I first met him when I was a teenager, at a football game. He greeted me with a warm smile on his way down to the field for some presentation. He was already a national icon, an adviser to several presidents. I had no idea that within a few years I would have the privilege of working with him and his gifted associates closely on a daily basis.
Long before he became the legendary president of the University of North Carolina, Bill Friday was an all-star baseball player. A visitor to his hometown of Dallas, N.C., a textile village about 20 miles west of Charlotte, allegedly stopped at a country store for directions. “Isn’t this Bill Friday’s hometown?” he asked the two older men sitting there. They both nodded. One recalled that Bill had been a pretty good catcher for the high school and American Legion teams.
“Yep,” reflected the second. “And if he had stuck with baseball, Bill might have made a name for himself.”
President Friday’s choice to play catcher was always intriguing. With bats flying around your head, fastballs stinging your hands, and stress on your knees from prolonged squatting, it is a tough position to master. But the catcher has a singular view of the field and the other players. Behind an anonymous mask, the catcher controls the pace of the game, has direct access to the key actors, and is in the ultimate position to defend home plate.
He could have played no other position. Like an excellent catcher, President Friday handled the pressure with grace, calmness and a deep understanding of the game. He played intelligently and hard but always fairly and ethically. Never once did I see him hurry, never once did I hear him swear, not once did I observe a disrespectful act toward anyone.
More than once I saw him turn apparent defeat into victory. The begrudging admiration of political opponents was common. One referred to Friday’s feline qualities: No matter how you throw him out the window, he said, Bill Friday always lands on his feet.
While he did not wear a catcher’s mask as president, his preferred mode of operation was a behind-the-scenes one, keeping in constant touch with all the key players and never surprising them. It was what Stan Ikenberry, former president of the University of Illinois and head of the American Council on Education described as a personalized approach to the presidency.
Friday would come in by 7 a.m. every day and would hand write notes of congratulations or appreciation on his embossed note cards with “William Friday, Chapel Hill, NC” at the top. He was constantly on the phone but always seemed to have time to chat with visitors. On occasion, when he had to, he stood between the base runner and home plate, defending the university against outside interference.
In 1972 a new and complex university system was formed in North Carolina. Bill Friday was the obvious choice to be its first president. The system consisted of a new governing Board of Governors and an amalgam of the “old” six UNC campuses, which Friday previously headed, and ten other regional institutions, each with its own board of trustees. The six UNC institutions included two research universities (UNC at Chapel Hill and NC State), a former woman’s college, a master’s granting institution, and two small baccalaureate level campuses. Nine of the remaining campuses included five historically black institutions (HBIs), some with appallingly neglected physical plants, three regional campuses, and one with great ambitions for expansion. The last institution was the nation’s only publicly supported conservatory, the NC School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, which also had a high school.
Unlike the California systems, with the universities and colleges under separate administrative arrangements, the new North Carolina structure not only put all the campuses under one umbrella, but each retained its own local board as well.
The system’s first challenge was to make sense of this diversity and make it function effectively. Friday’s national reputation -- he already was like a Statue of Liberty in and around North Carolina -- enabled him to assemble a talented group of associates.
By Friday’s own choice, the original central staff, which would remain in place throughout his tenure, consisted of a handful of senior administrators. More importantly, Friday’s inaugural Board of Governors was uniquely impressive, top to bottom. Exceptionally influential, the board included the most formidable and thoughtful men and women in North Carolina.
Challenges came right away: the new board had to get to know its president; the central board needed to decide what to delegate to the 16 local boards besides parking and honorary degrees; the private colleges wanted more state money; ambitious regional institutions in growing population centers wanted new doctoral programs and medical and law schools; the tenure and personnel regulations of many campuses had to be written from scratch; a comprehensive management information system and planning process had to be created; institutional missions had to be developed; a new budgetary process needed to be established.
And if this wasn’t enough, the federal government came after the UNC system. Because they couldn’t figure out how to “bus” university students to achieve “desegregation,” they instead demanded that programs be moved from one campus to another, suggesting, for example, that the engineering school at NC State in Raleigh be relocated to North Carolina A&T, a historically black, master’s granting institution in Greensboro. Editorials in the great American newspapers and television news shows took the new system to task for centuries of racial discord and neglect. It was not an easy time.
But skill and hard work made it work. Within a few years, administrators from other states routinely would visit the UNC headquarters as they were developing their own systems. By the system’s 10th birthday, in spite of two serious economic recessions and an oil embargo, the physical plants on the historically black campuses had been transformed and the UNC campuses had the fastest growth of minority-presence enrollment in the South.
Bill Friday had unusual gifts and traits that made him a superb administrator. One was his extraordinary interpersonal antennae. He could sense what others were feeling, what was troubling them, what they wanted, much as Robert Caro has written about President Lyndon Johnson.
Friday’s childhood influences and early mentors were undoubtedly influential in the development of his social skills. He remembered the conflicts and the suffering of the Great Depression. When he would go back home to the Dallas and Gastonia areas, he would recognize people still there who, in his words, “were not able like me to get out of this place and get an education. I could be one of them. They just didn’t have the chances I did, and I will never forget that.”
This background, along with the moral influence from his maternal grandfather and from his predecessor at UNC, Frank Porter Graham, colored his approach to freedom and accessibility to opportunity for all those who worked hard. The same principled concerns that led Friday and his “brother,” Father Ted Hesburgh of Notre Dame, to create the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, were evident early. As sports editor of the NC State student newspaper, he would frequently exhort his classmates to act civilly toward their “brethren” from Chapel Hill at upcoming football or basketball games.
Clark Kerr once told me he couldn’t relate to classmates who sat around in college and wasted their time. Friday told a similar story: “I was an old man when I got to college. I wanted to get things done. I didn’t have time for all the partying and carousing.” His beautiful wife of nearly 70 years, Ida, a student at a nearby women’s college in Raleigh whom he met on a blind date, confirmed his seriousness of purpose: “I think I was the only girl he ever dated. So it wasn’t love at first sight, it was more like love at the only sight.”
Mr. Friday’s ability to deflect conflict, seek common ground, and to work with anyone was well-known. Former N.C. Governor Jim Holshouser, one of many governors who frequently benefited from Friday’s counsel, would say that Friday could disagree without being disagreeable. Friday’s work to reinvigorate the Fulbright program by collaborating with former U.S. Senator Jesse Helms was emblematic of his ability to cobble elegant solutions working with former adversaries. Government officials who increasingly complain about gridlock and intransigence in Washington could learn a thing or two from Friday.
Helms and Friday could not have been more different. One was a conservative right-winger, a rabid Republican who frequently complained that Reagan was too liberal, the other a liberal Democrat. On several occasions, particularly during Helms’s period as a popular, ultra-conservative commentator on a local TV station, the discord between the two men could have easily escalated. Even when Helms suggested that the new state zoo should be located in Chapel Hill –“All they need is to put a fence around the place”—Friday remained respectfully and publicly quiet.
When Friday and his longtime friend, the historian John Hope Franklin, were recruited to revive the important Fulbright program, Friday successfully turned to the then-chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations committee, Senator Helms, for political and financial support. He didn’t do it with mirrors, as one consultant once said about his successful tenure. He did it by appealing to common interests and traditions and by positively sticking with the issues.
His abilities to put people in touch with their humanity, either through his inspirational public speaking or through more personal appeals, were renowned. The little known case of David Thompson is an example. Thompson is arguably the best college player to come out of North Carolina. Another North Carolina superstar, Michael Jordan, worshipped Thompson throughout junior high school and high school. Thompson’s professional career was terrific but it was also marred, by Thompson’s own admission, by drug use, financial difficulties, and knee problems.
Thompson’s fortunes had bottomed out when Bill Friday stopped by my office one winter afternoon in 1987. He said that it was distressing to read about David’s personal difficulties, especially when he had done so much for racial relations in North Carolina. Finally, he said simply: “We need to bring him back home, Art, where people care about him.” Then he left.
A few phone calls later to Jimmy Valvano, the NC State basketball coach, and Charlie Bryant, then director of the Wolfpack Club, and the process to bring David home was on its way. A few weeks later, David was invited to Syracuse, N.Y., to watch the Wolfpack play Florida in the NCAA regionals. Thompson came home the next year as director for community relations for the NBA team in Charlotte, a few miles away from his hometown of Shelby, N.C. In 2009 Thompson was the speaker at Michael Jordan’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
Bill Friday, the catcher, had called the pitch.
Art Padilla is a professor at the University of Arizona's Eller College of Management and author of Leadership (Wiley) and Portraits in Leadership: Six Extraordinary University Presidents. He also worked with Mr. Friday as a young senior administrator of the UNC system.
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