Thad: Remarkable Woman, Remarkable Legacy

From the point of view of the national and even the regional media, the death this past Friday of Burgess McSwain, academic counselor to the basketball team for over 20 years, may seem like at most a blip of a story. From the inside of the program, however, the loss of McSwain to cancer is almost as significant as a head coaching retirement or any of the other major changes of the last few years.

It wasn't just Dean Smith and Bill Guthridge or now Roy Williams, folks--it was also Burgess McSwain, an indispensable partner to four coaching staffs who both believed in the Carolina Way and did as much or more than anyone else to make it real, day in and day out. If Smith and Guthridge have banners in their honor high in the Dean Dome rafters, McSwain too deserves significant and permanent recognition somewhere in the Smith Center complex.

Hopefully something like that can be arranged in the near future. Now is a time for remembrance and appreciation of a truly unique figure in the Carolina basketball program.

The first and most obvious thing to say about Burgess McSwain is that she was, as Bill Guthridge once put it, "a character."

It's not hard to see why some students might have been, on first encounter, a little bit intimidated by Burgess--a proudly independent, gravel-voiced woman with a startlingly direct attitude and a well-formed opinion about everyone and everything, all delivered in a sweet Southern accent. Burgess had strong views and strong loyalties--to her dogs, to the Episcopal Church, to the Democratic Party (she was a relative of U.S. Senator Sam Ervin), to her circle of equally loyal friends, and above all to "her boys"-- the young men who happened to play basketball for North Carolina over the past 20 years.

It's important to understand that Burgess was an educator first and foremost, whose interest in working with players came out of the satisfaction she took in teaching, not out of any awe of athletes or desire to get close to the glory. In fact, she welcomed regular Carolina students to the structured basketball team study halls for years, not infrequently embracing such "strays." "Any student who was in the class with the kids was welcome to come, if they wanted to learn," said McSwain last summer. "I'll help them, I don't care who they are."

This is not to say McSwain wasn't a basketball fan--she was. Burgess went to the games, wore her Carolina gear proudly, and wanted the team to do well. She knew what was going on on the court, who was doing well and who was having a hard time. Indeed, she knew just about everything significant that was going on in the lives of the basketball team.

The key point was, however, that McSwain's interest in helping players was in no way correlated to their on-the-court performance or what the coaching staff thought or even whether the player was a struggling or a brilliant student. McSwain's goal was not to keep everyone eligible, but for every student to do his best, whether that meant getting a B- or getting an A.

McSwain was an excellent teacher: she knew how to get students organized and teach them smart study skills, and she knew how to teach substance (or how to find someone who could in areas outside her range of expertise). But the relationship McSwain had with Carolina players went well beyond the ordinary. Consider one of the most famous of all the legendary Burgess stories:

One summer in 1985 or 1986, Michael Jordan, having elected to go pro a year short of graduation, was enrolled in summer school, and needed to bear down on his work--or so thought McSwain, who was worried that MJ was spending too much time on Finley Golf Course with old roommate Buzz Peterson and a promising UNC golfer then on campus named Davis Love III. McSwain was thus infuriated when Jordan skipped out on a study session one lazy afternoon. Instead of getting mad, McSwain took matters into her own hands: She drove to Finley, motored onto the golf course, located the green where Jordan, Peterson, and Love were getting ready to putt, honked her horn, and finally barked at Jordan in no uncertain terms to get his posterior off the golf course, get in the car with her, and come study.

Jordan, the story goes, immediately complied.

Most of the time, slightly less dramatic measures--the sharp-tongued admonishment, the occasional raised pool stick in the Smith Center player's lounge--were required to get her point across. And yet "her boys" loved her for it, precisely because they knew that she really did have their best interests at heart and that she could be absolutely trusted with any problem or crisis, no matter how sensitive. For players who have been surrounded for years by sycophants and flatterers of all kinds, Burgess was a breath of fresh air. Remember when Dean Smith used to talk about the need to "de-program" freshmen upon arrival in Chapel Hill? Burgess was a key mechanism in making that happen, laying down the law from day one.

There is no question that Burgess could have written the most interesting and entertaining book about Carolina basketball of all time, such was her knowledge of the foibles, embarrassing moments, and behind-the-scenes goings-on in the Carolina program. To sit for an hour or two with Burgess on her front porch with her dogs, talking about days gone by, was a treat like no other for any friend of Carolina basketball who had the privilege.

Incredibly, however, despite being so integral to the day-to-day life of the program, McSwain was for almost all of her career virtually invisible to the public. That was a calculated decision: McSwain (until last year) did not want even her photo in the annual media guide, and resisted media attention. Burgess strongly felt that academic counselors at big-time schools should not be public figures, believing such attention to her might diminish the accomplishments of the student-athletes she worked with and cause some to lose confidence in their own abilities. Plus, she did not want to deal with the media--and though over the years some enterprising reporters deduced that she knew where the proverbial bodies were buried, McSwain became quite adept at simply saying "no comment" and hanging up the phone. (So wary was McSwain of the media that Dean Smith and Bill Guthridge virtually had to plant a brief story in USA Today discussing her contributions on the occasion of Antawn Jamison and Jerry Stackhouse's graduation in December 1999.)

When Burgess Murphy McSwain is laid to rest today in Chapel Hill, it's appropriate that there be a somber, deeply sad tone. Burgess still had a lot to give, she will be missed intensely, and there will be great sadness that she will not be around to enjoy golden years of afternoons on the porch welcoming her many visitors and spinning stories. Yet it would not be surprising if at some point after the funeral, as her former charges gather and begin swapping their favorite Burgess stories, there will be more than a few smiles and a warm glow of appreciation for a well-lived life. Burgess would have liked nothing better.

But when the funeral is over and the Carolina family once again disperses, the real significance of the loss will begin to sink in. Perhaps the saddest part of the end of McSwain's fight against cancer is that she will not be there in the flesh the day next May when three young men with whom she had an especially close and important relationship--Jackie Manuel, Melvin Scott, and Jawad Williams--graduate from the University of North Carolina. The rising senior class in Chapel Hill has gone through experiences faced by no other group in the history of Carolina basketball, and if McSwain had not been there playing her familiar role, some of those experiences would likely have led to some or all of that group leaving Chapel Hill early.

In December 2002, when McSwain was first diagnosed with cancer, Melvin Scott started crying, which caused McSwain to start crying, too. "Please don't leave us, Ms. Burgess" was the prevailing sentiment at that time. Burgess fought cancer hard and refused to leave, playing a key role with that class and holding the entire 2003 team together (especially Asheville freshman Rashad McCants) through unprecedented turmoil.

Most Carolina fans, properly, hope that the class of 2005 will finish their time in Chapel Hill next spring with the turnaround from the low moments of 2002 and 2003 complete, on the highest of highs, playing in a Final Four.

But for Burgess, Graduation Day was bigger than the Final Four. Next year, sadly, she will be present only in spirit, and as an unshakeable presence within the hearts of three tall young men who will know they wouldn't have made it there without the admonitions, the compassionate listening, and the sage advice provided by the tell-it-like-it-is woman they knew as their mother away from home.

Burgess McSwain has passed on to a better place, and Chapel Hill has lost one of its great spirits, great characters, and great teachers.

The place just won't be the same without her.

Contributions to the Burgess McSwain Fund may be made in care of the UNC Department of Geography, Saunders Hall, Campus Box 3220, Chapel Hill, N.C. 27599-3220.

Thad Williamson is author of More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many, available at You can email Thad at thwilliamson(nospam)

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