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How UNC got their coaches: weird stories from the early days of college sports

The late 1890s and 1900s in college sportsare filled with odd stories.

Georgia Tech v North Carolina Photo by Peyton Williams/UNC/Getty Images

As we’ve talked about in our various posts detailing North Carolina Tar Heels athletic history, the early days of college sports were very weird, especially when it comes to coaches.

So many of them coached multiple sports, spent just one year in Chapel Hill, or have some other odd circumstance surrounding their career at UNC. Here are some of the most interesting.

Some of the stranger stories are those of the first ever people to coach at the school.

North Carolina’s first ever football coach, Hector Cowan, was an star player at Princeton, who came down and coached the Carolina team DURING his playing career. The first ever basketball coach, Nat Cartmell, was an track and field Olympian who helmed that program at the school. He only took on the basketball gig because the school didn’t want to hire another person. He agreed to do it even though he really didn’t have any knowledge of the sport. The first baseball coach, Perrin Busbee, would also be NC State’s fist ever football coach, a tenure which happened while he was also leading the Carolina baseball program. (For a more complete look at their stories, you can read them here, here, and here.)

The strange circumstances go well beyond the school’s first coaches. In the Dean Smith Center, a banner for the 1924 basketball team hangs with the NCAA Tournament championship banners. That team was named champions by the Helms Foundation in a pre-NCAAT era. Even if the school puts that year on the same pedestal, the story of their coach shows what a different time it was.

Norman Shepard was a former minor league baseball player and multi-sport star at UNC. He returned to the school in 1923 to coach, although that was not his main intention. He went back to Chapel Hill mainly to get his law degree, and would coach while there. He followed through on his intentions of not stick around long as he spent just one year as coach despite leading the team to the Helms title. He also led the team to an undefeated season, so he’s probably not going anywhere from the top of the UNC winning percentage leaderboard anytime soon.

On the football side of things, C.W. “Bill” Martin spent just one year at UNC, leading Carolina to a 3-4-1 record in 1912. Who know, maybe he never does that had he been allowed to compete in that year’s Olympics.

Martin had been an athlete at Whitman College and Notre Dame where he was a teammate of Knute Rockne. While he played football, his main sport was track where he set a world record in the 100-yard dash and was named “world’s fastest human” in 1911. He was barred from competing in the Olympics the following year for allegedly taking part in semi-pro baseball games. (The Olympics were fully amateur back then.) He originally went to Penn to coach track but was hired away by UNC for their football job. His tenure at Carolina only lasted one year because he left to serve in World War I.

Bob Lawson was the Tar Heel baseball coach on four different occasions, and also has the honor of being the first ever UNC player to make the major leagues. However, he also was one of the figures that helped bring basketball to the university.

There are probably many other interesting stories, as there are dozens of coaches in the early days of these and other teams. Basically, early college sports are weird.


“Tales from the North Carolina Tar Heels Locker Room” by Ken Rappoport,5077151&dq=martin+and+coach+and+carolina+and+notre-dame+and+whitman&hl=en