Thursday, July 23, 2020

'Have a Happy Life'

July 21, 2020

By Tim Peeler

It was hot 20 years ago today, too hot to have so many people gathered in the family room of my childhood home. There were more than 30 of us: aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, neighbors, children, grandchildren. There was no thought of the heat.
It had been a difficult spring. My mother, Ruth Peeler, had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer on my sister's birthday, back in April. She went to all the big hospitals: Duke, Wake Forest's Bowman-Gray, Johns Hopkins. They gave her no hope against the worst of all the cancers.
She went to my nephew's graduation, saying out loud what we all suspected: "This might be the only grandchild I see graduate from high school," she said. I thought about that a lot last month when Michael received his diploma as part of the Class of 2020. How she would have loved knowing him and his brother.
We went on a short family cruise to the Bahamas, both my sisters and their families, Elizabeth and me. We laughed with and at each other and loved each difficult moment and went to bed crying every night.
We tried to make the three-hour trip to my dad's as much as we could over those next few weeks, and it so happened we took a long weekend in the middle of July. I didn't think it would be our last visit; Elizabeth did. Mom was asleep when we got there, having just been visited by the home Hospice nurse. Shortly after arriving, I had to go to the emergency room -- a cyst that had been forming for awhile needed to be removed. It was painful, and I couldn't sit or stand in comfort for the next two weeks.
That morning on this date, I had my final visit with my mom. She looked up and said: "I'm a sick girl." And then she smiled at me. There were no words to comfort her, just the presence of her family and friends. We were there all afternoon, visiting as she quietly slept, pain free thanks to the sustaining morphine mix the nurse gave her. The people from church brought us food, as they always do in these situations, a fabulous feast for those who have no desire to eat.
In the middle of the afternoon, my mom sat straight up in the bed, wide-eyed and awake. She looked around the room, recognizing every face, mentally reliving a short memory with every person there. Finally, she said, "I'll not make it through the night. Thank you all for being here. I want you to have a happy life." She laid back down and went back to sleep. An hour or so later, holding my dad's hand, she quietly left us, taking one last breath in a peaceful and quiet room, surrounded by so many she loved and those that loved her.
The minister stood up to say a prayer. As we bowed our heads, he said: "This is a moment I have never seen. The chance to say goodbye before passing quietly into the hands of God, surrounded by so many friends and family. The strength we witnessed here today is a gift. Cherish this moment. Cherish this memory. Cherish this life lived in the love of church, community and family."
I've rarely told this private memory, and have never written about it. Right now, however, the words of someone who lived it every day need to be remembered and shared: "Have a happy life." Find a way, even in these most difficult days. You only get one chance.
Miss you, mom, every day.
Love, Tim, Elizabeth, Michael and Benjamin.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

A Stitch in Time – 15 of Them, in Fact

Longtime trainer Herman Bunch treating the gash in David Thompson's scalp as Phil Spence looks on.(Photo courtesy of Phil Spence.)

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© Tim Peeler, 2020

Here's a story you may never have heard about legendary NC State All-American David Thompson, who turned 66 yesterday.

The day of the NCAA semifinal game against UCLA at the Greensboro Coliseum, Thompson was still recovering from the horrific fall he suffered six days before against Pittsburgh in the NCAA East Region Finals at Reynolds Coliseum.

He wasn’t fully recovered from that crowd-silencing spill, which had every Wolfpack fan worried not only about the game against the seven-time defending champion Bruins, but about Thompson’s ability to ever play basketball again.

He had suffered a severe concussion and had 15 stitches in the back of his head. He would have never made it through the current protocol to play in the game against John Wooden’s team featuring Bill Walton and Keith Wilkes.

In addition to the stitches, Thompson had a bald spot on the back of his head where his mini-Afro had been shaved while being treated at the old Rex Hospital near downtown Raleigh the day of his fall.

Thompson didn’t want to appear weak in his rematch with Walton and the rest of the dominant Bruins, who had handed the Wolfpack its only loss in two years earlier that season in St. Louis in a made-for-television showdown between two teams that had finished the 1972-73 season undefeated.

And he didn’t want to show up for what was then the most-watched game in the history of college basketball with a big bare spot on the back of his head.

“Here, David, I’ve got something for you,” said team trainer Herman Bunch, who told me this story at a North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame press conference honoring the 1974 championship team and confirmed by Thompson a year or so later.

Thompson sat down and Bunch fiddled around with something behind him and a black magic marker. When Bunch finished, Thompson looked in the mirror and gave his approval.

In the biggest game of his life, during one of the greatest performances of his career (28 points, 10 rebounds), in the game that NC State ended UCLA’s stranglehold over college basketball, David Thompson had a black-painted sponge glued to the back of his scalp, covering up the place where his head had been split open the week before.

Two nights later, the Wolfpack beat Marquette for the first team national championship in school history.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Pat Dye: The Bear Bryant of Eastern North Carolina Football

Patrick Fain Dye, the day he was hired as East Carolina's head football coach. [East Carolina University Digital Archives Collection.]
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© Tim Peeler, 2020

There have been more important times in the state of North Carolina’s football history, but it’s hard to beat the winter of 1979-80 for outright turbulence and madness.

NC State won the ACC championship with a 7-4 overall record and a 5-1 mark against conference opponents. It did not play in the postseason. Instead, second-place Clemson was invited to the Peach Bowl. Fifth-place North Carolina, with a 3-3 record in the seven-team conference, was invited to the Gator Bowl, where it upset Michigan, 17-15. And fourth-place Wake Forest, with a 3-2 ACC mark, was invited to the Tangerine Bowl, where it lost to LSU, 34-10.

East Carolina, having tied North Carolina and gone unbeaten in their final seven games, finished with a 7-3-1 record, the fourth consecutive season the Pirates had finished with seven or more wins under its young phenom coach Pat Dye. After not receiving a bowl bid – the Pirates had upset Louisiana Tech in the 1978 Independence Bowl the year before – Dye quit.

While he was rumored to have other possibilities, he did not have another job. He just up and resigned, then blasted his athletics director and chancellor for not giving enough support to the football program, in terms of facilities and funding.

Dye called his $38,000 base salary and his overall $60,000 take-home pay “more than enough.” He said the athletics director off him a raise, thinking “he could keep me here with money. But I wanted his support for the football program, not the money.”

Dye had been a hot commodity for a while. In 1977, the season after he led the Pirates to their only Southern Conference football championship, he interviewed to become the head coach at North Carolina. East Carolina, discouraged by system president Bill Friday from pilfering a coach from a sister institution, wouldn’t let Dye out of his contract and the Tar Heels chose to hire Ohio University head coach Dick Crum instead.

"I'm not sure North Carolina wants a national championship football team," Dye told The Charlotte Observer's Tom Sorensen in 1981. "I probably shouldn't say this...I'm not sure they want that much athletic success. Going to the Gator Bowl seems successful enough for them."

In 1978, Mississippi State offered Dye its head coaching position, but Dye declined.

“I could have left any year I was here,” Dye said after his resignation from ECU. “Just last year Mississippi State made a very lucrative offer and everyone – my staff, my family – want to pack up and go. But every year I always looked for a good reason to stay. This time, I didn’t even bother. I knew before the season even began that I would leave. I knew I couldn’t be enthusiastic like I was in the past. I knew I needed a change of scenery, a new challenge.”

At the same time, NC State coach Bo Rein, still the youngest head coach in Division I football at the age of 34, left after his fourth season at NC State to become the head at Southeastern Conference superpower Louisiana State. By all reasonable accounts, Rein did not think he could challenge for a national championship at NC State in the same way he could at LSU.

Dye quietly campaigned for the NC State job. He said he could definitely win a national championship in Raleigh. Instead, Wolfpack athletics director Willis Casey formed an eight-person screening committee to hire a new coach. Casey was in the middle of an extended stay at Rex Hospital recovering from “an undisclosed illness.” From his bed, Casey considered Dye and a pair of former Wolfpack players from the school’s successful 1967 team, quarterback Jim Donnan and linebacker Chuck Amato.

Dye was the feisty sort, as presidents and athletics directors in the SEC eventually discovered. He was never feistier, however, than the 1979 season.

“I had something happen in the beginning of the year in 1979,” Dye told the East Carolina fansite Bonesville in 2004. “I didn’t want to release a player. We had a kid who played backup quarterback and had gone through the entire spring and then decided he wanted to transfer to Duke. I didn’t want him going there and running their scout team all fall when we had to line up and open the season for them. But, the athletics director and the president released him anyway. They decided to release him against my wishes and, actually, I didn’t even know that they did it.”

Duke, with the former Pirate quarterback running the scout team the week before the game, beat ECU 28-14 in the third game of the 1979 season.

“[The president] started telling us how to do our jobs,” Dye said in the Bonesville interview. “I learned that what I thought was true and I kept that in the back of my mind until the end of the season. I didn’t want it hanging over my head. We had a good year in 1979 and certainly the good times outweighed the bad…[but] I couldn’t work for someone I couldn’t trust. So, rather than trying to fight the institution – which is always more important than the individual – I thought it was best to move on. I didn’t want to damage East Carolina. I don’t regret the decision because I knew it was the right thing to do. I hated leaving those players and leaving East Carolina and Greenville. At the time, I was 40 years old and I had some good years left. I wasn’t worried about finding a job because I knew… I knew I could coach… for somebody.”

In six years at East Carolina, Dye had built a successful, winning program, leading the Pirates to the 1976 Southern Conference championship and an all-time 48-18-1 record. He won at least seven games in each of his six seasons and left Greenville with a 72.4 winning percentage. In his final season, the Pirates led the nation in rushing with Dye’s ground-grinding wishbone offense.
Pirate fans wanted the second most successful coach in school history to stay put, for obvious reasons. Someone in Greenville made a small fortune selling bumper stickers that read, “Keep Pat – fire the rest.”

Dye thought he would land at NC State. Dye had been an assistant coach at Alabama under Bear Bryant when NC State chancellor Joab Thomas was an Alabama professor of biology, the assistant dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and the vice president of student affairs in Tuscaloosa (1961-75).

Dye, the son of a Georgia cotton farmer and a former captain of Georgia’s football team with quarterback Fran Tarkenton, seemed like the perfect fit for the school’s fanbase.

NC State’s screening committee backed off Dye because of his comments, according to Charlotte Observer columnist Bob Quincy. The coach quickly issued an apology in an attempt to regain favor, but the damage was done.

"I just told it the was it was," Dye told the Raleigh News & Observer's Chip Alexander in a 1985 interview. "Sometimes, the truth hurts, you know. And, yes, it probably cost me the job at State."

Some were also concerned that the wishbone offense Dye learned under Alabama’s Bear Bryant was too conservative. Never mind that the Wolfpack was just a year removed from Rein’s highly successful twin veer option, featuring all-time ACC rushing leader Ted Brown.

So the committee recommended to Casey that the school hire Lou Holtz defensive lieutenant Monte Kiffin from Arkansas. The 39-year-old Kiffin was hired less than a week after Rein’s resignation.
Dye landed at Wyoming, where he immediately upset the school by suggested leading the Cowboys to success would open doors for other opportunities. He quickly had to back-track those comments.

“This is in no way a stepping stone for me,” Dye said. “I hope it will be a stepping stone for some of our assistant coaches, because we do have an outstanding staff. As far as my position at Wyoming, I’d like to build a program here where, if we’re at Laramie 15 years from now, we can look back and be proud that we were a part of it.”

He left after taking the Cowboys to their first winning season in eight years to become the head coach at Auburn, ending his one-year exile west of the Mississippi. He took the job at Alabama's biggest rival against Bryant's advice.

"The people of Wyoming are talking about rodeoing in July," Dye said. "In Alabama, they are talking about the Auburn-Alabama game."

Dye had nine 9-win seasons in 18 years of coaching before he abruptly retired from Auburn following the 1992 season at the age of 51, as the NCAA began to poke around his recruiting practices. In 12 seasons, he compiled a 99-39-4 record with the Tigers, won at least a share of the SEC championships in 1983 and ’87-’89, coached Heisman Trophy winner Bo Jackson and won at least 10 games four times.

He won three SEC Coach of the Year awards and was the 1983 national coach of the year.

But he never won a championship at NC State.