Saturday, February 25, 2017

When NC State Canceled its Senior Day Game

College students were throwing rocks at an elected official, shouting him down when he tried to talk, cursing as a heavily armed police escort whisked him away into the cold, dark night.

In their eyes, the arrogant official had overstepped his bounds and unjustly broke up their mostly peaceful assembly.

Another modern protest of campus snowflakes? Nope. It was the birth of ACC basketball passion.

The ironic thing, of course, was this was a Southern Conference game, scheduled between two old rivals, NC State and North Carolina, in a regular-season finale 70 years ago today.

The two teams were uncommonly good. The season before North Carolina played for the NCAA championship. NC State had already assured itself of its first ever Southern Conference regular-season title, but the Red Terrors were eager to bury the White Phantoms (the nicknames of choice for the two schools at the time) in preparation for the following week's Southern Conference tournament in Durham.

So early that evening, 4,000 students, most of them World War II veterans attending school on the GI Bill, began to assemble at Thompson Gym, just as they had a few weeks earlier when Duke came to town. For the earlier game, nearly 5,000 spectators crammed into the 3,200-seat gym, filing in through the doors, climbing a ladder and entering through second-floor windows and sneaking in through the downstairs basement where the university pool was located.

If anything, there were fewer students at this game than that.

“At 7:30 p.m. every inch of space was occupied with students and ‘visitors’ standing in the aisles, hanging from the rafters, railings and anything else that might lend a reasonable amount of support for the next two hours,” reported NC State’s student newspaper.

The difference, however, was the arrival of Raleigh city fire chief W.R. Butts, who was determined to take hold of the overcrowding at State College’s final home basketball game of the season. He arrived with 10 firemen and 10 policemen.

At game time, public address announcer C.A. Dillon, a senior in mechanical engineering, attempted to announce the winner of the team player of the year award and honor the team’s only senior, Leo Katkaveck. The crowd was too rowdy for him to talk and he eventually gave up on the trophy presentation.

Butts stepped onto the gym floor and announced that if the aisles and entryways were not cleared within 15 minutes, the game would be forfeited to Carolina, citing a state law of the time that stated all spectators at a public event must occupy a regulation seat. Students and fans squeezed together, sitting two to a seat, until all the aisles were cleared and there was no one—except for the 10 firemen—on the baselines of the basketball court.

However, if those firemen had been posted by the front doors, they may have prevented students from removing the pins and taking those doors off the hinges, allowing hundreds of other spectators to stream in, unhindered.

He made another announcement, and dimmed the four lights that shone on the court to get the crowd’s attention. Eventually, he ordered the entire gymnasium cleared and the game canceled.

Butts actually had reason to be concerned. The night before in West Lafayette, Indiana, in an overcrowded game between Purdue and Wisconsin ended in tragedy when wooden bleachers collapsed during halftime, killing three students and sending hundreds more to local hospitals. It was only three months after the Winecoff Hotel disaster, the deadliest hotel fire in U.S. history, in which 119 people died when the “fireproof” 15-story building burned in downtown Atlanta. It was less than a year after hotel fires in Chicago and Iowa killed a combined 80 guests.

The problem was that the fire chief took his stand at the final game, not earlier games that drew bigger crowds of the predominantly married student population. Earlier games against New York University and Duke were packed with fans, who were all used to watching games in cramped quarters.

There were three reasons so many fans showed up for the game. First, no students attended the Red Terrors’ previous home game against Davidson because they gave up their seats to the local Raleigh community, with all receipts (a total of more than $3,150) given to the effort to complete NC State’s Memorial Tower in honor of the students and alumni who died in World War I.

Secondly, a large contingent of North Carolina fans came over to see its team avenge and earlier loss in Woollen Gym, in which the Terrors took a 48-46 overtime victory on a one-handed jumper by Jack McComas to end an eight-game losing streak against their biggest rival.

Finally, there was a large number of fans from the Raleigh community, generally unable to get tickets for State games because of the newly enlarged student population, which swelled from about 900 in 1945 to more than 5,000 just two years later, showed up outside the doors to see the game.

After the post-nongame riots subsided, blame was rampant in all sectors, with the student newspaper sports editor from NC State saying it was the “Carpetbaggers from Chapel Hill” putting partial blame on the event, while the Daily Tar Heel sports editor—my friend and former Greensboro News & Record colleague Irwin Smallwood—wrote “Carolina was not at fault in the remotest.” He blamed the State athletics department for giving out more tickets than the gym’s capacity, something that was not then or now proven.

Still, the game was canceled and not rescheduled since the start of the Southern Conference Tournament was less than a week away. The tournament had already been switched from Raleigh’s downtown auditorium, its home since 1933, to the larger Duke Indoor Stadium, to accommodate ticket requests. There was no time to reschedule the game.

However, the two teams did meet again. In Durham. In the conference championship game. First-year NC State coach Everett Case’s team held on for another close victory over the first-year coach Tom Scott’s White Phantoms. Afterwards, the Wolfpack became the first college team to cut down the nets after winning a championship, a tradition Case brought with him from the Indiana high school tournament, which he won a record four times.

So here’s my long-held belief: The cagey Case planned the whole thing. Thompson Gym was ill-suited for big-time college basketball and Case was hired with the promise that a new on-campus coliseum was “nearly complete.” In fact, when he arrived in the summer of 1946, all that was standing on State's campus was a rusted skeleton of steel girders, erected before the start of World War II, on a bare concrete pad.

He wanted it finished.

And in the aftermath of the canceled Senior Day, these were the words written by the editorial board of Technician.

“The straw that broke the camel’s back” was the large number of Carolina fans, Raleigh school students, State College alumni and Raleigh businessmen who crashed the gate by hook or by crook (some even used a ladder to get into an upper window). Had it not been for them, the gym may have held the number of the number of State students who wanted to see the game. As it was, the ticket books of those who were not attending the game were given to outsiders. The mob spirit prevailed all around the gym and it was impossible for the gatekeepers or the cops to keep control of the crowd without a fight which would have caused someone to get hurt.

“One definite conclusion of the abominable incident is that that coliseum must be completed at once. It is hoped that the many legislators who tried in vain to see the ball game last Tuesday night will return to the Capitol building with determination to approve the requested appropriations at an early date. Since there is no doubt that the money asked for will be approved, we feel that work should be started immediately on the coliseum so that there can be no duplication of the impossible situation of Tuesday night.”

A little more than 18 months later, after the fire chief condemned Thompson Gym and Case and his team had to play an entire season in Raleigh’s auditorium, the newly renamed Wolfpack played its first game in Reynolds Coliseum.

Read Technician’s coverage of the canceled game.

Reach Tim Peeler at timothy.peeler@gmail.com.

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