High School Sports

Remembering Charlie Adams’ legacy on NC high school sports

NCHSAA executive director Charlie Adams, left, shares a light moment with visiting Bob Kanaby, right, executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations on May 6, 1998 in Chapel Hill.
NCHSAA executive director Charlie Adams, left, shares a light moment with visiting Bob Kanaby, right, executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations on May 6, 1998 in Chapel Hill. The News & Observer 1998 File Photo

Bob Kanaby, the former chief executive of the National Federation of State High School Associations, once said that if the leaders of every state high school association were asked to name the top five state associations in the country, North Carolina would be on every ballot.

“That tells you about the legacy that Charlie left,” Kanaby said.

Charlie Adams, 81, who built the N.C. High School Athletic Association into one of the nation’s best high school athletic associations, died Sunday morning at his home in Chapel Hill after a long fight with a lung condition.

“Charlie was a national treasure,” Kanaby once said. “He had a tremendous impact not only on the boys and girls of North Carolina, but on boys and girls all over the nation. ... North Carolina became a national leader in high school athletics under Charlie. Many states are trying to catch up to what Charlie was able to do 20 years ago.”

Adams was an innovator.

During his 26 years as the executive director, the NCHSAA became the national leader by establishing an endowment fund to ensure there would be funds for state championship competition; by moving state championships to major venues; by creating a student services program that stressed academics, citizenship and character development; by classifying the championships in all sports; and by creating state championships for girls’ sports.

One of his greatest accomplishments came when he was the assistant executive director under Simon Terrell, Adams’ high school basketball coach at Cary High.

One of Adams’ first duties was to merge the four organizations that governed high school athletics in North Carolina into one organization, the NCHSAA.

Bringing in the Robeson Indian High School Athletic Conference was a difficult task, too, but that was accomplished in 1968.

The merger with the N.C. High School Athletic Conference, the organization for black high schools in the segregated state, was one of the accomplishments that Adams took great pleasure in. He once recalled being cursed regularly during the process. The two groups became one in 1969.

“It was something that we needed to do,” Adams recalled. “There was a lot of resistance, but it was the right thing to do. It had to be done. Luckily, we had a group of principals, coaches and superintendents that worked diligently to make sure the transition was as smooth as possible.”

Kanaby said the role of high school athletics in integrating society in states around the nation is hard to underestimate.

“Suddenly, North Carolina, and other states, had boys and girls playing together, striving together, learning to interact with one another,” Kanaby said.

The last piece of the consolidation came in 1977, when the schools of the Western North Carolina Activities Association, which included several schools in the Piedmont, returned to the NCHSAA fold.

Adams never avoided hard decisions or unpopular ones.

He recalled playing for Cary in the state 1A high school basketball championship at Aberdeen in a gym that was inferior to every venue the team had played in all year. That game created a spark that the title games needed to be played somewhere special.

When he later saw that many championship games in basketball, football and baseball could not be handled at high school facilities, he pushed the NCHSAA to move the title games to major college venues.

“That is still a little controversial,” he said when he retired from the NCHSAA in 2010. “It was certainly great to play a state championship on your high school field. But when we were having to lock the doors for basketball and denying parents the opportunity to see their children play in the state finals because the gym was full and when the 4A football game between Garner and Charlotte Harding drew 20,000 fans, it was apparent that we had outgrown the best high school facilities in the state.”

“And ask the players if they like the neutral major college facilities,” he continued. “We are helping to create a memory of a lifetime.”

Many school officials disagreed with the move to neutral sites and said the change would cost the schools thousands of dollars. But Adams worked with corporate sponsors to make sure the costs were all underwritten.

The NCHSAA now plays all of its state championship events in major venues.

Adams was leery of corporate involvement, but believed it was necessary.

“Our goal is to pick our corporate sponsors and to make sure they understand that everything we do is for the benefit of the boys and the girls,” he said. “We’ll take corporations’ support, but we will continue to act in the best interest of our boys and girls.”

He said one of his biggest regrets was not being a stronger advocate for girls athletics earlier in his career.

“Looking back, I really don’t know what we could have done at the state level to bring on girls’ programs sooner,” Adams said. “We couldn’t set up championships for girls when the school didn’t have girls’ teams. But I wish we could have done something.”

Adams was a strong advocate that high school athletics are supposed to be fun. He helped Cary win the state 1A basketball championship in 1954. The bonds created among the team and its coaches remain to this day. They still meet regularly.

Adams was recruited by University of North Carolina basketball coach Frank McGuire, but transferred to East Carolina after his freshman year. He starred at ECU and is a member of its Hall of Fame.

He coached in Delaware before returning to his beloved Cary as its basketball coach. Henry Adams, his father, was a Wake County School Board member and played a major role in integrating Cary schools. Henry Adams Elementary School in Cary is named for him. Charlie Adams’ mother was a community icon.

But Adams didn’t stay in Cary very long. He left coaching to become the dean of boys at Garner High in 1967. He was expected to play a role in the merger of Garner High and the all-black Garner Consolidated the next year, but Terrell, who was the NCHSAA executive director, made hiring Adams as his assistant a top priority. Adams joined Terrell.

“I was never good as an assistant,” Adams once said. “I had ideas I wanted to try. Why not try something to see if we can make it better? If it works, great. If it doesn’t, can we fix it or do we need to shelf this idea?”

One of the highlights of Adams career was serving as president of the National Federation in 1997-98. He visited in every state during his tenure and focused on bringing awareness of the growing influence of outside organizations on high school athletics. One of his pet projects was improving sportsmanship.

He said high school coaches had to teach good sportsmanship to their players, because good sportsmanship was not always modeled by professional and college organizations or taught in the home.

And he said high school sports had to be fun.

If you surveyed 100 high school athletes, more than 90 percent would say they played because it was fun, he often said.

Society had to be sure, he said, that high school athletes are geared to the 96 percent of athletes who would not play college sports, instead of the 4 percent who did.

Adams’ imprint on the NCHSAA and national high school athletics continues. Que Tucker, the current NCHSAA executive director, was hired by Adams and worked with him for years. Davis Whitfield, who succeeded Adams as executive director, left to become the chief financial officer of the National Federation.

Adams is a member of the N.C. Sports Hall of Fame, the NCHSAA Hall of Fame, the National High School Hall of Fame, the N.C. Athletic Director Hall of Fame, the East Carolina Hall of Fame and the Cary High Hall of Fame.

Tim Stevens has known Charlie Adams since 1967 when Adams was dean of boys at Garner High. Stevens became Adams’ office assistant that year when a knee injury prevented Stevens from participating physical education classes. Stevens was a sports reporter for The News & Observer for 48 years.