Bob Holliday

History of UNC-ECU includes cigars, spies, videotape

Posted September 26, 2013

Ed Emory was coach of ECU when rumors swirled of spying in the cross-state rivalry.

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.”

True story.

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.

17 Comments

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  • unc70 Sep 27, 7:31 p.m.

    Seeing how UNC generally will not come to Greenville, NC for this game, here's what all pirate... View More

    — Posted by YouGotThatRight

    Yep. '13, '12, '10, '09 in chapped hole....'11 in Greenvile. (4 out of last 5)

    — Posted by TSKMFs

    Talk to your Coaches, AD and Administators. OR, just don't play us and see how that works out... View More

    — Posted by 75Tarheel

    I support UNC playing ECU on a somewhat regular basis, but not every year. Have no problem playing in Greenville, though I suspect there is morel net for each school when they play in Chapel Hill.

    UNC has generally played one SEC and one Big Ten team each year -- some strong, some not: KY, Vandy, SC, FL; NW, IL, Mich State. Have played ND on and off through the years; will be more frequent now. Sometimes a Southern or C-USA team, others a power like TX or OK. And here and there, a team like Elon.

  • Gunnstigator Sep 27, 4:20 p.m.

    Very interesting to see the storied history of these two schools - thank you Bob!

    This will be a tough game for Carolina - ECU has a good team this year, and they will give Carolina all they can handle.

  • 75Tarheel Sep 27, 2:29 p.m.

    Seeing how UNC generally will not come to Greenville, NC for this game, here's what all pirate... View More

    — Posted by YouGotThatRight

    Yep. '13, '12, '10, '09 in chapped hole....'11 in Greenvile. (4 out of last 5)

    — Posted by TSKMFs

    Talk to your Coaches, AD and Administators. OR, just don't play us and see how that works out for you. As for me, I don't care if it's home and home every year just as long as it's played every year! I have fingers in both pots - Myself and Nephew UNC grads and my son with 4 neices/nephews grads/students at ECU.

    GO HEELS!

    Go Pirates!

  • unc70 Sep 27, 10:15 a.m.

    ...but I need to point out one error. President Bill Friday did not come to terms in 1974 with... View More

    — Posted by paintcan

    Afraid you are the one who is wrong. Friday did indeed come to terms with ECU having its medical school. He still thought it was the wrong decision, but it was a political decision by the the NC GA and not going to be changed. Friday saw that the only option was to make it as fine a medical school as possible.

    http://books.google.com/books?id=fxwPjyraDEoC&pg=PA244&lpg=PA244&dq=bill+friday+leo+jenkins+medical+school+1975&source=bl&ots=IBvlCvY1wd&sig=ormLbeNK040Lre5zAq5ocA7Vw94&hl=en&sa=X&ei=IoFFUpmtNIWr4APx0oH4Bg&ved=0CDgQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=bill%20friday%20leo%20jenkins%20medical%20school%201975&f=false

    You might want to read several pages before the page in the link.

    In the 1960s and 1970s, the NC House had one member from each of the 100 counties and the remaining 20 seats divided among ten or so most populous counties. There are 41 counties east of I-95, mostly rural and conservative. These counties and similar rural ones controlled the NC GA. While nearly all members were nominally Dems, many would later switch parties and become conservative Repubs. Governor Sanford was relatively progressive, while Jesse Helms had returned to WRAL radio and TV after a stint as a Washington insider and Senate aide.

    Desegregation was a dominant issue. As usual, attacking UNC and Chapel Hill was often good political strategy, and Helms did so 3-4 days a week. Many State supporters were still angry that they had been put under Carolina and Dr. Frank thirty years prior. Loss of the Dixie Classic made it worse, but State was not allowed to be independent. Helms saw ECU as a possible independent power in opposition to Carolina and pushed that regularly. Eventually, while ECU got its med school, it did not remain independent but was made a campus of The UNC System and subject to the UNC Board of Governors and President Friday.

  • YouGotThatRight Sep 27, 3:07 a.m.

    ECU has nothing to gain by playing UNC in Chapel Hill either. The tar heels suck at football. ECU has nothing to gain by playing "home games" in Charlotte's Bank of America stadium either. UNC wants to be the home team that tells ECU where their place is and not to forget it. Any ECU AD which decides not to schedule UNC will be fired on the spot. ECU employees are puppets in a micromanaged UNC system. Any ECU grad who participates in giving UNC their cash needs a psychiatrist.

  • cruedaddy Sep 27, 2:37 a.m.

    Unc will be more than happy to continue this series as long as they are dominating it...but if the tide ever begins to turn purple, you won't see these games being played anymore. Just ask Ncsu.

  • gtr Sep 27, 1:52 a.m.

    Seeing how UNC generally will not come to Greenville, NC for this game, here's what all pirate... View More

    — Posted by YouGotThatRight

    Yep. '13, '12, '10, '09 in chapped hole....'11 in Greenvile. (4 out of last 5)

    — Posted by TSKMFs

    UNC played in Greenville in '03, '07, and '11 and will do so again in '14. That will be 4 times in 12 seasons, which is a FAR more often than it plays the ACC Atlantic Division teams not named NC State.

    Don't get me wrong. I'm happy this game is being played, but anybody who thinks that UNC and ECU will start playing every year with the game every other year in Greenville is just delusional. There's really not much for UNC to gain by playing ECU, home or away, and the same holds true for State.

  • TSKMFs Sep 26, 9:30 p.m.

    Seeing how UNC generally will not come to Greenville, NC for this game, here's what all pirate... View More

    — Posted by YouGotThatRight

    Yep. '13, '12, '10, '09 in chapped hole....'11 in Greenvile. (4 out of last 5)

  • YouGotThatRight Sep 26, 8:39 p.m.

    Seeing how UNC generally will not come to Greenville, NC for this game, here's what all pirate fans should do. Gas up your car in your town before you leave. Don't eat out in Chapel Hill. Buy all of your supplies at home before you leave. Drive back home immediately after the game and don't give Chapel Hill any of your extra money. Don't reward a school that's greedy with money. Greenville, NC restaurants, hotels and WalMarts suffer from UNC's unwillingness to play in Greenville, NC.

  • nctrooper27560 Sep 26, 5:31 p.m.

    Ball spotted near the goaline of the Tar Heels where it is a first downnnnnnnnnn...Piratesssssss Arghhhhhhhhh

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