“We were raised to speak up for ourselves,” Delany said. “Part of it was competitive, part of it was intellectual, I guess. It’s not out of my nature if, given an opportunity to talk about what I see, I’ll talk about it.”
Delany later approached Smith again, this time asking for guidance. He had no idea what his future held. Smith had noticed Delany’s fiery way, his willingness to argue a point and the tenacity to make certain it stuck. The coach encouraged Delany to apply to law school.
“He was searching and trying to get through college,” former basketball teammate Eddie Fogler said, “like we all were.”
‘It prepared me’
John Bunting, a football captain, sat in the locker room after a particularly grueling practice, noticing the converted defensive back in the next stall.
“Are they trying to kill me?” Bunting remembered John Swofford saying.
Swofford had joined the Tar Heels in 1967 as a quarterback, but injuries and an illness his sophomore year forced Coach Bill Dooley to move him to defense during his senior season. In those days, Bunting said, coaches needn’t have mercy on a player who was unfamiliar with a new position. If he couldn’t do it, coaches would work him until he quit. Then they’d hand his spot to someone else.
“He became a tackling dummy for us,” Bunting said of Swofford.
But rather than quit, he kept practicing, usually saying little about the hand he’d been dealt. Complaining wouldn’t have fit Swofford’s profile, that clean-cut kid from small-town North Carolina.
Swofford began seeing his experience, difficult as it often was, as a way to learn.
“Not that I fully understood it at the time,” he said much later, “but I think it prepared me extremely well.”
In 1971, a football player named Billy Arnold was enduring another grueling practice. The team was performing wind sprints when Arnold collapsed, and he died later from complications of practicing in the heat.
“You had a lot of feelings,” Swofford said, “that the game isn’t worth somebody’s life.”
Former players tried to shut down the football program at UNC. Swofford, though, supported the program and, as always, saw an opportunity to learn. He saw that nothing in college sports is permanent. Arnold’s death changed the way practices were run at North Carolina, “changes that needed to be made,” Swofford said.
Divergent paths connect
Swofford and Delany were moving toward the same destination using far different paths. That continued after graduation. Delany took a complicated route toward being a conference commissioner – law school, then a job as an attorney in the North Carolina justice department, then as an enforcement representative for the NCAA – but Swofford’s ascent was more direct. He became North Carolina’s athletic director in 1980, at age 31, and he held the job for 17 years.