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A Q and A with 'Football in a Forest' author Lee Pace

The striking cover shot for “Football in a Forest” was taken during UNC’s game against Miami at Kenan Stadium in 2015.
The striking cover shot for “Football in a Forest” was taken during UNC’s game against Miami at Kenan Stadium in 2015. Courtesy Lee Pace

Few college football stadiums can match the ambiance of North Carolina’s Kenan Stadium, which was built in the middle of a forest, thick with trees, long before the UNC campus expanded and grew around it.

Once something of an outpost on campus, Kenan is now in the middle of it, with UNC Hospitals, dorms and other buildings nearby. Despite the campus growth, the stadium is still tucked into a forest, too, with the surrounding trees rising above the top of the stands, now like always.

Now there’s a book that does justice to the history and beauty of Kenan, which (as I found out from reading) served as an inspiration to the stadiums at Georgia and Alabama. Lee Pace, a Chapel Hill-based writer, is the author of “Football in a Forest: The life and times of Kenan Stadium.”

Pace, a 1979 graduate of UNC, hasn’t missed a game at Kenan in nearly 30 years. He’s known for his Extra Points column, which appears on goheels.com, and he also serves as the sideline reporter on the UNC football radio broadcast team.

Pace has played a role in about two dozen books on UNC sports and golf in North Carolina. He was kind enough to answer a few questions about his latest project, “Football in a Forest,” which was recently released. Here are his edited comments.

Andrew Carter: How did the idea for a book on Kenan Stadium come about, what inspired you to take on this project and how long had you been working on this before the recent release of the book?

Lee Pace: Since I started freelancing in 1987, I’ve done assorted writing and communications projects: magazines, corporate, editing, video, broadcasting, internet. What I have enjoyed most are producing these coffee-table/display books for Pinehurst and various other clubs and entities. The first one was “Pinehurst Stories” in 1991, which the resort used in telling its story as it pursued the U.S. Open. By then I had started writing Extra Points on Carolina football (it began in 1990 as a printed newsletter, morphed to online only in 2005). I had always been captivated by the ambiance and beauty of Kenan Stadium going back to my undergraduate days in the late 1970s. I thought it would be perfect to be celebrated in a nice book.

When Mack Brown’s era hit its apex in 1996-97, I tried to find a publisher or put together financing for a book I was going to call Rock the House, after a popular cheer at the time. I had photographer Bob Donnan take some shots at the 1997 game at Virginia from the opposing sideline, trying to get the Carolina bench and student section in the background in celebratory mode for a potential cover shot. Mack left at the end of the year before I could get it going, the program backtracked and I dropped back to punt, so to speak.

I thought in 2009 that the time had come again to give it a shot as Butch Davis’ program was getting some traction and went to UNC Press with a concept and proposal. They liked the idea and we were talking seriously about a book that I had now named “Football in a Forest,” the title borrowed from a line Furman Bisher (UNC 1938) wrote in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1980. Meanwhile, I learned in November that Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore were in serious talks with Pinehurst about a major and significant restoration of the No. 2 course, and since the most recent Pinehurst book (The Spirit of Pinehurst, 2004), was out of date, I pitched them on a new book built around the project. They liked the idea and I began working on it in February 2010, so the Kenan idea was side-tracked.

In the spring of 2015 it was time to resurrect the idea, to do something fun, nostalgic, that would make people smile and remember the good times. I started putting together a mock-up, content plans and a budget. It took about six months for me to put the business plan together, but by early November I knew the book could be a reality.

My wife Sue is a graphic designer, so we adjusted our schedules to focus the next six months on getting the book out in time for the 2016 season. I knew Carolina would be better in 2015 than 2014, but I certainly didn’t forecast 11 wins. Obviously the success on the field was perfect timing for the book.

AC: There’s a wealth of great images of Kenan Stadium throughout the years. How did you manage to track down those photographs, and I’m wondering if there’s a particular image or two that really resonated with you when you were putting this together.

LP: Since my business and passions are words and photos, I have collected photos over a number of years that have interested me. If I saw a photo of Bill Belichick in Kenan Stadium as a boy in Sports Illustrated from a dozen years or so back, I’d pull it out and keep it for potential future reference. If I saw a vintage game program or ticket stub, I’d put it in the folder.

When the Kenan Football Center opened in 1997, I worked with the museum designers on developing the content for the Hall of Honor and assisted the football and building administration staff in searching for and acquiring photos to display throughout the building. I have continued in that role so I have developed a pretty comprehensive inventory of Carolina football and Kenan Stadium photos. And of course I knew Hugh Morton and had worked with him over the years, so I was well aware of his extensive photo archives in the N.C. Collection in Wilson Library.

So I started with a nice inventory in November 2015 when the book was green-lighted. From there it was matter of searching all manner of resources—N.C. Collection, UNC Athletic Communications, newspaper microfilm, Getty Images and doing a lot of Googling. When I learned that Kenan Stadium had been the impetus for Georgia and Alabama to build new stadiums, I searched for vintage postcards and, sure enough, found the cards that are display on page 105.

One interesting and surprising source for some great photos was the UNC student yearbook, The Yackety Yack. It’s been my experience that previously published photos are no good for reproduction, that you need to find the original image in order to not have a cloudy dot pattern or moiré pattern appear. But the N.C. Collection has a sophisticated scanner that made excellent copies of photos right out of the Yack. A picture like the one on Page 94 of a game from 1961 against LSU is one of my favorites from the Yack—late-afternoon sunlight, long shadows, full stadium, trees surrounding the venue, the original press box.

I knew I would need some current photos that focused on ambiance, atmosphere, crowd, tailgating, etc., so I approached Michael Switzer (Ryan’s dad and a professional photographer) early in the season and asked if he would spend some time at home games looking for those kinds of shots, and that if the book did in fact materialize, I would use some of them. Michael turned out to be my go-to guy for current images; I probably used 20 of his shots and they add immeasurably to the finished product. I made sure he got shots from outside the stadium from the pathways leading to it; one of my favorites is on Page 19.

AC: One of my favorite smaller tidbits in the book is that Bill Belichick visited Kenan Stadium in his younger (very young) years. I’d never heard that before, and there’s a great picture of him in the stadium. You’ve been around UNC football for a long time and I’m sure you learned some things, too. Is there a fact or a story about Kenan that you uncovered that really surprised you?

LP: There were a lot of neat little tidbits that I learned:

▪ There was a lot of rock on the north (visitors’) side that had to be dynamited out during construction in early 1927, and newspaper accounts spoke of heated town meetings with citizens angry about all the noise and aftershocks from the explosions. I read where windows in Old East Dorm were blown out from the reverberations.

▪ The architects and land-planners by design did not have one primary parking lot. They felt it would maintain the aesthetics of the wooded site by having people access the stadium from every direction through a network of paths cut through the woods.

▪ The architect of the stadium, Arthur Cleveland Nash, also designed the Carolina Inn and Wilson Library on the UNC campus, and he was hired by Georgia and Alabama immediately after Kenan opened to design Sanford and Denny Stadiums, respectively.

▪ There was never actually a dictum from the Kenan family that no part of the structure rise above the level of the trees surrounding it. John Swofford asked that question of Frank Kenan in the mid-1980s and was told it was a “myth,” but probably a decent guideline.

AC: The photograph on the cover is especially striking – a picture of Kenan in the twilight, with the sky a perfect shade of orange. What’s the story behind how you were able to get that shot to put on the cover?

LP: I had met a photographer in Boone named Jordan Nelson earlier in 2015 working on a centennial book for Blowing Rock Country Club. Jordan specializes in drone photography and got some really cool photos of the golf course using a camera mounted on a drone. When I knew in early November the book could become a reality, I thought I should try to get him to Chapel Hill to shoot one of the remaining two home games, against Duke or Miami. It was too close to the Duke game to set it up, and besides, it turned out to be a gray, rainy day, not a good one for aerial photography. But Jordan could come the next Saturday, when Carolina and Miami played at 3:30.

It was a perfect fall day, and Jordan sent his drone up and around the stadium throughout the first half and into the third quarter. He texted me late in the third quarter and said he thought he had some great shots. Then I got a file through Dropbox on Monday and my jaw dropped at the dozen or images—different angles of the stadium, different levels of light from afternoon to dusk to evening. Kenan has been the subject of many wonderful photos over many years, but I think these took it to a new level.

AC: The pictures are receiving a lot of attention, and rightfully so. I know you and I appreciate a quality sentence, too, and I enjoyed many of the words here. James Dodson, a fantastic writer, does the foreword, and you include essays from Tony Barnhart and Ron Green, Jr., among others. In terms of the words, do you have a favorite story in the book among those from your guest writers?

LP: It would be hard to pick one out, and I’m gratified that each of nine guest essays lends a different perspective—reminiscences from Jim Dodson on coming to games as a boy, from Erskine Bowles on JFK’s speech in 1963, David Menconi on covering Bruce Springsteen’s performance in 2003, Jill McCorkle on the social element of football weekends and the annual Springfest concerts.

I happened across Tony Barnhart quite by accident. I was originally thinking of reprinting the Furman Bisher column from 1980 from which the title of the book was lifted, and wanted to find someone at the Atlanta paper to inquire about permissions. I knew Tony from his newspaper days in Greensboro, and though he didn’t work at the Journal-Constitution any longer, I thought he might give me a name. In his return email, he said, “Somebody asked me the other day my favorite places to watch a game. They were surprised when I included Kenan on my list. Lot of great memories there.” That prompted me to ask if he’d expound on those memories and he said he’d be happy to. Tony is a Georgia grad and, having ascended to the mantle of “Mr. College Football” through his writing and broadcasting roles over several decades, has a degree of objectivity that those of us looking through Carolina-blue shaded glasses don’t have. So it was a nice addition to have him offer this:

“Pastoral is always the word that comes to mind when I think of Kenan. Where a lot of college football stadiums are places of unbridled energy and sounds and monster crowds and traffic and one big hassle after another, Kenan feels more like the football equivalent of Augusta National.”

Pretty cool. Thanks to Lee Pace for his time. “Football in a Forest” is available for $39.95 online at the Johnny T-Shirt website (and at 800-554-6862). You can also find it at Quail Ridge Books in North Hills in Raleigh, and in Chapel Hill at Johnny T-Shirt and Chapel Hill Sportswear on Franklin St., in the Blue Zone Store in Kenan Stadium on game days, in UNC Student Stores and at Flyleaf Books and McIntyre’s Books.

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