Prolog: Today, December 5th, at 8:00 P.M. UNC Head Football Coach Larry Fedora’s 2015 Tar Heels will take on head coach Dabo Swinney’s Clemson Tigers for the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship. Clemson (12-0) is ranked #1 and Carolina (11-1) is ranked #8 in both the Coaches’ and Football Writers’ polls. The game, which will be played in Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium, will bring back some memories for some old Tar Heels. At the end of the 1948 season, Clemson (10-0) was at the top of the Southern Conference while Carolina (9-0-1) was second. Ironically, the two teams did not meet in ’48 but the final Associated Press poll placed Carolina #3 and Clemson #11. All of that took place five years before the ACC was born.
Introduction: UNC’s football tradition and heritage runs deep: thirty-one bowl games dating back to the 1947 Sugar Bowl, fourteen bowl wins dating back to the 1963 Gator Bowl, a host of All-America players dating back to 1934 and George Barclay’s selection, five players and two coaches currently in the College Football Hall of Fame dating back to Charlie Justice’s selection in 1961. There is one distinction, however, that only appears once in the Tar Heel record book and it occurred sixty-seven years ago. Hugh Morton collection volunteer Jack Hilliard takes a look back at that one-of-a-kind-honor.
When the 1947 football season ended and the final Associated Press poll came out on December 8th, the University of North Carolina was ranked ninth with eight wins and two losses. The ’47 Tar Heels received several minor bowl invitations, including one from the Legion Bowl that was to be played in Los Angeles, but the team and the university turned down the invitations.
However when the 1948 preseason football magazines hit the newsstands in early August, at least one mentioned the Tar Heels in the same sentence as the words “national title.” Durham sports columnist Jack Horner, (Hugh Morton jokingly called him “Little Jack Horner”) writing in Street and Smith’s 1948 Football Pictorial Yearbook said, “The Tar Heels of North Carolina . . . have the team to beat for Southern Conference honors but they’re a leading contender for the 1948 mythical national title.” Greensboro columnist Smith Barrier wrote the following in the 1948 Illustrated Football Annual: “A strenuous schedule that opens with Texas and follows with Georgia gives the Tar Heels opportunity to win tall place among the seasons great football powers.” When all the columnists’ ink had dried, it was time to play ball and see if any of the predictions would come true.
First up . . . a Kenan Stadium match-up between coach Carl Snavely’s single-wing North Carolina Tar Heels and coach Blair Cherry’s T-formation Texas Longhorns. There was no pre-season Associated Press poll in those days, but both teams would have most likely been in the nation’s top five.
On Thursday afternoon, September 23, folks in 10-gallon hats started showing up on Franklin Street. Texans were in town for Saturday’s season opener and were looking to take up where they left off the year before when they crushed the ’47 Tar Heels 34 to 0 in Austin. A sell-out crowd of 44,000 filled historic Kenan Stadium on Saturday, where fair, cool weather was in order.
Carolina’s barefooted kicker Mike Rubish kicked to Texas to start the game and Billy Pyle returned it to the Longhorn 22. Two running plays got nothing, so on 3rd down, Frank Guess quick-kicked to Charlie Justice who faked a hand-off to Johnny Clements, then took off down the sideline for 38 yards to the Texas 42. A drive that included a reverse play to Clements was capped with a touchdown pass from Justice to Art Weiner to put the Heels ahead. When Bob Cox converted the extra point, the game was only 3:30 old.Rubish again kicked to the ‘Horns. This time Paul Campbell received the kick, then lateraled to Texas co-captain Tom Landry (of future Dallas Cowboy fame) who was nailed by Tar Heel Haywood Fowle. Landry fumbled and Clements recovered at the Texas 5-yard line.
Two plays later it was Justice for Carolina’s second score. The game was now 4:30 old. Again Texas couldn’t move the ball on the Tar Heel defense and again Carolina drove for a third score—this time it was Justice passing to Cox. As Justice came off the field, Coach Snavely stood up from his normal seat beside the Carolina bench to shake Charlie’s hand. Said Justice, “Just sit down coach, it’s over.”
Texas was finally able to score near the end of the first quarter. Following a scoreless second quarter, the Kenan crowd was entertained by Head Cheerleader Norman Sper’s colorful 2,000-team card section along with Professor Earl Slocum’s marching band.
After a scoreless third quarter, it was Justice again, this time for 9 yards and a TD. The final Carolina score came on a Billy Hayes one-yard plunge, making the final 34 to 7.
A Kenan celebration with Snavely riding the shoulders of his team broke out following the game. The sports headline in the Greensboro Daily News on Sunday morning, September 26th read: “Justice Shines; Foe Outclassed.” To this day, there are many old Tar Heels (like me) who say this was UNC’s greatest Kenan Stadium win.
Three days later on September 28th when the Paul B. Williamson Football Ratings came out, Carolina was rated number one; most Tar Heel fans, however, anxiously awaited the all-important Associated Press Poll that would not be available with its first 1948 edition until October 4th—and the Heels had a road trip to Athens, Georgia before then.
Saturday, October 2, 1948 was a hot, 80-degree day in Georgia, but that didn’t stop 500 Tar Heel fans from staging a pre-game, traffic-blocking pep rally and parade through the streets of Athens led by UNC Head Cheerleader Norman Sper. The rally made its way through the UGA campus ending up at Sanford Stadium where 43,000 fans were ready for some football, and Georgia Head Coach Wally Butts was ready for game number two of his 10th season with the Bulldogs.
The 2:30 pm game began at the opposite end of the spectrum from the Tar Heel–Texas game the Saturday before. Carolina couldn’t seem to do anything right and the Bulldogs scored on a 76-yard-pass interception just six minutes into the game. That 7 to 0 score held into the third quarter when, with 10 minutes left in the quarter, Charlie Justice took control of the game scoring touchdown runs of 9 and 13 yards. Then in the 4th quarter it was Justice again—this time an 84-yard punt return to seal the Tar Heel victory, 21 to 14.
It turned out to be Justice’s greatest game as a Tar Heel: 304 total yards and his record performance prompted an article in the October 11, 1948 issue of Time titled “The Jack Rabbit of Chapel Hill,” complete with an Associated Press game action photograph. UNC Sports Information Director Jake Wade called the article “somewhat shy of accuracy.”
The game story in Sunday’s The Atlanta Journal went like this: “Charlie Trippi and Frank Sinkwich moved over Saturday to make room for Charlie (Choo Choo) Justice. Neither of the Georgia All-Americas ever dominated a football game on Sanford field one whit more than did the North Carolina express.”
Billy Carmichael III writing in The Daily Tar Heel issue of Sunday, October 3, 1948, had this to say about the game and his dear friend Charlie Justice:
The Tar Heels arrived early, stayed late . . . scored . . . and then packed up their play things and went home.” . . . (Justice) ran through them, he ran over them, he ran around. He passed to an assortment of receivers, picking his man like chocolates from a Whitman’s Sampler.
Georgia Assistant Coach Louis Trousdale said following the game, “It was all Justice . . . We coached our kickers for six months to kick away from Justice, and you see what happened.”
In a post game interview, Justice simply said, “It was the greatest game I ever played.”
The Tar Heel Nation faithfully awaited Monday’s Associated Press Poll, and most thought that Carolina would be number one for the first time in the history of the poll and the history of the school. Sadly, when the first AP Poll for 1948 was published on October 4th the Tar Heels were number 2 behind powerful Notre Dame. “Just wait ‘til next week” was the cry of the Tar Heel faithful.
Next up was a road trip to Groves Stadium and a match-up with “Peahead” Walker’s Wake Forest Demon Deacons. And for a second time during the ‘48 season, the Heels were looking to avenge a 1947 defeat. The headline in the High Point Enterprise issue of October 7th read, “Stop Justice, Deacons Say is Main Problem and Hope for Win.”
On October 9th, a record crowd of 28,500, including photographer Hugh Morton, packed Groves Stadium on a warm, sunny afternoon for the 45th meeting between Wake Forest and Carolina, a series dating back to 1888.
The Tar Heels played both ends against the middle, scoring twice in the first quarter and twice in the fourth quarter to take a 28 to 6 win. That 19 to 7 Wake win in ’47 was all but forgotten. The headline in the High Point Enterprise issue of Sunday, October 10th read: “Justice, Rodgers Pace Carolina to Third Win,” and Enterprise sports writer Bill Hackney followed up the headline by saying: “Charlie Justice and Hosea Rodgers sparked the Tar Heels’ offensive unit as they ate up 170 yards on the ground alone.” Justice and Rodgers outgained the entire Wake team on the ground by 60 yards. Morton’s action shots of Justice are classics.
On Monday, October 11, 1948 it happened. Carolina took over first place in the Associated Press weekly poll. The Tar Heels got fifty-two first place votes and beat out Notre Dame by eighteen votes. It was headline news across the state and nation. The sports headline in the October 13th issue of The New York Times proclaimed, “Gridiron Poll Led by North Carolina.”
Legendary Associated Press sportswriter Will Grimsley said: “The Irish (of Notre Dame) who held the No.1 position for almost a year, were dumped to second place by North Carolina, a Dixie institution where a lad named Charlie Justice gets his higher learning.”
Austin Bealmear, another of the AP writing team added the following in The Greensboro Record: “Unbeaten North Carolina moved to the top of the class today as the country’s No. 1 college football team. The Tar Heels displaced Notre Dame at the top of the list in the weekly poll of sports writers from coast to coast, conducted by the Associated Press.”
So, when NC State came into Chapel Hill on October 16th for Homecoming 1948, they faced the AP’s No. 1 team. And again, Head Cheerleader Norm Sper, along with card section designer Bill Harrison, was ready with a big US map with a large No. 1 in the center. But a 14 to 0 Tar Heel win over State wasn’t enough for the Heels to retain the No.1 spot, as Coach Snavely predicted in his Monday morning press conference. “Look,” said the low-key head coach, “our team is overrated. Yes, we have a good team, but not a super team. . . We have our definite limitations and weaknesses. And I don’t believe that we are entitled to the high position assigned us in the national ratings.”
On October 18th Carolina slipped to third behind Michigan and Notre Dame. A 34 to 7 win over LSU in Kenan and a 14 to 7 win over Tennessee on Shields-Watkins Field in Knoxville failed to improve on that third place position. And then, disaster in Kenan: more about that in the A View to Hugh piece titled “A Game Fit to be Tied” posted back on November 4, 2015.
For sixty-six seasons, the Tar Heels have struggled to regain that No.1 ranking from the Associated Press. So far, they have not been able to achieve what the ‘48 Tar Heels did on October 11, 1948.