A History of Celebrating Carolina

The University of North Carolina has been celebrating alumni coming back home to the Southern part of heaven in Chapel Hill since the 18th century, which is longer than any other public university in the United States.

There have been formal and informal homecomings of all sorts during all times of the school year – including University Day celebrations in October and Alumni Day, coinciding with Commencement exercises, in late Spring.

The traditional definition of “Homecoming” itself, however, revolves around football, which wasn’t played at UNC until 1888. While various elements of Homecoming were instituted at Carolina over the years, it would be another three decades of football playing before the parts came together into what we know as “Homecoming.”

However, in 1892 there was a natural – or what we might call today “organic”- homecoming that revolved around football. Carolina – the first year that term was used to mean the University of North Carolina – was 2-1 and went out of town for a three-game road trip.

The team first went to Atlanta and laid into Auburn by a 64-0 score, unheard of at the time. The very next day the Tar Heels went to Nashville and beat Vanderbilt 24-0. Just two days later they played in Atlanta again, avenging an earlier loss to Virginia by a 26-0 score.

The cumulative 114-0 skunking over four days led sportswriters to proclaim Carolina as the best team in the South. Chapel Hill was excited about the prospects of their heroes coming home. “A committee was appointed to arrange for a banquet, another to decorate and send to University Station a special train to meet the players,” Professor and historian Kemp P. Battle, who had previously been president of the University, wrote a few years later. “When it reached Chapel Hill, the students enthusiastically converted themselves into equines and drew the carriages from the station to the campus.”

University President George T. Winston hopped aboard the lead carriage to congratulate team captain Michael Hoke. The students yelled “Rah, Rah, White. Rah, Rah, Blue. Hoopla. Hoopla. N.C.U.” as they carried them back campus, where that cheer rang out all night.

That could certainly be considered a homecoming parade in the truest form. Virtually all the 317 students on campus that weren’t on the team celebrated, especially happy about beating rival Virginia. Carolina football spirit was born.

The University of Missouri has been credited with starting the tradition of “Homecoming,” complete with parades, parties, pep rallies and a football game – and of course an invitation to alumni to “come home.” That was in 1911.

At that time, there was nothing officially called “homecoming” at Carolina but the rivalry with Virginia continued with the big game being on the final day of the season each year – Thanksgiving. Problem was, all the games were away including the Virginia game which was usually played in Richmond. There wasn’t a home field on campus until 1916 when Emerson Field was built with concrete stands, “well-sodded turf” and natural hedged fencing on land now home to Davis Library.

By 1916, there were calls for “A Carolina Homecoming.” The Yackety Yak yearbook editors, noting the success of homecomings elsewhere throughout the country, wrote, “Why can not the University of North Carolina have such a homecoming? … Chapel Hill will now more and more become the center for our alumni. With the completion of the new Emerson Athletic Field and stadium, many athletic contests of a high order will now be staged here. The big Thanksgiving game with Virginia comes to Chapel Hill this fall; and what better incentive for the inauguration of a homecoming could be found?”

The General Alumni Association started preparations for Homecoming and even came up with the slogan “On to Chapel Hill” to get alumni interested in coming back for the Virginia game. “For the alumni,” the Alumni Review editors wrote, “it will mean the turning of their faces home, many of whom have made the pilgrimage frequently to Richmond, but far too seldom to their Alma Mater.”

Unfortunately, the United States’ entry into World War I, then known as the Great War, in 1917 changed everything on campus. In fact, UNC was said to have more students enrolled in military training camps than any other college in the South. As a result, the 1917 football season was canceled.

Between the war and the influenza epidemic, the following 1918 season was abbreviated and has been considered an exhibition season as the 3-2 record isn’t counted in the team’s historical records.

So, Homecoming was delayed again. The Alumni Review editors wrote that it had been impossible “to function in such a way as to continue usual college tradition and to promote the further development of Carolina spirit.”

Alumni Day, in June 1919, served as a quasi-homecoming as the University celebrated the end of the war with a Victory Reunion that attracted more than 600 alums. There were 10 class reunions, a luncheon, a walking parade and entertainment such as a performance by the Carolina Playmakers – all elements of what we would consider Homecoming today. Only, there was still no football.

In 1922, there was football that happened to fall on University Day, Oct. 12, which already had some of the aspects of Homecoming including speeches, a luncheon and a reception at night. As an added bonus, the game was against Trinity, now known as Duke. The Tar Heels won 20-0.

This got the discussion of a Homecoming game going once again. A suggestion was made at the Class Secretaries Conference to have a Homecoming game. Novel idea, huh? The idea was inspired by the influence that the Carolina-Trinity game had in bringing alums back for University Day, the Alumni Review wrote.

“Undoubtedly other institutions throughout the country have found such an occasion most instrumental in bringing hosts of alumni back to the campus, and thereby keeping them in closer touch with it; and there is every reason to believe that it would be worthwhile for Carolina. The experiment on University Day demonstrated that beyond all question,” it was reported in the Alumni Review.

Finally, something officially called “Homecoming” was held on Nov. 29, 1923. The General Alumni Association even elevated the status of it to that of University Day and Alumni Day by including Homecoming as one of “three distinctly alumni occasions” on campus.

An all caps headline in the Alumni Review proclaimed, “ALL ROADS LEAD TO HILL TURKEY DAY.” The article started, “Every alumnus who possibly can, will attend the Carolina-Virginia game in Chapel Hill Thanksgiving.” Dances, plays and reunions were held in conjunction with Homecoming.

Unfortunately, while there was indeed a record crowd of 14,000 attending the game, rained marred the event and the game itself, which ended in a 0-0 tie.

The importance of Homecoming grew over the years. Rameses, the ram mascot, was even introduced at Homecoming against VMI in 1926. Late in the game, Tar Heel kicker Bunn Hackney rubbed the woolly head of Rameses for good luck and went in to kick a game-winning field goal of more than 30 yards as Carolina won 3-0.

As the popularity of football increased, and with more and more students attending and graduating from the University, there was a need for a real stadium rather than a “field.” In 1927 Kenan Stadium was dedicated on Homecoming Day against Virginia on Thanksgiving Day.

While the first game in Kenan was two weeks earlier in a victory over Davidson (called the housewarming game), a much bigger crowd was there for the Virginia Homecoming/Dedication game.

Personal letters were sent to many alumni and to every dignitary one could imagine. The Daily Tar Heel student newspaper wrote that the campus was “astir” with student preparations and that “old alumni” were hurrying back to Chapel Hill. The DTH was especially happy that, with a seating capacity of 34,500, there would be plenty of good seats for students.

Prior to the game, North Carolina Gov. A.W. McLean accepted the stadium on behalf of the people of North Carolina on a beautiful November afternoon that inspired the yearbook to write that the “gods could have picked no better day.” The ceremony and the game went over the airwaves of radio station WPTF in what was said to be the first time a UNC athletic contest in Chapel Hill had been “sent out over the radio.”

Behind All-America player Ray Farris, the Tar Heels held on for a 14-13 victory. While that game was broadcast on statewide radio, the 1930 Homecoming game against Georgia Tech drew national interest with “sound pictures.” Before the days of television, Grantland Rice, considered the dean of American sportswriters, had a “Sportlight” feature that played in movie theaters. Chapel Hill was chosen as one of four sites for his highlights of the week.

The Alumni Review wrote that the Nov. 1 game was perhaps the most colorful of any Carolina game in history. “A riot of orange and amber, scarlet and brown in the encircling forest framed an artist dream of a rainbow bowl bottomed with emerald turf,” the Review wrote, adding that above the stadium was “the peaceful height of the chill blue sky.”

While the beauty of Chapel Hill and Kenan Stadium was a showcase, the teams tied at 6-6.  The festivities surrounding the Homecoming game really expanded once the University Club was formed in 1933 and it took on the planning for Homecoming.

Working in cooperation with the General Alumni Association, the University Marching Band, the University Dance Committee and German Club (which sponsored dances) and others, the University Club brought together plans for big celebrations each year.

Winston-Salem’s Agnew Bahnson, the first president of the University Club, is credited with starting a new tradition – the Homecoming decoration contest. Dorms, fraternities and even local businesses decorated to welcome alumni and poke fun at the opponent. Prizes were awarded and the decoration contest tradition continued for decades. Decorations welcoming alumni can still be seen at some frats, sororities and dorms.

There were parades and pep rallies and bonfires and well-known bands playing on campus and even live radio broadcasts.

That first year even featured a radio program on WPTF on the night of Oct. 25, 1933 where plans for Homecoming, which would be played in three days, were announced. Two new Carolina songs written by alum Kay Kyser were introduced and sung by a student quartet. One of them, “Tar Heels on Hand,” has become one of the school’s official fight songs.

The song didn’t help the Tar Heels win but the 10-6 loss to Georgia Tech had one of the most exciting finishes in Carolina history to that point when the Heels, behind the passing of Don Jackson, ran out of time at about the Yellow Jackets’ 10-yard-line.

With the University Club taking ownership of coordinating events, however, the tradition of Homecoming at Carolina was finally on solid footing. There have been many highlights, some controversies, changes and additions to Homecoming over the years.

By the late 1930s, a king and queen were elected each year with the king being the most popular professor on campus and the queen being the most popular female student. The coronation was made at Memorial Hall. As the years went by this morphed into a Homecoming queen crowned at halftime of the football game.

World War II had a detrimental affect on Homecoming for several years in the 1940s as alumni and students served in the military. In July of 1945, Athletic Director R.A. Fetzer wrote a letter to the alumni saying that he understood that many could not get to Chapel Hill for football games but “once Victory in the Pacific is added to Victory in Europe, I feel sure you will come back to Chapel Hill” to visit and enjoy the games.

Cardboard shows, started by cheerleader Norman Spear, made their Homecoming debut at that 1948 game. Students flipped colorful cards to make designs and spell out words. That tradition continued into the 1980s.

From 1949 through the 1950s, the University Club sponsored a best float contest for the Homecoming parade. However, the “Beat Dook” parade, prior to the Duke game each year, was considered a bigger event.

In 1954, the Tar Heels, behind 124 yards rushing by fullback Don Klochak, defeated South Carolina 21-19 in the last minute in a contest dubbed “the game of the year.”

The 1950s were a colorful time for Homecoming as the displays got more and more intricate, the queens got higher profiles and the parties got more numerous. Fraternities had box lunches with their alumni brothers prior to the game and then all-night parties after the game. These were times of eating, drinking and getting dates to the game. Pep rallies included bonfires, hand-held torches, confetti, the UNC band and sports cars and convertibles carrying the Homecoming court. Each year there were usually more than 30 entrants in the Homecoming decoration contest. The displays featured well-done artwork, separate structures and even paper mache dolls.

The 1960s were a time of upheaval with many hanging onto traditions and others casting them aside. Homecoming survived, even adding a new wrinkle of fireworks at pep rallies, despite the fact that interest was more divided than ever with students looking outside Chapel Hill to national issues of the day such as race riots, assassinations and an increasingly unpopular war.

In 1965, Carolina conducted the first campus-wide election of a Homecoming queen, and the winner was Mary King, who had also won “Miss Consolidated University” two weeks earlier. As for the game, the Tar Heels blew a 13-point lead as powerful Georgia scored 26 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to win 47-34.

Cynicism between young people and “the establishment” continued through much of the 1970s with the Vietnam War and its demise, along with Watergate, dominating the headlines. This cynicism led to some students thinking traditions like Homecoming were corny. Perhaps as a result of that cynicism, one male student (Delmar Williams) ran for Homecoming queen in 1975 – and won. Many said it made a farce out of the tradition. While UNC Athletics Director Homer Rice called it an “embarrassment,” his office reached a compromise where Williams was called Homecoming king (and received all the honors the queen would receive) and the second place vote getter (Paula Long) was named Honorary Homecoming queen. Carolina lost the game to Wake Forest 21-9.

The following year, 1976, Sheri Parks became the first African-American Homecoming queen.

In 1980, Tau Epsilon Phi sponsored a dog, a real canine, for the Homecoming court. But Space, while having beautiful golden hair and behaving on the field at halftime, lost out to a brunette by the name of Carla Roberts. In the 1980s, as the student body grew larger and as there were more diverse interests on campus, those becoming involved in Homecoming became greater. The Carolina Athletic Association which had always coordinated with the General Alumni Association and the Athletic Department, began sharing Homecoming planning duties with the Carolina Union, the Black Student Movement, student government, the Sweet Carolines, the Order of the Bell Tower and others.

What many might consider another assault on Homecoming tradition came in 1983 when a male in drag, going by the name of Yure Nmomma, won the Homecoming queen crown. Homecoming traditions such as pep rallies, parades, dances, parties and concerts survived the 1980s unscathed.

Throughout the 1990s, GAA-coordinated reunions became increasingly popular as part of Homecoming. While there were and are still reunions held other times of the year, the most and the bigger ones are held in conjunction with Homecoming weekend festivities.

In 2000, the GAA dubbed Homecoming as “Alumni Weekend” as more attention was focused on getting alumni back to Chapel Hill. The GAA organized reunions specifically for the classes of 1950, 1975 and 1990, as well as for the 20th annual Black Alumni Reunion, which was the largest group with 800 former students returning. As for the game, an electrifying 25-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter by Ronald Curry gave Carolina a 13-10 come-from-behind victory over Maryland.

In the 2000s, the Homecoming queen selection changed dramatically. For one, the name was changed to Miss UNC and a king was added, this time a student rather than a professor. And, a more arduous process, less based on popularity and more based on service to the University and community. Also in the 2000s, the GAA started hosting a Bell Tower tailgate party for alumni on Homecoming day.

In 2009, UNC played old rival Duke on Homecoming for what is believed to be the first time. The Devils had replaced Virginia as the traditional final game for most of the previous 57 years.

Today, Homecoming generally falls in late October or early November. Initially, the Homecoming game was scheduled to be a big game against a tough opponent. Over the years, an unofficial effort has been made to make Homecoming a game in which the Tar Heels are favored, in part so alumni can go away happy. But it’s not always possible as most ACC games are tough and many non-conference games are played earlier in the season. Plus, “lesser” opponents don’t always cooperate.

While Homecoming games have been important and while Homecoming itself has been an important way for alumni to reconnect with their alma mater, one UNC grad put it this way, “To me, every game is homecoming.”

By Clifton Barnes ’82