Bill to make NC colleges play in football won’t advance. Everything to know about HB 965

A bill that sought to require North Carolina universities to play each other in football will not advance, Rep. Tim Moore, the Speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives, told reporters on Thursday. Moore said House Bill 965, which also would have preserved the rivalry between North Carolina and N.C. State in the event they find themselves in different conferences, “had the hearing it will have.”

“It had a committee hearing,” Moore said. “Told them they could hear it in committee, but it won’t come to the floor.”

The bill raised the question of whether state-supported universities should compete more often in college sports, and whether that competition should be required by law. Proponents of House Bill 965 thought so. The bill, filed early last month near the start of the legislative season, would have required North Carolina and N.C. State to schedule regular football and men’s and women’s basketball games against Appalachian State, Charlotte and ECU.

It also would have required State and Carolina to continue playing each other, in the event that they might go their separate ways amid the conference realignment turmoil that has engulfed the ACC and led to the destruction of the Pac-12. Those who supported HB 965 saw the potential benefits. The law would have helped keep college sports local in North Carolina. It also would have preserved the State-Carolina rivalry.

Opponents of the legislation, meanwhile, might have wondered why lawmakers were even involving themselves in college sports scheduling. The more sports-minded of those opponents, too, might have also questioned how reasonable it is to force UNC and N.C. State into regular competition against in-state opponents highly motivated to beat the supposed big guys.

HB 965 was still early in the legislative process before Moore effectively ended its hopes on Thursday. Earlier this week, it passed through the House Committee on Education in about a minute, without any discussion. Nonetheless, HB 965, as short-lived as it was, generated considerable debate. Here’s everything to know about it:

Q. What did the bill actually say?

A. The short title of HB 985 offered a good clue of what it was all about: “UNC Intrastate Athletic Competition.” It is “an act to require eligible constituent institutions of the University of North Carolina to regularly compete against one another in football and basketball.”

There are a couple of important things to know. The UNC System is composed of 17 universities, all of which compete at various levels of college athletics. HB 985 concerns only those schools that “field a high-level football team.” (Hold your jokes.) A “high-level football team,” defined by the bill, is one that competes at the FBS level, which is the highest of college football.

There are five state schools with FBS football teams: North Carolina, N.C. State, ECU, Appalachian State and Charlotte. This bill would have essentially mandated that all of those five schools play more often in football and men’s and women’s basketball — and that UNC and N.C. State continue to play each other regularly in those sports (more on that in a bit).

Going further into the details, the bill stipulated that a “high-enrollment institution” would have to play against another “high-enrollment institution” every year, at least once, in football and men’s and women’s basketball. A “high-enrollment institution,” according to the bill, is one with a full-time enrollment of at least “30,000 or more undergraduate and graduate students.”

There are only two UNC System schools that meet that threshold: UNC and N.C. State. In addition to the requirement that UNC and N.C. State continue to play each other every year in football and men’s and women’s basketball, the bill would have also require those schools to play against another “constituent institution that is not a high-enrollment institution.”

In other words, UNC and N.C. State would have had to play more often against App State, Charlotte and ECU. According to the bill, UNC and State would have had to play at least one game a year in football and men’s and women’s basketball against those other three state schools. Every six years, UNC and N.C. State would have to play at least twice — once home and once away — against App State, Charlotte and ECU in all of those sports.

Q. Well hold on — UNC and N.C. State already play each other regularly. So what’s with making it a law?

A. There has been a lot of reaction to the prospect of more UNC and State football games against the likes of ECU and App State, but the most interesting and meaningful provision of this proposed law might have been the attempt to bind UNC and State together, themselves.

Indeed, those two schools already play each other all the time. State and Carolina have been in the same athletics conference for more than 100 years, dating to the founding of the original Southern Conference in 1921. They were charter members of that league, and also founding members of the ACC in 1953.

In an ideal college sports world, all that history and tradition would mean something. But does it? Probably not. At least, it doesn’t offer any guarantees about the future. College sports history is proof that nothing lasts forever. The current landscape, changing all the time, is proof that the pursuit of money rules all.

Look at everything that’s happened in college athletics in recent years. The Pac-12 collapsed. UCLA, USC, Washington and Oregon all took refuge in the Big Ten. The SEC pillaged the Big 12 for Oklahoma and Texas, and the Big 12 responded by adding a bunch of schools that may or may not prove to be long term fits. The ACC, meanwhile, added Cal, Stanford and SMU.

All of which is to say who knows what college sports looks like in a year or two years or five. The ACC, fighting Florida State and Clemson in court, is desperately trying to hold strong. But yes — there’s a chance it all falls apart. That UNC finds a way out and leaves for the greater television money riches of the Big Ten or SEC, and that N.C. State does not wind up in the same league.

And so that’s the reasoning behind making it a law that UNC and State continue to play each other in football and basketball: that even if they wind up in different conferences, they’ll still play.

Q. Well don’t these schools all play each other somewhat regularly, anyway?

A. Well, kind of. But not really.

And let’s be honest: Neither State nor Carolina really wants to be playing a lot of games against in-state competition they deem “lesser.” The logic there is that there’s nothing for them to gain, and a lot to lose. The flip side of that argument: A State-ECU football game, or UNC-App State, can be a lot of fun, and great for fans (you know, those people whose money make everything go).

UNC and App State recently concluded a wild three-game series in football in which every game (much to the chagrin of the Tar Heels) was competitive and down-to-the-wire. App State fans loved it. UNC fans (a lot of them, anyway) likely left never wanting to play App ever again.

The Tar Heels prevailed with close victories (40-34 and 63-61) in 2023 and 2022, and suffered a 34-31 loss at home against App in 2019. Before that, the schools hadn’t played in football since 1940. If this law doesn’t pass, it will likely be a long time before they meet again.

There is a pretty good history for both State and UNC against ECU. The Wolfpack and Pirates have played 32 times, most recently in 2022, with State on a three-game winning streak in the series (before that, ECU won three straight). State, though, refused to play in Greenville for decades. The first 18 games between the Wolfpack and Pirates happened in Raleigh.

When ECU beat State in Raleigh in 1987, thousands of Pirates fans stormed the field at Carter-Finley Stadium and tore down one of the goalposts. That ended regular football games between the schools, at least for a while. State didn’t play in Greenville for the first time until 1999.

UNC has played against ECU 17 times, with the Tar Heels losing the three most recent games in that series (with all of those losses by at least 22 points).

On Sept. 7, UNC will play against Charlotte for the first time. The 49ers are still relatively new to FBS competition, and that will be their first game against either State or UNC.

Q. This isn’t the first time there’s been dialogue like this, is it?

A. Indeed, it’s not.

In the summer of 1982, Ed Emory, then the head football coach at ECU, expressed his discontent with the end of the Pirates’ football series against North Carolina. At the time, ECU and UNC had played each other regularly since 1972, with ECU winning once, in 1975, and tying the Tar Heels in 1979.

All eight UNC-ECU games of the 1970s and early 80s were in Chapel Hill. The final two, in which the Tar Heels outscored the Pirates 87-3 in 1980 and ‘81, were not competitive. Nonetheless, Emory was adamant the series should continue — that “the people of North Carolina deserve to see their teams play each other,” he said at the time in an interview with The News & Observer.

“The three state-supported institutions in North Carolina playing Division I football” — which then were UNC, N.C. State and ECU — “should be brought together,” Emory said. “And it would keep the money in the state. It would help the economy of the state.”

He took his plea a step further:

“When a program gets too big for the people, the state legislature needs to step in.”

It is hardly new, then, this thought of the North Carolina legislature passing a law to force state universities to play each other more often in football. Emory, who died in 2013, first proposed the idea more than 40 years ago. Then, in 1987, legislators briefly considered a bill that would’ve required the state’s four ACC schools to schedule ECU in football.

Q. Don’t lawmakers have better things to be worried about than college sports schedules?

A. They most certainly do. And perhaps Moore’s comments Thursday indicate he agrees.

Even so, college sports are important to the cultural fabric of North Carolina in ways they aren’t in other states. North Carolina is arguably the most college sports-rich state in the country, with the history here and the rivalries and connections, especially among the Big Four ACC schools.

HB 965 leans heavily into the cultural and economic significance of college athletics in North Carolina. It references how “sports tourism is vital to the economy of North Carolina, and intrastate collegiate athletics generates millions of dollars in economic impact to the State.”

Further, so goes the text of the would-be law, “it is the priority of the General Assembly to encourage intrastate collegiate athletics rivalries in order to promote economic development.” In that way, it makes sense why some legislators would want to preserve the Carolina-State rivalry, while also mandating more competition between those two and App, ECU and Charlotte.

Rep. Jake Johnson, the Chairman of the House Oversight Committee and one of the bill’s sponsors, wrote in an email that HB 965 is “a product of some schools refusing to play against their in-state competition.”

“I believe refusing to participate in these games would be harmful for not only the fanbases here at home, but the economic impact that greatly benefit the communities around these institutions,” Johnson wrote. “I hope this bill is the beginning of a dialogue that will result in all universities doing what is right for their university and the state as a whole.”

Q. So does that mean the bill is more about creating dialogue? How much of a chance does this have of becoming law?

A. Apparently no chance, in this session. But for the future? Maybe this is the beginning of some momentum.

That said, is there really going to be enough widespread support among legislators to pass a law concerning college sports scheduling? Won’t some (if not a significant number) of them find this to be overreaching, if not a little silly?

There are some ramifications of this bill that could be attractive to sports-minded legislators. Preserving the UNC-State series in football and basketball is likely one of them. That rivalry is a big deal to people in North Carolina (you know it’s true, Tar Heels fans), and there has to be a fair number of lawmakers who don’t want to see it jeopardized the way others like it have been around the country in recent years (see: Oklahoma-Oklahoma State, for one).

Q. And who were the sponsors of the bill?

A. In addition to Johnson, the three other primary sponsors of HB 965 are: Rep. David Willis, Rep. Ray Pickett and Rep. Jason Saine. All four of the primary sponsors are Republicans.

Willis represents Union County, and is a graduate of Appalachian State. Pickett is a resident of Blowing Rock, represents parts of Ashe, Alleghany and Watauga Counties and is a “dedicated fan” of App State athletics, according to his website.

Saine represents Lincoln County and is an alum of Charlotte. Johnson represents parts of Polk, Henderson, McDowell and Rutherford counties and is also an alum of Charlotte.

Q. Why didn’t the bill include Duke or Wake Forest? And what about other state schools with college football programs, like Western Carolina?

A. The bill only concerned UNC System schools, which are all public and state-supported. Duke and Wake are both private schools, and not part of the UNC System.

As for other state schools with college football programs, none of them compete at the FBS level. Western Carolina, for instance, competes at the FCS level (and in what remains of the Southern Conference).

A fair question about this bill, if it actually becomes law: Would it encourage a school like Western Carolina to try to make the jump to FBS? After all, it’d be guaranteed regular games against State and Carolina in that scenario.

Q. Is there a precedent for this — of lawmakers trying to influence sports schedules?

A. Not a successful one, at least not in North Carolina. But this isn’t the first time there was an attempt to pass a law concerning college football schedules in this state.

In 1987, a state representative named David Redwine introduced a bill that would have required UNC, N.C. State, Duke and Wake Forest to schedule regular football games against ECU. The proposal, which was widely derided in newspapers at the time, didn’t make it out of committee.

Then came the riotous scene at Carter-Finley Stadium in the fall of ‘87, when ECU defeated N.C. State and Pirates fans let loose. Even after, Redwine persisted in his belief that State (and North Carolina’s other ACC schools) should play ECU in football.

“Sometimes it’s like people look down their noses athletically, economically and politically” at the eastern part of the state, Redwine, an ECU alum, said then in an interview with the Rocky Mount Telegram. Of the scene at the end of ECU’s victory in Raleigh, he said, “There’s a more deep-rooted problem here than a bunch of drunks running around on a field.”

The “drunks running around,” as Redwine put it, “was a response of frustration and joy,” he said. Joy at ECU’s victory against N.C. State. And frustration over what Redwine and other ECU supporters considered to be long-simmering slights.

N&O reporter Avi Bajpai contributed to this report.

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