As a kid growing up in the 1950s, Thanksgiving Day was always special. In addition to my mom’s great cooking, my dad and I would always watch the Green Bay Packers play the Detroit Lions on CBS. Thanksgiving 1959, however, was different: it was the first Thanksgiving since my dad had passed away in July of ’59, and there was another football game offered on TV—Carolina versus Duke on NBC. My dad, UNC Class of ’34, would have loved it. So today, fifty-eight years later, I would like to look back to Carolina’s 1959 season and a special Thanksgiving Day game. —Jack Hilliard, UNC Class of 1963
The telephone rang shortly before 11:00 p.m. in the control room at WFMY-TV in Greensboro on Thursday, July 23, 1959. It was UNC Athletic Director Chuck Erickson calling anchorman Charlie Harville. Harville rushed from the studio to take the call. Erickson related the sad news that UNC Head Football Coach Jim Tatum had died about fifteen minutes earlier. Harville got the details and ran back into the studio. No time to prepare a script, he gave an emotional report about the passing of his dear friend. The Tar Heel Nation was in shock. My dad passed away two days later, on July 25th.
The UNC Athletic Council took only four days to select Tatum’s successor. At 5:40 p.m. on July 27, 1959, Chancellor William B. Aycock with Athletic Director Charles (Chuck) Erickson at his side, made the announcement that Tatum assistant, 39-year-old James Benton Hickey would be the new Tar Heel coach with a three-year contract. He would become known as Jim Hickey. In accepting the position, Hickey told a large group of newsmen gathered at The Pines Restaurant in Chapel Hill, “I appreciate this opportunity. It is one I have always wanted. My only regret is the circumstances under which it had to come about.”
The 1959 UNC football season was fifty-three days away. The Tar Heels would face nine tough opponents, leading up the forty-sixth meeting between rival Duke for a regular season-ending matchup in Duke Stadium scheduled for Saturday, November 21st. On July 30th—three days after UNC’s coaching announcement—we got the news that NBC-TV had negotiated a $208,000 arrangement to play a national TV game on Thanksgiving Day, November 26th. The two schools had never played on Thanksgiving.
Carolina’s 1959 season officially got underway on Saturday, September 19th with a two-point home loss to Clemson 20-18. The following weekend came a second loss, this time to Notre Dame in South Bend 28-8. At this point, Coach Hickey decided to change his game plan. Up to this point he had followed the game strategy that Coach Tatum had put in place before his death. Hickey’s plan worked; two home-game-wins followed with victories over NC State 20-12 and South Carolina 19-6. A road game with Maryland was next. The Heels played well at College Park, but couldn’t contain Maryland’s “jack-rabbit-backs.” The final score: Terrapins 14, Tar Heels 7.
Starting the second half of the season, Carolina traveled to Winston-Salem for a game with Wake Forest on October 24th. UNC’s quarterback Jack Cummings was able to complete only two passes, but Carolina’s running game was enough for a 21-19 win. With four games remaining in the ’59 season, Carolina’s record was 3-3 on the year.
The next two games, at home against Tennessee and on the road at Miami, were disastrous for the Heels. Carolina scored a combined fourteen points against the two rivals in the two losses. Next, Virginia came to Chapel Hill for the 64th meeting between the Tar Heels and the Cavaliers on November 14th. On this day, Coach Hickey’s charges could do no wrong in handing Virginia its 17th consecutive defeat 41-0. With photographer Hugh Morton shooting from the sidelines, a small Kenan Stadium crowd of 21,000 saw Carolina set an ACC and Kenan Stadium record of 583 yards of offense. The win brought Carolina’s record to 4-5 on the season and set the stage for the annual game with Duke.
Duke and Carolina matched up well for their 46th meeting. Against mutual opponents, Carolina did better against South Carolina than did Duke, but the Blue Devils were stronger against Wake. Performances of both teams against State and Clemson were about the same. Both teams had records were 4-5, but Duke was made a 4-to-6-point favorite.
‘Twas the night before Thanksgiving and all through Duke Stadium, thirty technicians scurried like mice to get everything ready for the coast-to-coast telecast—fifteen from NBC and fifteen from AT&T made the deadline. All was ready to go by 8:00 p.m. on Thanksgiving Eve, eighteen hours before the scheduled 2:00 p.m. kickoff.
Thanksgiving Day 1959 dawned clear and mild. In the broadcast booth for the telecast were play-by-play announcer Lindsey Nelson and color commentator Red Grange. Since both Duke and Carolina students were on holiday, only 33,000 fans turned out for the game.
In his pregame locker room speech, Coach Hickey mentioned something for the first time during the ‘59 season. He said: “Boys, if there was ever a game Coach Tatum would have wanted you to win, this is it.”
Duke won referee John Donahue’s coin toss and elected to receive. The Tar Heels would kickoff and defend the south goal. On the first series, Duke failed to gain a first down and punted to the Carolina 44-yard line. Carolina moved down the field and scored with seven minutes left in the quarter. Duke, on its second series, fumbled and Carolina recovered at the Duke 22-yard line. Again, the Tar Heels couldn’t be stopped; they scored at the 4:55 mark and led 14-0 at the end of the first quarter.
Early in the second quarter, Duke got to the Carolina 11-yard line, but two dropped passes prevented a score. Carolina took over and marched to a third touchdown to lead 21- 0 at the 13:15 mark of the second quarter. There seemed to be a pattern forming: Duke couldn’t score and Carolina could. With 2:55 left in the second quarter the score was 28-0 and would remain so at halftime.
Duke’s Art Browning kicked off to start the second half. Tar Heel Don Klochak received the ball at the Carolina 7-yard line and he was off to the races for 93 yards. Carolina led 35-0 with 14:15 left in the third quarter. The trend continued: another Duke fumble led to another Carolina score at the 2:40 mark in the third making the score 42-0.
With 7:05 left in the game, Tar Heel George Knox, a fullback that Carolina’s Alumni Review called “fifth-string” raced 32-yards down the right sideline for Carolina’s final touchdown. With that TD, the score was 48-0, and Coach Hickey could hear the Tar Heel crowd chanting: “Hickey, go for fifty!” Coach got the message. Second string quarterback Ray Ferris ran off right tackle for the two points making the score 50-0. It was about two minutes later that Coach Hickey made his famous quote, when one of his players congratulated him on a win. Coach said, “It isn’t over yet, boys.”
With twenty seconds left in the game and Carolina’s fourth and fifth stringers at the Duke four, Coach Hickey called a timeout. He then sent his eleven seniors back on the field with strict instructions, “Do not score!” Quarterback Jack Cummings then took the snap, leaned into the line, went down easily, and the clock ran out.
The Carolina players rode Coach Hickey on their shoulders to midfield. Photographer Hugh Morton’s shot of the scene in The Charlotte News (above) is classic. He had photographed a similar scene many times before with names like Justice, Snavely, and Morris. Now add Hickey to the list.
When the group arrived at midfield, Duke Head Coach Bill Murray was not in a friendly mood. “You really wanted that last touchdown bad, didn’t you,” Murray snapped, “putting that first bunch back in there.”
“Coach, you’ve got it all wrong,” said Hickey. “I sent my seniors back in there and told them not to score. . . . I just wanted the seniors to finish their careers on the field.” The two coaches then shook hands, and Murray turned and walked off the field. He would later phone Coach Hickey and congratulated him on the win.
A game with a win like this prompted tons of ink and airtime. The headline in The Daily Tar Heel on December 1st, when the Thanksgiving break was over and the DTH presses began rolling again, said it all in a huge above-the-heading headline: “50–0.”
As is always the case, the Duke–Carolina game brings out special guests, and the ’59 game was no exception. Peahead Walker, Red O’Quinn and NCAA District 3 Director Jim Corbett were there, among others. Sis Barrier, wife of Greensboro Daily News Executive Sports Editor Smith Barrier, in a society-type column about the game said, “Hugh Morton, who drove up from Wilmington with two of the boys—and left Julia at home by the TV set, was as happy as anybody.”
About fifteen minutes after the game ended, Coach Hickey was doing his post-game press conference when he was interrupted by a man wearing a Jim Tatum-type hat. There were tears in his eyes as he said: “I just had to come down and congratulate you, Coach Hickey, for this wonderful victory. I’m getting tired of all the criticism of you and this should silence them. And I appreciate it more than you know, for I’m sure this one was won for Jim.”
The man, who then silently made his way back into the crowd, was Dick Tatum of McColl, South Carolina, big brother of the beloved Carolina coach. Hickey then added: “Yes, I think you can say they won it for Coach Tatum, and why not? He’s the greatest guy I ever worked for.”