Jacobs: UNC haunted by Kenan Field House demise

January 18, 2014 

We don’t want to believe that someone or something can be cursed. The very idea is preposterous. Oh, we like to laugh about the forlorn Chicago Cubs and the “Curse of the Billy Goat.” We heard for decades about the “Curse of the Bambino” haunting the Boston Red Sox, the supposed cause of an 86-year drought ultimately banished by three World Series triumphs since 2004.

Then again, many of us routinely knock on wood after mentioning an outcome we hope never comes to pass. Or cross our fingers wishing something will come true. Or wear a lucky shirt or hat when our favorite team competes. Or declare “Bless you” when someone sneezes, a superstitious tic of uncertain origin.

But casual superstition implies a suspicion that events are more interconnected than can easily be proven. Which is where what might be called the Curse of Kenan Field House comes into play, with a seemingly simple decision returning to haunt the so-called flagship campus of the University of North Carolina system.

Back in November of 2006, the arrival of Paul Hilton “Butch” Davis Jr. as Tar Heel football coach signaled a wholehearted embrace of big-time sports. Entering that problem-plagued realm had been the intermittent subject of intense debate at UNC-Chapel Hill since “Sunny Jim” Tatum was hired away from Maryland in the mid-1950s.

Davis demanded enhanced facilities. Soon UNC announced it would close in the east end zone of Kenan Stadium and build the exclusive “Blue Zone” for well-heeled boosters. To make that happen, Kenan Field House would have to go. The Spanish colonial structure, with stucco walls and terra cotta roof, had stood since the stadium was built in 1927.

As usual the voice of dissent from the relentless march to athletic excess was the late William Friday, president emeritus of the UNC system. “It’s the power of money, and it’s the insatiable appetite: ‘This isn’t enough, let’s do more,’” Friday said of the stadium plan. Referring to ACC expansion, he added, “What you’re seeing here with the stadium is the natural evolution of that merger. You’ve got to keep up with Clemson and Florida State.” Not to mention Miami and Virginia Tech, added around the same time.

Over the years Kenan family sources contributed $100 million to UNC, including the funds to build the football stadium and to support subsequent expansions. Given that generosity, Friday voiced objections to plans that would obliterate the most visible remnant of a design intended as a memorial to William Rand Kenan’s parents. “If they tear it down, it will be the last part of his plan to go,” Friday said of Kenan Field House. “I wish that they would remember what his wishes were somewhere along the line.”

Troubles begin

Good luck with that. On June 10, 2010 demolition of the old field house commenced, the alumni association website chronicling in photographs the removal of a structure it noted “actually bore little resemblance to the original building.”

The troubles – call it a curse, a jinx, a run of bad luck – surfaced soon afterward.

Within months John Blake, Davis’ associate head coach, resigned amid a growing scandal over agent involvement with Tar Heel football players. Barely a year after the field house came down, Davis was forced to resign, hurried along with a multimillion dollar settlement. Friday’s death in 2012 inspired academic adviser Mary Willingham to speak out regarding academic improprieties related to the athletic program. In 2013 the scandal took down chancellor Holden Thorp, a UNC product who learned too late the hidden pitfalls of big-time sports.

By 2014 The News and Observer wasn’t the only voice crying alarm. A university long proud of its reputation for a principled balance between academics and athletics had become a national poster child for corruption in college sports. “Another shameful lesson in the multibillion-dollar entertainment industry euphemistically referred to as collegiate sports is playing out at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,” the editorial page of The New York Times declared last week. “This at a campus that presents itself as an academics-first institution.” CNN and Bloomberg News weighed in with unflattering portrayals too.

The football program incurred the first NCAA probation at UNC in a half-century, lost a smattering of scholarships, and was banned from postseason competition in 2012. By the time second-year coach Larry Fedora took the Heels back to a bowl in 2013, changes in the ACC landscape had lengthened the odds against North Carolina’s rise beyond second-tier prominence. Perhaps most galling, Duke, UNC’s long-suffering rival just down the road, was the talk of ACC football with an unprecedented 10-win season in 2013. Despite the efforts of Davis and others, the last time North Carolina won that many games was 1997.

Slow basketball start

The curse also engulfed Tar Heel men’s basketball, the school’s signature sport. What promised to be another Final Four run was derailed in 2012 when point guard Kendall Marshall fractured his wrist early in the NCAA tournament. The 2013 squad opened with a pair of ACC losses, only the fifth time that ever happened at UNC. Unranked at season’s end for the second time in four years, the Heels suffered defeat in their third straight ACC Tournament finals and were quickly eliminated in the NCAAs.

The 2013-14 squad lost guard Leslie McDonald until mid-December and wing P.J. Hairston, the team’s leading returning scorer and key outside threat, for the remainder of his career due to acceptance of improper benefits from third parties. Then the Tar Heels dropped their first three ACC games, looking unfocused at Wake Forest, disconcerted at home against Miami, and simply overmatched at Syracuse.

This is only the second season in the 61-year history of the conference that the Tar Heels started 0-3 in league play. The previous time was 1997, when the team rallied to reach the Final Four in Dean Smith’s last season before retiring. The likelihood of a similar outcome in 2014 appears quite slim, in which case this will mark the fifth straight season the Heels fail to reach the national semifinals.

That drought, the longest since 1983-1990, began with a disappointing NIT appearance in the spring of 2010, when the fate of Kenan Field House had been decided but not yet executed. “It’s a question of where your priorities are,” Friday warned back in 2007 as he surveyed decisions at UNC and beyond. “That’s the ultimate issue that we have to be accountable for.”

And no four-leaf clover or lucky rabbit’s foot can prevent paying the price, one way or another, for making bad choices.

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