I recently had the opportunity to meet and speak briefly with Roy Williams, the just retired coach of the North Carolina men’s basketball team and possessor of three national championships; Mack Brown, the current coach of the UNC football team who has returned value to my season tickets; and Julius Peppers, a former UNC football player and future NFL Hall of Famer.
Doing so, however, wasn’t the best part of my evening at the induction ceremony for the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame, which was held July 26 at the Raleigh Civic Center. No, the best part of that magical evening for this die-hard Tar Heel fan was being a very small part of the induction of Bobby Purcell, who for 33 years served the Wolfpack Club, the last 30 as its director. And with apologies to the three UNC icons, it wasn’t even close.
I was there with a couple of dozen other fraternity brothers of Bobby, all members of the Tau chapter of Pi Kappa Alpha at UNC, and about a dozen lovely ladies who kept us straight. I have milked the Purcell-Carolina connection sufficiently over the years, delighting in telling my friends who are Wolfpack fans that Bobby, a Laurinburg native who grew up in Clinton, was a college roommate and graduated from UNC in 1977. That Bobby can overcome that blight on his resume to direct the Wolfpack Club says mountains both about his ability but also Bobby as a human being. They don’t come any better.
We were just a fraction of the support for Bobby, which Jeff Gravely, the emcee for the evening, said was a record for all of the hall’s history with about 230 people spread over 24 tables. Now consider this: On a night when Brown, Peppers, Trot Nixon, Donnell Woolford and others were inducted, Bobby was the headliner, putting the most fannies in the seats.
I was lucky that mine was among them.
It was in the summer of 2010 that Bobby reached out to me, asking if I could write a letter of support as he had applied to become athletics director at N.C. State. I was flattered to be asked to do so, and figured that Bobby believed the letterhead would look good and that there would be no background check on the author. I remember writing a few extra words about Bobby’s connection to UNC, insisting that he was there somewhat begrudgingly — transferring from N.C. State to UNC only because it offered the degree he was pursuing — and warning anyone not to question his love of N.C. State, which his grandfather and father had attended.
Two days after I provided Bobby the letter, Debbie Yow was named AD. That story was shared more than once during that weekend, with everyone pretty much agreeing that I had killed Bobby’s chances.
I will only say that the hiring committee had a distinct choice, two candidates that were unalike. Bobby is thoughtful, soft-spoken, sincere, generous, measured, and his focus is always on others. Yow is, well, different.
Working against Bobby as well could have been his work as the head of the Wolfpack Club, with the belief being that he was still needed there. When he left, he had directed fundraising efforts in excess of a half-billion dollars and the club had swelled to more than 20,000 members. It’s hard to say no to Bobby.
In advance of the banquet, Bobby and I spoke. He told he had made a singular ask of the hall, which was that he did not follow Mack Brown to the podium, an understandable request given Brown’s speaking ability. That is what happened as hall officials wanted to keep Bobby’s crowd there until the end.
Bobby, knowing that the evening included an open bar, asked for me to be the hall monitor, and ensure that no one at our three tables shouted “go Heels” as he was speaking. I don’t get to be the hall monitor much, but we all sat quietly while Bobby spoke.
Our silence was rewarded.
Bobby thanked all of those who had helped him during his remarkable journey, saying they “instilled confidence in me when I didn’t have confidence in myself.” And then he encouraged all of the night’s attendees to find that person in their life’s circle who needs a mentor and provide that guidance to smooth someone’s journey.
It was a great message to cap a memorable evening.
Congratulations to you Bobby, your wife Lori, your children Paige and John, as well as brother Mac, also a fraternity brother from those college days. I have always been honored to call you a friend, but never more so than as I write this today.