Majestic Kenan Stadium, A Priceless Gem

Wide-angle view of Kenan Stadium, circa 1997

Note from Elizabeth: This post was written by volunteer Jack Hilliard as a tribute to Kenan Stadium in honor of its recent facelift. For a great related article about Hugh Morton and Charlie Justice, check out this column by Lee Pace on

What two things do each of the following have in common: opera star Norman Cordon, Hollywood actress Georgia Carroll, CBS News correspondent Charles Kuralt, UNC Football Great Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice, actor-comedian Andy Griffith, Rev. Billy Graham, Presidents John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton, Rameses VI, NC Governors Terry Sanford and J. Melville Broughton, Hall of Fame football coaches Carl Snavely and Jim Tatum from UNC and Wallace Wade from Duke, musician Arthur Smith, and Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy?

Need a clue?  There is a UNC-Chapel Hill connection . . . Each appeared and/or performed in Kenan Memorial Stadium, and Hugh Morton photographed them in that majestic venue.

The 1966 UNC Football Media Guide called Kenan “A Southern Showplace.” Built in 1927 for $375,000 on the outskirts of the campus, the arena now sits nearer center campus following 82 years of campus growth. Over those years, it has been the stage for July 4th fireworks displays, concerts featuring Bruce Springsteen; Blood, Sweat and Tears; Grand Funk Railroad; Joe Cocker; and Chapel Hill favorite James Taylor. In mid-May, UNC graduation ceremonies are held in the stadium with speakers like Bill Cosby, Madeleine Albright, and Desmond Tutu.

Air view of high school band competition at UNC's Kenan StadiumThe Stadium has played host to high school marching band competitions (see above), campus beauty contests, homecoming and reunion celebrations, and two U.S. Presidents (John Kennedy in 1961, and Bill Clinton in 1993). During World War II (when the entire campus welcomed the Navy Pre-Flight School), the Stadium was the home for military graduation parades. A memorial was held in the Stadium for FDR in April, 1945 and for JFK in May, 1964. Around that same time, a popular campus rumor was that the Stadium might need to be used for Dr. Robert B. House’s Classics 31 class and Dr. J. Primrose Harland’s Archeology 85 because they were so large!

But, most people think of Kenan Stadium as a football arena. It is indeed that — the home of the North Carolina Tar Heels.


On November 12, 1927 the first event staged in Kenan was a football game between UNC and Davidson. About two weeks later, on Thanksgiving Day, the Stadium was dedicated in a ceremony before the UNC-Virginia game. John Sprunt Hill presented the Stadium on behalf of the donor William Rand Kenan, Jr., while Governor Angus W. McLean accepted on behalf of the State of North Carolina and the University. Enhancing the Stadium was a pet project of Mr. Kenan’s through the years — it was his gift that enabled portable seating to be installed, a new press box to be added in 1949, and then an upper deck in 1963 — and of course the magnificent Kenan Football Center, added in 1997. Additional enhancements are being made even as we speak.

Tar Heel football isn’t the only football that happens in Kenan. Each December the North Carolina High School Athletic Association holds division championship games in the Stadium, and on August 11, 1990, Jerry Richardson, owner and founder of the Carolina Panthers, staged what he called “Carolina Kickoff II,” which was his second effort to prove to the NFL that the Carolinas could and would support professional football. (The game that night was between the Atlanta Falcons and the Washington Redskins).
Often times when alumni gather for homecoming or reunion weekends, this question comes up: “What was the greatest game ever played in Kenan?” The answers vary: was it Carolina’s win over Tennessee in ’47, or Jim Tatum’s team beating Navy in ’57? How about UNC’s first win over Notre Dame, which came in 1960? And who could forget the great 2004 win over Miami? All those games are great candidates for the greatest, but there are probably two dozen more just as good. There is one game, however, that seems to be on everyone’s list.

Coin toss for 9/25/48 UNC-CH vs. Texas at Kenan StadiumOn Saturday, September 25, 1948, Carolina played Texas before a sellout crowd of 44,000 in the season opener. In a 1984 interview, Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice said that folks in 10-gallon hats showed up on Franklin Street as early as Thursday. There were no pre-season polls in those days, but both teams were certainly in the top 5. Carolina scored 21 points in the first quarter and went on to beat the Longhorns 34 to 7. The headline in the “The Alumni Review” read: “Thundering Longhorn Herd Is Struck By Lightning Before 44,000 Electrified Fans!”

Hugh Morton’s photographs from that day are legendary and have been used time and time again.  Perhaps there is a special reason why the Morton photographs from September 25th are so good. Back in Wilmington, Hugh’s wife Julia was taking care of some family business . . . Hugh Morton, Jr. was born on September 24th.

UNC football team lifting coach Carl Snavely after their 9/25/48 win over Texas at Kenan Stadium

Following the big Texas win, the Tar Heels went on the road for two games, and when NC State came into Kenan on October 16th, the Tar Heels were ranked Number 1—the only time that has happened in UNC football history.

10 thoughts on “Majestic Kenan Stadium, A Priceless Gem”

  1. Sixty-Four years ago today, September 25, 1948, UNC won one of its biggest games in school history when Coach Carl Snavely’s Tar Heels beat Coach Blair Cherry’s Texas Longhorns 34 to 7 in Kenan Stadium. “The Alumni Review” headline read:
    “Thundering Longhorn Herd is Struck by Lightning Before 44,000 Electrified Fans”

  2. 66 years ago this past weekend, the first game of what would become known as the “Charlie Justice Era,” was played in Kenan Stadium. On Saturday, September 28, 1946, Carolina played host to VPI (of course it’s called Virginia Tech today). It was a rainy day in Chapel Hill just as it was on Saturday when Carolina scored a record-setting 66 points against Idaho.
    This coming weekend, October 6, 2012, Carolina is planning what it’s calling a “White Out” game with Virginia Tech. The new Carolina all white uniforms will be featured and fans are being asked to come dressed in white. It will be the first “White Out Day” in Kenan, but the Justice Era players wore white several times during the 1946 and ’47 seasons, as evidenced by this Hugh Morton classic image of Justice.
    Just a couple of those quirks that often play out in the world of sports.

  3. Tar Heel Giovani Bernard’s magnificent afternoon in Kenan Stadium against NC State came on the same day as Wilson Library’s 3rd annual “Gridiron Glory” presentation, 10/27/12. Gio ran in the footprints of Tar Heel Gridiron Greats with names like Voight, and Lawrence, Means and Bryant, McCauley and Justice.

  4. Eighty-Five years ago today, November 12, 1927, Kenan Memorial Stadium officially opened. The Tar Heels defeated Davidson College 27-0, with the first touchdown in the new stadium by Edison Foard. That first game was played before 9,000 fans.
    The stadium was officially dedicated to William R. Kenan and Mary Hargrave Kenan on Thanksgiving Day in 1927 in front of 28,000 fans. On that day the Tar Heels beat the University of Virginia, 14-13.

  5. Posting this comment for Jack Hilliard:
    On Saturday, September 19, 2015, as we sat in beautiful Kenan Memorial Stadium under a Carolina blue sky and a warm September sun, we got to see Head Coach Larry Fedora’s 2015 UNC Tar Heels at the top of their game as they defeated the University of Illinois 48 to 14 on “Monogram Day” before 41,000 fans. And in the process, we saw Tar Heel return specialist, five-foot, ten-inch Ryan Switzer set a team and stadium record with 168 total yards on 5 punt returns, including a 71-yard beauty and an 85-yard touchdown.
    The record had been in the book 3 days short of 64 years. On September 22, 1951, Tar Heel Leon “Bud” Carson returned 8 punts for 166 yards in a 21 to 0 win over N.C. State on “Greater University Day.” (Later, the day when students from Woman’s College and NC State met in Chapel Hill, would be become known as “Consolidated University, or CU, Day.”) Carson, who was one-inch shorter than Switzer at five foot, nine inches, had a 74-yard touchdown punt return in the second quarter on that day…a day when Hugh Morton joined 43,000 fans in 80-degree Kenan Stadium. Morton’s images from that day have not made the Online Collection yet, but we know he was there. There is his game credentials badge in the Morton Collection from that day. I would not be surprised to see a Carson image or two from that ’51 game.
    Following his playing career at Carolina and duty with the US Marines, Carson became a coach. He was an assistant in the early 1960s at Carolina where Morton photographed him in 1962 ( In 1967 he took over head coaching duties at Georgia Tech. Four years later he joined the coaching staff of the Pittsburgh Steelers, where, in the early 1970s he was the defensive coordinator for the Steelers’ famous “Steel Curtain.”
    Bud Carson died on December 7, 2005. He was 75.

  6. Tar Heel fans can look for some exciting times in Kenan Memorial Stadium during the 2016 football season. The 2016 season will mark the 90th for Carolina football in the historic venue and it will be the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the “Golden Era,” often called the “Charlie Justice Era.”
    And best of all, Tar Heel football historian, writer, and broadcaster Lee Pace is working on a fantastic Kenan Stadium book that should be available in late summer…just before Larry Fedora’s 2016 Tar Heels take the field.
    Here is a link to get more information on Pace’s book and learn how you can participate by sending along stories and memories from times spent in Kenan Stadium.

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