Note from Elizabeth: this post from JACK HILLIARD continues a two-part tribute to two Hall-of-Fame UNC football coaches: Carl Snavely, a.k.a. the “Grey Fox” (head coach from 1934-1935 and 1945-1952; see part 1) and Jim Tatum, or “Sunny Jim” (head coach in 1942 and from 1956-1958), who passed away on July 23, 1959 at the age of 46.
Three seasons after Carl Snavely left UNC, a charismatic character arrived from the University of Maryland. During the 1955 season, when Maryland was undergoing some administrative changes, head coach Jim Tatum would often spend Sunday nights having dinner with Charlie Justice. (Justice was in the area because he was doing color commentary on the Amoco Redskins TV Network each Sunday afternoon). Charlie believed that Tatum was the answer to UNC’s coaching problems and tried to talk him into returning to Carolina. Tatum had been a UNC assistant coach from 1938 to 1941 and head coach in ’42, plus he played for Coach Snavely in 1934 and ’35. Whatever the reason — Tatum’s unhappiness as both head coach and athletic director at Maryland, or Justice’s convincing ways — he returned to Carolina in 1956. Said Tatum, “I’m like an old br’er rabbit going back to the brier patch.”
The front-page headline in the January 9, 1956 Washington Post read: “Tatum Goes To North Carolina.”
Since “Sunny Jim,” as many called him (others called him “Big Jim,” and his players called him “Bullmoose”) had been so successful at Maryland with three 10-game-winning seasons, five bowl teams and a national championship in 1953, Tar Heel alumni and fans thought they were headed once again for greatness. You could go downtown in Chapel Hill and get a slice of “sweet Tatum pie” at the Carolina Coffee Shop, or you could get a trademark Tatum ten-gallon hat from Monk Jennings and Bob Cox at Town & Campus clothing store.
Below is a detail from a Hugh Morton image of Tatum’s triumphant return to Kenan Stadium on September 22, 1956, for a game vs. NC State (click to see full version). But the ’56 Tar Heels struggled, winning only 2 games. It would be Tatum’s only losing season.
In ’57, thanks to “Sunny Jim’s” enthusiasm and optimism, things took a turn for the better. An early season win over nationally ranked Navy and a win over Wake Forest, despite having to suspend three players prior to the game with the Deacons (including quarterback Dave Reed), and finally a win over Duke, had Tar Heel fans looking up. A classic Hugh Morton image of Coach Tatum and an emotional Dave Reed following the game at Duke (see below) has been widely published and was a Morton favorite.
The 1958 season started off slow, but a win at Southern Cal on October 3rd had fans cheering again. Everything pointed to the 1959 season . . . that would be the year that Tar Heel football would be great again. Said Tatum, “1959 will be our year. That’s what I’ve been building for all this time.”
On Thursday, July 16, 1959, Jim Tatum played a round of golf at Hope Valley with his friends Carrington Smith, Vic Huggins, and Orville Campbell. Upon finishing the round, Tatum asked Campbell to drive him home saying, “I don’t feel good.” On Sunday, the 19th, he was hospitalized.
By now the media had picked up on Tatum’s illness. On Thursday evening July 23rd, across the state in Greensboro, WFMY-TV Sports Director Charlie Harville was just about to go on the air with his 11:20 PM sports report when he was paged for a phone call. It was Chuck Erickson, UNC Athletic Director, who passed on the news that Jim Tatum had died at 10:40 PM. Harville struggled to report his friend’s death. Jim Tatum was 46 years and one day old. The opening game of the ’59 season was 57 days away.
I remember being in summer school on Friday, July 24th. As I walked from Manly dorm to my class in Phillips Hall, the campus was silent. I don’t ever remember being on campus when there was absolutely no sound — but on this day there was nothing but silence.
September 19, 1959 was a picture-perfect autumn day in Chapel Hill. (Perhaps I should say a Hugh Morton picture-perfect autumn day). Clemson came to town and handed the Tar Heels the first of 5 defeats during the 1959 season . . . a season that had so much promise just wasn’t to be.
Jim Tatum was inducted into the National Football Foundation’s College Football Hall of Fame with the class of 1984. Tatum’s Hall of Fame plaque was presented to his widow Edna by his friend Charlie Justice.
When UNC alumni and fans get together, often the subject of football will come up in conversation and invariably someone will ask, “What if ‘Sunny Jim’ had lived? Could he have taken the ’59 Tar Heels to the place where the ‘Grey Fox’ had taken them in ’48?”
We’ll never know.