William Clyde Friday, University of North Carolina President Emeritus, has died at the age of 92. His death was announced by Virginia Taylor, his longtime personal assistant.

Friday’s passing will be carefully, respectfully and lovingly noted by generations of UNC faculty, administrators, students and alumni, as well as statewide political figures and educational leaders from around the country. Earlier today, former Gov. Jim Hunt declared that Friday “was the greatest man of our generation,” while UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp said, “North Carolina has lost one of its most remarkable citizens in Bill Friday. His influence on public higher education in our state and across the nation is legendary.”

Friday’s death, which comes one day before a planned celebration in honor of him, his wife and others at The ArtsCenter of Carrboro, brings a remarkable, and remarkably robust, career to a close. Born in Virginia and educated at N.C. State and UNC, his tenure as UNC president began in 1956 and continued for 30 years. But his most lasting legacy may be his work of his long, not-so-retiring retirement, when he became a leading critic of the increasing domination of big-time sports on college campuses.

His three decades at the helm of UNC coincided with an extraordinary period of social upheaval, during which time he presided over pitched confrontations. While not often at the battlements himself, his political instincts and moderation allowed him to shepherd the university to adopt evolving standards of justice and opportunity for all, throughout the tumultuous 1960s while retaining the support of students, faculty and trustees.

The process of integrating African-Americans into the UNC system began shortly before his tenure: UNC’s first African-Americans undergraduates matriculated in 1955. Black enrollment remained low for many years, with only 18 freshmen enrolled by 1963. The first black to play a varsity sport was a Nigerian, Edwin Okoroma, who played soccer for the Tar Heels beginning in 1963 and later became a physician. UNC’s basketball team was not integrated until 1966, with the arrival of Charlie Scott.

Friday faced a different challenge, beginning in 1963, when the N.C. General Assembly passed the Speaker Ban Law, which forbade universities from inviting, among others, members of the Communist Party, from speaking on campus. (Text of the bill here.)

This measure was immediately and enthusiastically supported by Jesse Helms, already a well-known, vociferously racist and anti-Communist commentator for WRAL Television. Rightly seeing a threat to political and academic freedom, as well as the autonomy of the university, Friday supported the UNC faculty in its resistance to the ban, which earned him the lasting ire of Helms and his supporters.

The controversy boiled to a head in 1965, when the UNC chapter of Students for a Democratic Society invited political activist Frank Wilkinson and Communist Party member and historian Dr. Herbert P. Aptheker to speak on campus. That standoff was documented in a 2005 film by UNC faculty member Hap Kindem. A federal panel overturned the Speaker Ban law as a violation of free speech in 1968, although it remained on the books, though unenforceable, until 1995.

Here at the Indy, he was notable to us as a tireless, insistent champion of athletics reform. While the UNC community will pay dutiful respects to this legacy, there’s no denying that the flagship campus is more compromised than ever. The present chancellor, after two years of failing to rein in an out-of-control football program in a scandal that has led to serious allegations of academic corruption, finally handed in his resignation last month.

It’s perhaps an unfortunate commentary on Friday’s lack of success in the endeavor of college sports reform that Thorp’s statement contained no mention of it.

Friday congratulates Holden Thorp upon his election to chancellor in 2008
  • UNC General Administration and News Services
  • Friday congratulates Holden Thorp upon his election to chancellor in 2008

Thorp himself came to his job with unimpeachable academic and administrative qualifications, but he departs his office in the wake of the athletic department’s renewed push to invest in football. Kenan Stadium recently received a $70 million dollar upgrade, which includes plush clubhouse accommodations for big-spending boosters.

In August of last year, Indy reporter Joe Schwartz conducted a lengthy interview with Bill Friday, still robust at 91. Friday told Schwartz that his interest in sports corruption goes all the way back to his earliest years in the 1950s.

When I was first in office in the 1950s, I ran into what was called the Jackie Moreland case, a Louisiana boy who was a great basketball player. Then came the Dixie Classic. Then came the [Jim] Valvano era. Then came Frank McGuire here with Chancellor Aycock. Once you’ve gone through this kind of experience several times you develop certain capacities to know what you are looking for, but now it almost singularly rests on money, and I never thought I’d ever see the day when universities would be so completely dominated by the power of money in any one division of its life.

In the late 1980s, after he retired, Friday embarked on the mission that would define the rest of his public life: college sports reform. Together with Notre Dame president Theodore Hesburgh, he founded the Knight Commission to study the role of athletics on college campuses. With the bully pulpit he acquired through the Knight Commission, Friday saw some successes over the years, particularly with the implementation of the so-called 50 percent rule, which held that college football programs must achieve a 50 percent graduation rate as a condition of participating in post-season bowl games.

For Friday, the principal culprit was television money and the inability of college presidents to re-assert control over their athletic departments. “We are trying to superimpose an entertainment industry on top of an academic structure, and it won’t work. It never has worked,” he told Schwartz.

He liked to describe the universities’ transactions with television networks in terms of show business. As he put it to Schwartz:

We [the schools] furnish the theater, the actors, the audience, the playing field, the director, the assistant director, what do you [the networks] do? You bring the camera and a commentator, and you sell all the broadcast time and you negotiate with me and I get my piece of it, but that’s it. And worst of all, he says you can’t play until three o’clock Saturday afternoon. Some people say these are always agreed times, [but] no they’re not.

Although Friday insisted that he was not anti-sports, he admitted to Schwartz that he hadn’t attended a football game in years, not least to avoid an appearance of conflict with his reform efforts: “Sometimes when you show up a football game, some people will say, “Oh, look at that hypocrite over there.” So I just stay away.”

I think we are at a low point, I really do, I think the only way we can go from here is upward. I hate to say that because I’m a great respecter of the institutions we have, I think they are truly great. The institutions in the United States are world renowned, they are respected all over the world, and why we have allowed this to get away from us the way we have, we have only ourselves to blame. I could have done more. I’ve been out of office 25 years, but I’m sure there are things I could have done when I was in office, when I had authority, that I could have done to help this, but we just sort of let it happen.

Memorial details for Bill Friday have not been announced. His wife Ida, with whom he celebrated 70 years of marriage in May, survives him.

In September, this reporter shot video inside the Loudermilk Center, popularly known as the Blue Zone. This 150,000 sq. ft. facility houses exercise equipment for UNC’s varsity athletes, an academic support center for athletes, and luxury accommodations for deep-pocketed UNC fans. Seat leases start at $750 annually for the Concourse Club, going up to $2,000 annually for The Upper Club on the fourth floor, where this video is shot. Two other sections, the “Suites” and the “Concourse and Upper Club Loge,” are fully subscribed. The 20 Suites command $58,900 annually, while the concourse and upper club loge cost $5,600-$12,600 annually. All Blue Zone seat licenses require multiyear commitments.

The occasion of my visit was a press conference to announce the entry of Notre Dame into the Atlantic Coast Conference for all sports save football and hockey. Notre Dame’s legendary football team, despite remaining independent, will nonetheless commit to playing five games each season against ACC opponents.

After hearing of Friday’s death, I edited the video, which can be seen here.

YouTube video