave ECU a weapon that was difficult to negate (See Paul Johnson-Georgia Tech).
Despite 209 yards rushing from UNC’s Mike Voight, East Carolina rolled, 38-17.
I was among a dozen or so reporters who gathered around Dye in the corner of one end zone at Kenan Stadium. First, the coach dedicated the win to Clarence Stasavich, ECU’s successful coach of the 1960s, who had died the day before.
Then he reached into his pocket.
“I was so sure we were gonna beat North Carolina today,” Dye said, “that I brought cigars. And I want all of you to have one.”
Pat Dye handed out victory cigars after ECU’s first (and to this point only) win in Chapel Hill.
Sleeping giant awakened
A year later, I sat down with Jenkins, who again stressed his belief that excellence in one phase of the university leads to success in other phases. Of football, the ECU chancellor said, “The schools in North Carolina know now the sleeping giant is awakened. And they’re going to have a hard time with us from now on.”
During the Dye years, that was certainly true. The Tar Heels won in 1976 on a late 49-yard field goal by Jeff Arnold, 12-10. Some Pirate players accused the Tar Heels of using a special ball for that kick. That set the stage for two more memorable games in Chapel Hill.
1978 marked the beginning of the Dick Crum era at UNC, and it produced without question the shortest quote I can remember in my years covering football. Question: “What concerns you about East Carolina, coach?” Answer: “Their speed.” That’s it. That’s all he said.
Crum remains the winningest coach in UNC football history, but interviewing him was always a challenge. He knew football, though, and East Carolina’s speed did nearly ruin his debut. The Tar Heels prevailed just 14-10.
The Pirates came even closer in 1979. Only a Jeff Hayes field goal in the closing seconds kept East Carolina from posting a win. The game ended in a 24-24 tie.
That was a North Carolina team with Lawrence Taylor, Buddy Curry, Donnell Thompson (all future NFL stars) and Amos Lawrence, the school’s all-time leading rusher. For a team led by Leander Green to nearly take down a team led by LT, maybe says something about the power of purpose.
That North Carolina team, by the way, went on to beat Michigan in the Gator Bowl.
They fired the spies at halftime
The late Ed Emory took over as coach at ECU for the 1980 season. Emory used to tell me, “Down east, we’ve got the magic of believing.”
We saw that in ECU’s remarkable 1983 season, when the Pirates went 8-3 and nearly ruined Miami’s national championship run. Emory went 0-2 against UNC, but the rivalry still produced some drama – off the field.
In the week leading up to the Pirate-Tar Heel season opener in 1981, a couple of strangers were spotted in the UNC Law School Library, which overlooks the football practice field. Asked for ID, the pair fled the building and drove off. The license plate was traced to an eastern North Carolina dealership known to provide courtesy cars for ECU coaches. Folks in Chapel Hill accused ECU of spying.
If there was football espionage, Emory never acknowledged it. And it certainly didn’t help the Pirates that day. North Carolina scored touchdowns by the truckload in the game’s first 25 minutes. At intermission, one down east reporter went around telling friends, “Did you hear, they fired the spies at halftime!”
Kelvin Bryant scored six touchdowns as the Tar Heels won 56-0.
I have videotape
The series took a 20-year hiatus, returning in part because of, shall we say, “encouragement” from the General Assembly. I’ve just finished watching WRAL’s account of the great reunion in 2001, Steve Logan’s only crack at the Tar Heels.
The videotape shows the Pirates could easily have prevailed in 2001. David Garrard led ECU to a 10-0 lead that might have become 17-0, but for a batted ball interception. Carolina scored a touchdown on a pass that went through a defender’s hands and into the grasp of falling-down receiver Zach Hilton. The Pirates’ Art Brown returned a kickoff to the Tar Heel goal line, only to have the ball knocked away at the last instant.
Final score: 24-21 UNC.
ECU did win in 2007 during the Tar Heels’ second trip to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. Patrick Pinkney, whose father Reggie was hit with a controversial pass interference call during the Pirates’ emotional loss in 1973, quarterbacked the Pirate victory, with help from future NFL star Chris Johnson. Coach Skip Holtz, whose father Lou went 4-0 against ECU while at NC State, picked up the Pirates’ second win in this brief but storied series.
North Carolina has won the last four games by an average of 18 points, but that will have no bearing on Saturday’s contest, except perhaps to give even more motivation to ECU. Pirate coach Ruffin McNeill is a veteran of the ECU wars in Chapel Hill, having played in the close loss in 1978 and the bitter tie of 1979. Even though almost 30 years have passed since ECU’s only win in Kenan, the Pirates’ strong showing against Virginia Tech serves notice this week that they have a chance. Maybe a good chance.