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UNC Firsts: The Tar Heels’ first football coach

When looking for your first ever football coach, turns out you just go hire another college’s player.

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Western Carolina v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

The early years of college sports are weird. As I wrote about the other day, sometimes people would coach multiple different sports at a school. Or sometimes a player at a completely different school just comes and coaches you for a couple games.

The first ever college football played in the state of North Carolina was between UNC and Wake Forest on October 18, 1888. Up until then, baseball and track were the only sports sponsored by the athletic association. The financial situation of an athletic department back then was so shaky that by the time it was decided to schedule a football season, it had to be delayed so they could, quite literally, save to buy a football.

Wake Forest won that initial game 6-4. A month later on Thanksgiving day, UNC lost to Trinity College, now of course known as Duke. Despite the losses, the games galvanized everyone. They soon began raising money to hire a coach. Their choice would be Hector Cowan.

Cowan was an understandable choice. He was a star lineman on the 1888 Princeton team that went 11-1. That Tigers team destroyed several teams, including a 104-0 win over Johns Hopkins. They did not allow a point until their 10th game of the season. The lone loss came to Yale, who are widely accepted as that season’s national champions.

If you’re paying attention, you’ll notice that 1888 was also UNC’s first season. Cowan’s career at Princeton was not over either. So, the first football coach in the history of the University of North Carolina was technically a player at another college.

Cowan radically changed how North Carolina played. The next game the team played was on May 1, 1889. It was a rematch against Wake Forest, and the new coach seemingly made all the difference. There was a 35-point swing in final score, as UNC won 33-0. The next week, they met Trinity again. That one was another loss, but the margin was close the second time around.

Those were the only two games Cowan coached at UNC. He retuned to Princeton, where he was part of the 1889 national championship-winning team. He did not seem to have a massive long term impact back in Chapel Hill, however. The next season they went 1-1 with the win technically being a forfeit. After that, support for athletics at the school dipped and UNC did not play in 1890.

Sports as a whole are at a much different place now than they were in the 1890s. For instance, I’m pretty sure hiring another team’s player as coach only for him to play another season in college after that is some sort of NCAA violation. But back then, it was how a fledgling program, possibly the first public university football team, got off the ground.


Worman, James H. Outing: Sport, Adventure, Travel, Fiction. XXV, The Outing Company, 1895.