On this day three years ago, September 19, 2016, the Tar Heel Nation lost an icon with the passing of Robert Vinsant (“Bob”) Cox. He was 90-years-old. Many Tar Heels remember Bob as a player on the UNC football teams of the late 1940s. While that’s true, there is much, much more to his resume, as Morton collection volunteer Jack Hilliard recalls.
In the Spring of 2004 when Hugh Morton put together a committee of former UNC football players to critique sculptor Johnpaul Harris’ Charlie Justice statue, Bob Cox (UNC Class of 1949) was one of the first team members selected. Cox would make two visits to Harris’ Asheboro studio during June, 2004 and was instrumental in the final statue presentation which was dedicated in November, 2004 and now stands at the west end of Kenan Memorial Stadium.
Cox was a team member of the Justice Era teams of the late 1940s, having arrived on the UNC campus in 1945 following duty with the United States Marines during World War II. He became a member of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity and was a pass-catching end and place-kicker for the Tar Heels. His 18-yard field goal in the second half of the 1947 Sugar Bowl against Georgia gave Carolina a brief 10-7 lead. When Georgia returned to Chapel Hill for a rematch on September 27, 1947, the pass-catching Cox led a Tar Heel win. The sports headline in the Greensboro Daily News on Sunday, September 28th read: “End Bob Cox Steals Show.”
Cox was second in team scoring in 1947 and 1948—second only to Justice—and was described as “Mr. Extra Point” by Harold Styers in his 1996 book Hark The Sound: A Time Remembered and a Sentimental Journey. He also joined Carolina’s golf team when it reformed in 1946 following World War II, and was a member of the 1947 Southern Conference Golf championship team.
Cox became a favorite photo-subject of Hugh Morton and following UNC’s great 20-0-win over Duke in 1948, Cox helped carry Charlie Justice off the field. The Morton image of that scene graced the front cover of The State on December 4, 1948.
Following his UNC graduation on June 6, 1949, the NFL’s Chicago Cardinals drafted Cox but he chose to stay at Carolina and attend graduate school. He also became a member of Head Football Coach Carl Snavely’s coaching staff, working with the varsity ends and the freshman teams from 1949 thru 1951.
Cox has two degrees from UNC: a BA and MA in physical education. Following his time at UNC, he became a member of the Carolina Clowns, a basketball team featuring several former Tar Heel athletes. The Clowns formed in 1949, offering those Tar Heels an opportunity to stay in shape and at the same time raise money for various charity events.
Over the years the Clowns’ roster changed as new players became available while others moved on to different endeavors. Cox joined UNC football players Charlie Justice, Art Weiner, Joe Wright, Jim Camp, Kenny Powell, Sid Varney, Don Hartig, Hosea Rodgers, and Jack Fitch, among others.
About the same time he was playing for the Clowns, Cox operated a Chapel Hill clothing store on Franklin Street called “Town & Campus.” The store was a favorite for ten years. During that time, he was also a member of the Chapel Hill Junior Chamber of Commerce and in 1957 was elected President of the North Carolina Junior Chamber. Then, he was elected President of the United States Jaycees in 1958. As President of the U. S. Chamber, he was a judge at the famous Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City, New Jersey. At the pageant on September 6, 1958, Cox and follow judges selected Mary Ann Mobley from Mississippi as Miss America of 1959 before a national TV audience of 60 million on CBS-TV.
In December of 1961, when the city of Asheville celebrated “Charlie Justice Day,” two former Justice teammates were part of the celebration: Art Weiner and Bob Cox. The Asheville Citizen published a picture of the three on the front page of its December 2, 1961 issue.
Bob could often be seen on campus during Graduation/Reunion weekends and in 1989 he led the annual “Saturday Morning in Chapel Hill” before a full house in Memorial Hall. The topic that May morning, “Why Did We Have it So Good and What Made Us Different?” The program featured a panel of 1940s and 1950s Tar Heel legends including Hugh Morton who presented one of his slide shows.
I remember calling Bob in the late summer of 1996 when I was working with him on the 50th anniversary celebration of the Golden Era teams. I didn’t get an answer when I called, so I called back several minutes later. When I told him I had called earlier, he said, “I was in the car and I don’t talk on the phone while I’m driving. Don’t want to put anyone in danger if my distraction might cause an accident.”
In 1999, Bob Cox was selected to head the class of 1949’s 50th reunion. In the spring of ’99, he wrote a letter to his fellow classmates. In that letter, he said:
“To do anything for 50 years is quite a feat. We are indeed fortunate to be in that elite group that makes up the Class of ’49, which allows us to ask ‘Do you remember when…’
“The walks were gravel; Justice was running rampant at Kenan; Woodhouse was enthralling us on the beauties of ‘Poli-Sci’; Graham, House, and Carmichael were doing their thing at South Building; and hysteria-in-the-wisteria made the Arboretum more than just a name on the sign.
“We are blessed and privileged to call ourselves ‘Alums’ of the University of North Carolina. The years there were absolutely magic; but, even though those years were a special time, appreciation for the contributions of UNC has grown. The UNC reward continues throughout and we should be grateful—emotionally, spiritually, politically, and oh yes, financially.
“Let’s all make a pledge to stay in touch and do what we can to ensure that Carolina’s greatness will continue to grow and prosper. After all, we’re the Class of ’49 and that makes us special. Don’t you agree?”
The letter appeared in the “50th Revised Yackety Yack: Carolina Class of 1949.”
Bob was a financial advisor professionally, but he loved fishing, playing tennis, and gardening. He was often called “Rosebud” because of the beautiful roses he grew.
Finally, during one of those Justice statue visits mentioned earlier in this post, Cox provided the question that prompted one of my favorite Hugh Morton stories. It was during a visit on June 21, 2004. After all of the players had added comments for Johnpaul Harris to note, Morton decided it was time to take some pictures. As he was meticulously checking focus with his trusty 35mm camera, Cox asked, “Hey, Hugh, do you have one of those new digital cameras?”
Morton’s answered,” I sure do,” as he reached down in his camera bag and pulled out a digital camera. “This is a good one,” said Hugh. “It has all the bells and whistles.”
Morton then put the digital camera back in his camera bag and continued taking shots with his conventional 35mm camera.
I don’t know if Bob Cox ever met best-selling author Tom Brokaw; but I choose to believe Robert Vinsant “Bob” Cox could very easily be the poster-boy for “The Greatest Generation.”