SI Vault
Kenneth Rudeen
September 28, 1959
As the football season burst open on a bright autumn day, the memory of a huge, hugely successful coach still covered the Chapel Hill campus
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September 28, 1959

The Ghost Of Jim Tatum

As the football season burst open on a bright autumn day, the memory of a huge, hugely successful coach still covered the Chapel Hill campus

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"What are you looking for?" asked a Carolina man.

"I'm looking for Jim Tatum's ghost," said the large, moon-faced man. "I don't mind playing a football team, but I sure would hate to have to play a ghost."

So spoke Frank Howard, getting straightaway to a subject that had been debated endlessly since Tatum's death in late July. If a weekend visitor to Chapel Hill heard once he heard a dozen times, despite the editorial stand of the Tar Heel, that "people are saying" this team of destiny would be Jim Tatum's if it won, but the personal responsibility of the new coach, Jim Hickey, if it had a losing season. Howard rightly supposed that Tatum's death had a profound psychological effect on the Carolina team. That feeling was put on paper by the co-captains, Jack Cummings and Wade Smith, in a preseason letter to their teammates.

"We know that no person in Chapel Hill will be so missed as Coach Tatum," the letter said, "but deep down there is a mystic feeling that we're sure you all feel—that though in body our coach is gone, his spirit and soul will ride with every one of us throughout this coming season. ...Notre Dame has its Knute Rockne—Carolina has its 'Sunny Jim' Tatum. Don't lose hope."


On the day Frank Howard breezed into Chapel Hill, James Benton Hickey strode into a corner office in the Carolina field house and plopped down into the chair recently occupied by Jim Tatum. Around him were mementos of Tatum's remarkable career, which in the years at Maryland and Oklahoma had included three undefeated teams, six bowl games and a national championship.

On the wall behind Hickey was something new—a handsomely printed reproduction of a saying that had come to be famous as Tatum's bedrock philosophy: "Winning is not the most important thing; it is the only thing."

Hickey's own career so far had been as anonymous as Tatum's had been flamboyantly public. It would have taken only a few lines in a coaching Who's Who: Reared in Springdale, Pa., a town near Pittsburgh; p ayed wingback and tailback at William and Mary; coached football at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia five years; in 1956 joined the Carolina football staff of Jim Tatum, whom he had never met before, upon the urging of a mutual friend; was given a three-year contract as head coach of Carolina exactly four days after Tatum's death.

It was somehow surprising that Jim Hickey seemed completely at ease behind the big, glass-topped desk in Tatum's old office. Small and wiry at 39, he showed neither indecision nor nonsense in his clear blue eyes.

"I'm not trying to be gracious or modest about it," he said, "but nothing could make me happier than having one hell of a season and having Coach Tatum get the credit. As for losing—well, let's just say that we're going to do our best to win and let it go at that.

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