Apples to Apples, Dust to Dust

      Week 5: Written by Ryan Nanni

Sonny Randle had a good run as the head coach at East Carolina from 1971 through 1973. He won 15 conference games in a row, led the Pirates to consecutive Southern Conference titles in 1972 and 1973, and managed to snag one win against NC State.

But Sonny had two habits that, combined, would later come back to haunt him.

First, Sonny was very honest, perhaps excessively so. When asked about games ECU had against prominent in-state foes like North Carolina or the Wolfpack, he didn’t hesitate to point out these schools were operating with wildly different sets of resources. Here’s what he said to the press before the game against NC State in 1972.

“We’ve got 65 players on scholarship. State’s got 120. We’ve got six coaches who also teach class, and they’ve got 12 up there. It’s not like comparing apples to apples.”

ECU hung close for a half before NC State pulled away, winning 38-16. A month later, Randle walked off the field after losing to UNC 42-19 and told reporters, “Compare apples to apples; that’s all I ask. You writers don’t honestly believe our material could compare with Carolina’s.”

You’ve probably picked up on Sonny’s second habit: a love for reusing idioms. In a discussion with the St. Louis Dispatch, he dropped this one a third time in the offseason leading up to the 1973 season: “When we play North Carolina and North Carolina State, it’s not a case of apples to apples.”

Randle’s complaint wasn’t inaccurate or unfair. His ECU teams were mostly mowing through Southern Conference opponents but struggling when they had to play better-funded teams from the ACC.

In college football or the state of North Carolina, it is not a crime to be folksy. Nor is it illegal to strive for more than what you can accomplish with limited resources. Bumping against his ceiling at ECU and lured by the opportunity to revive his alma mater, Randle left the Pirates after the 1973 season to take the Virginia job.

And if he’d just left it there, I wouldn’t be telling you this story. But this is what Sonny said shortly after arriving in Charlottesville:

“To use my fruit phrase, I said we weren’t matching apples to apples. Well, at Virginia, now we’re talking about apples and apples. Most of the roadblocks at Virginia are either gone or going.”

When the current coach says the school’s not investing enough in his program, it might be considered inelegant. Still, those comments are at least attempting to improve the team’s future. When the coach who just left says his former employer was too cheap, it feels like a kick in the gut from someone who doesn’t have to deal with the problem anymore.

But Randle was off to what he felt were greener pastures. East Carolina replaced him with a defensive assistant working under Bear Bryant by the name of Pat Dye, and both Virginia and ECU had 1974 seasons that were about what you’d expect. The Hoos, who’d gone 4-7 the year prior, finished with the same record, though they had some close defeats – four points to Georgia Tech, one point to NC State, and a touchdown to Navy. The Pirates took a small step back, from nine wins to seven, but still looked like a competitive football team under Dye.

The produce talk didn’t disappear, though. After two weeks, Sonny was letting everyone know that UVA didn’t have the depth or talent to keep up with the rest of the ACC. “We still aren’t talking about apples to apples when you put Virginia against the other teams in the league,” he told the media before a road game against Duke. (In case you’re wondering if Duke was some incredible football powerhouse in the 1970s: no, they were not.)

And then, on November 8, 1975, Virginia hosted East Carolina. Randle’s second year in Charlottesville had seen the gap between UVA and ECU grow…in the wrong direction. The Pirates entered the game with a 5-3 record and a recent 21-point win over UNC. The Cavaliers were 1-7 and, two weeks prior, had been blown out by Wake Forest, 66-21.

Most of what happened next is very well settled. ECU won 61-10 and rushed for 633 yards, which broke the school single-game rushing record at the time by over two hundred yards. That record still stands today.

Just before halftime, with Virginia down 26-3, some East Carolina fans threw – look, you had to know this was coming – apples on the field. This is where things get fuzzy.

In 2003, Terry Gallaher, a former ECU wide receiver who was part of Dye’s first recruiting class in Greenville, did an interview with Bonesville, an independent Pirates site. Gallaher said he remembered the fans throwing apples and oranges* on the field and, most importantly to me, that the person throwing the most fruit was East Carolina Chancellor Leo Jenkins.

Newspaper reports after the game confirmed that Jenkins was in the stands; in fact, they said he’d unveiled a custom purple and gold shirt that said “ECU 2, ACC 1.” And Jenkins, who took a very active role in athletics, had his share of friction with Randle. He was, effectively, the one Sonny called cheap all those years. The commentary Sonny dropped on his way out made it harder for ECU to find a replacement, as at least one candidate declined to pursue the job because of the issues Sonny had raised. That was probably particularly frustrating, given that ECU had offered Randle more money and more assistant coaches before he decided to head to UVA.

Jenkins had motive and opportunity…and yet, I still have a hard time believing that the highest-ranking official at East Carolina University took a trip to Virginia, threw apple after apple on the field while the game was still taking place, proudly displayed his victory shirt, and managed to escape any disclosure of his fruit-hucking for the next 28 years. At the very least, I think some sportswriter in Charlottesville would have gotten wind of this and reported something.

Am I positive Jenkins didn’t throw a single apple? No, and at this point, there’s no way to know for sure. Rather than end on uncertainty, let’s wrap this up with what Pat Dye said in the postgame press conference about Sonny’s history of apple comments:

“They sure needed some apples today.”

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