One set of UNC championship highway signs is coming down, but another will take its place

The highway signs commemorating the UNC-Chapel Hill men’s basketball team’s national championship in 2017 will be coming down in a few months, but they’ll be replaced by signs honoring another Tar Heels team: field hockey.

The field hockey team won the NCAA tournament last fall, capping an undefeated season. On Thursday, the state Board of Transportation approved a request from the university to recognize the team with eight highway signs placed around the state.

It’s the first women’s team to be honored under a two-year-old state program that allows colleges and universities to pay for highway signs to commemorate national titles in any sport recognized by the NCAA. There’s a limit of eight signs per team, at $2,000 a piece, and they must come down after two years.

The first of the signs were for the Tar Heels men’s basketball team. UNC requested the maximum of eight and had them put up where visitors to North Carolina might see them: Four on interstates 85 and 95 at the Virginia and South Carolina state lines; one along I-40 at the Tennessee line; one on I-77 near the South Carolina line; and two along I-40 in Wake County, ostensibly for people arriving at Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

One of the Wake County signs was placed along eastbound I-40 at the North Harrison Avenue exit in Cary, about 3 miles from PNC Arena, home of UNC’s rival Wolfpack of N.C. State University. After vandals took that one down and threw it into the brush nearby, it was moved to the Aviation Parkway interchange, closer to RDU and farther from PNC Arena, where it has stood unmolested.

The basketball signs can remain up until next February. But UNC has decided that it makes more sense to put the field hockey signs on the same posts and will swap them out when the new signs are ready, probably around the start of the fall semester, said Steve Kirschner, spokesman for the UNC athletic department.

Kirschner said the Rams Club, the private athletics booster group, paid for the highway signs. Under the state’s policy the club gets to keep them, said Michael Fox, chairman of the Board of Transportation.

“They pay for the signs,” Fox said. “Once they are down, they are theirs.”

Kirschner said it’s unclear what will happen to the basketball signs.

“My guess is that the basketball office, the Rams Club and the athletic department will discuss it and figure out a plan for what to do with them,” he said. “But we don’t have a set plan right now.”

The UNC field hockey team becomes the third in the Triangle and fifth overall to be honored with official green highway signs. A sign went up this spring along I-40 in Raleigh for the men’s outdoor track and field team at St. Augustine’s University, which won the NCAA Division II national championship for the fifth straight time in 2017.

The field hockey team has won seven national titles, all under coach Karen Shelton. This was the first one since 2009.

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Richard Stradling covers transportation for The News & Observer. Planes, trains and automobiles, plus ferries, bicycles, scooters and just plain walking. Also, #census2020. He’s been a reporter or editor for 32 years, including the last 20 at The N&O. 919-829-4739, rstradling@newsobserver.com.