CHAPEL HILL — Bill Friday was only 40 years old, a very young man in a very big job, when he made a decision that changed the course of college basketball in North Carolina and set a course for himself that would define his legacy.
In the spring of 1961, Friday had been president of the UNC system for five years when he decided to end the Dixie Classic, the massively popular holiday basketball tournament held at N.C. State’s Reynolds Coliseum.
As much as anything, the Dixie Classic fueled the growth of college basketball in the state to what it is today. For 12 years, fans filled every smoky corner of Reynolds to see N.C. State, North Carolina, Duke and Wake Forest take on some of the best teams in the country.
Then, amid a criminal investigation into a point-shaving scandal at the tournament, Friday canceled the Dixie Classic, the first step forward in a career that would see him do as much as any single individual to pursue the reform of college athletics.
“It was something that needed to be done, and he had the foresight to do it,” said former North Carolina broadcaster Woody Durham, who was a student at North Carolina when Friday was named UNC system president. “There was no telling where it would have gone if it had continued.”
The uproar was tremendous, from fans, coaches, players and even Raleigh businessmen who profited from the tournament. But right until his death Friday at 92, Friday never wavered from his conviction that something needed to be done and he was the man to do it, a belief that would secure his impact on college athletics.
“I was a big basketball fan myself,” Friday, an N.C. State graduate, said decades later. “You can’t imagine the sadness in dealing with something like that. In looking back now, it was an early manifestation of the power of sports in society.”
Friday would spend his entire career trying to check the power of college athletics. He foresaw many of the problems that campuses wrestle with today: how the arms race for coaches and facilities would run out of control, how the ever-growing money involved would twist the original mission of college sports into something that had only a tenuous relationship to higher education.
With unquestioned credibility in the academic world, he used his position as system president, and then as the first chairman of the Knight Commission on College Athletics, to drive the debate about college athletics and set the agenda for reform.
While at UNC, he pushed the NCAA to adopt Proposition 48, which set academic entrance standards for athletes. In 16 years in charge of the Knight Commission, he helped generate a few recommendations that were taken up by the NCAA and dozens upon dozens that were ignored, as prescient as they may have been.
“He was a man ahead of his time,” said former Maryland basketball player Len Elmore, a current member of the Knight Commission. “He understood exactly where we were going. Hopefully, as we continue to inch forward toward his vision, his legacy will accelerate the movement toward grabbing control of intercollegiate athletics, to rein in commercialism and focus on the welfare of the student-athlete.”
As recently as last February, Friday appeared at a forum in Chapel Hill still making his case for reform, pointing out the insidious impact of the billions of dollars of television money now fueling college sports before the discussion meandered off into frivolities.
“The real question is who’s in control?” Friday said. “Who’s in control is commercial television. … It’s the money that they command that makes things happen, and we haven’t gotten control of that factor yet, and until we do we’ll continue to have that problem.”
Friday never gave up that fight. All the debates raging today -- over the role of athletics on college campuses and NCAA reform -- are debates Friday was trying to start decades ago when no one wanted to listen. From the end of the Dixie Classic to the day he died, he was right all along.
What turned out to be his final public statements appeared in two newspapers this week, USA Today and the Washington Post, expressing his sadness at the scandal that continues to deepen at North Carolina, hitting so painfully close to home.
“Reform never ends,” Friday once said, “and the struggle will go on.”
DeCock: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @LukeDeCock, (919) 829-8947