The Legend / Reality of “Sunny Jim” Tatum

January07/ 2011

…… “a parasitic monster of open professionalism ….” – that was the way The Daily Tar Heel greeted the arrival of “Sunny Jim” Tatum in 1957.  Did you know that?  Is all you know about Jim Tatum that a fatal tick bite denied Carolina its destiny as a College Football Superpower.   READ MORE my friends if you can handle this most ironic déjà vu all over again…..

A retrospective of sports “legends” is not unlike a happily-married couple deciding, after 20 years of relative bliss, to tell each other about their pre-nuptial romantical history.   Gargling thumbtacks or pouring fire ants down your pants “might” be less advisable.  But marginally so.

“Like sands thru an hourglass …..” generations of sports fans pass in an endless parade each carrying its knapsack of memories of respective “good ol’ days”.   Stratford-On-Avon’s most notorious blogger regarding Julius Caesar:  “….. the evil that men do lives after them, the good is often interred with their bones ….”.   When it comes to sports, the question of whether “the good or the evil” is interred is totally dependent upon whether the fellow in question is “my guy” or “your guy”.

Mike Zrzyzewski will invariably “pass on” to his eternal resting place (a specific location of intense debate).  The respective obitual commentaries that will appear in the Duke Chronicle and the Daily Tar Heel will present somewhat differing images of the subject.  Duh! …… the same can be said of any/all high profile partisan celebrities be they athletic, political or simply overtly opinionated.  One fan’s “no-good lyin’ cheatin’ crook” is indeed another fan’s “legendary coach”. 

Gather ’round my buddies and ye shall hear of The Legend of “Sunny Jim” Tatum.   “A blue bleedin” prodigal coming home ….. OR a ham-fisted bully with blatant disregard for any/all who dared stand in his way.  But for a tiny tick, would UNC’s sports history have gone quite askew.   That toxic tick notwithstanding …… is “The Pale Rider” a reincarnation of “Sunny Jim” just modified for the Millenium Generation?


    “Jim Tatum was a con-man, a dictator, a tyrant and one hell of a football coach.“ …… Buddy Burris, All-American 1946, 1947 and 1948

Jim Tatum was born on July 22, 1913, in McColl, South Carolina. He was one of nine children, he and four of his older brothers all playing left tackle.

Tatum played his college football for Carl Snavely’s North Carolina Tarheels. He was big (6’3“, 230 lbs), strong and good—good enough to make a couple of All-America teams as a senior. After he graduated in 1935, he became an assistant coach at North Carolina. When Snavely moved on to Cornell the following year, he took Tatum with him.

Tatum returned to his alma mater in 1941 to serve as an assistant to Bear Wolf. When Wolf enlisted in the Navy just before the ’42 season, Tatum was promoted to head coach and led the Tarheels to a 5-2-2 season. The following season, in the Navy, he was coaching the Iowa Pre-Flight football team along with Bud Wilkinson and Don Faurot, architect of the split-T offense.

In 1945, one Univ of Oklahoma regent remarked that because of the negative publicity over The Grapes of Wrath, both the book and the movie, many Oklahomans actually felt a little apologetic about living in the state. What, he asked, could the University do to dispel this image and instill pride in the state?  Regent Lloyd Noble of Ardmore provided the answer…..  Why not hire a new football coach and build a great football team?  From an abundant post-war manpower supply they could field an outstanding team immediately.

The man selected to create the Sooner juggernaut was Jim Tatum, a big, brash, bearish Carolinian.  OU’s director of athletics, Jap Haskell, had known Tatum during the war and seen his teams in action.   On Haskell’s recommendation, OU decided on Tatum as their head coach …… and regretted this decision almost immediately. 

Jim Tatum hit the OU campus in the spring of 1946 like an Oklahoma tornado and some would say that he did just as much damage. In less than one year’s time he managed to win a Big Six Conference Championship, alienate the University president, pay players in cash, overspend the Athletic Department budget by some $60,000 and get the director of athletics fired. This is what is remembered about “Sunny Jim” Tatum.

What is often forgotten is that he also recruited nine (count ’em . . . nine) All-Americans: Wade Walker, Stan West, Darrell Royal, Jim Owens, George (Junior) Thomas, Buddy Burris (a three-time All-American), Jack Mitchell, Plato Andros and John Rapacz. These were all great players, some of the very best in OU history, but his prize recruit in this class was Bud Wilkinson, whom he brought with him as an assistant coach.  Clearly it was Bud Wilkinson who built the OU football dynasty, but he did it, in large part, with the material Tatum left him.

( A tag-along obscure assistant ends up out-legending the original Legend.  Can you say McGuire – Smith ? )

Haskell was much more impressed with the young, charismatic Wilkinson and would have preferred to have him as the Sooners’ head coach.  Although he did not like him personally, Cross grudgingly conceded that Tatum had “unusual organizational talent.“ OU Prez Dr Oliver Cross later wrote, “He called on Wilkinson to do most of the actual teaching during the squad meetings.  Tatum’s genius appeared to lie in his ability to select personnel, players and coaches, induce them to join his team, and then effectively organize their efforts.“ Harold Keith, in Forty-Seven Straight: The Wilkinson Era at Oklahoma, quoted Don Faurot as saying, “Tatum was the best recruiter and defensive coach I’ve ever seen.“

Not content with just spring and fall practice, Tatum conducted summer try-outs in 1946. Estimates of how many prospective Sooners tried out for Tatum that summer run as high as 400.  That season OU ran off an 8-3 record including a 34-13 victory over North Carolina State in the Gator Bowl. Tatum had few, if any, problems on the field.  His problems all concerned money. He spent so much of it he almost bankrupted the Athletics Department.  The big man with the bull-bellow voice lost no time building a football winner at the University of Oklahoma. He was big time and growing bigger.

“He was a man with lots of university money, which he was passing out to the married players,“ linebacker Merle Greathouse told Harold Keith.   Tatum matched several players with a sponsor or “sugar daddy.“ This gave the sponsor the right to enter the Sooner dressing room after games and visit with the player. These sponsors usually slipped a twenty-dollar bill into the player’s pocket before they slipped out the door. They also bought clothes for players at Connolly’s Men’s Store in Oklahoma City. Tatum may have worked his players hard, but he also rewarded them handsomely.

When Cross received a report on Gator Bowl expenditures he could not account for $6,000, which was listed only as “expenditures.“ It occurred to him that Tatum may have bought gifts for the players even though he had explicitly told him not to because it would be a violation of Big-Six rules. Fifty players at $120 each equaled $6,000.  Cross confronted Tatum on this issue, and he admitted that he had indeed given money to the boys. Furthermore he proclaimed, in what Cross characterized as a “triumphant manner,“ that this was a perfectly acceptable thing to do, and he seemed to be unconcerned that these players could be declared ineligible. .

Cross probed deeper into the financial affairs of the Athletic Department and found a deficit in excess of $60,000. It appeared that Athletics Director Jap Haskell did not know (or perhaps did not want to know) about Tatum’s profligate spending. The Board of Regents summarily relieved Haskell of his duties. Thus, the man who first recommended Tatum be hired at OU ultimately lost his job because of him.  In the midst of the scandal …..

The University of Maryland offered Tatum a free hand to set up a football machine in 1947, Tatum accepted for the chance to show people how a football factory should really run. Tatum signed on for a salary of $12,000 a year, which was $3,000 more than he was making at OU.   Although disappointed in his two losses to Wilkinson in the 1954 and 1956 Orange Bowl games, Tatum had plenty to celebrate at Maryland. At Maryland, Jim Tatum became the most successful major college coach in the game. Witty and winning, he was a tireless recruiter.  Prowling the Pennsylvania and West Virginia hills night after night for the agile, brawny kids he needed to make the split-T work.  In nine years, his Terrapins won 73 games, lost 15, tied 4, played in five bowl games and at one point, reeled off 19 straight victories. Tatum’s 1953 squad was ranked number one by all the major wire services, and he was voted “Coach of the Year.”

A biography of Tatum at explained, Still, all was not roses for Tatum even at Maryland. The university was criticized for overemphasizing football. When Dr. Wilson Elkins, a Rhodes Scholar and one-time University of Texas quarterback, was named president in 1954, and set out to raise Maryland’s academic standing, Tatum got “itchy feet”.  The Maryland student paper, The Diamondback, editorialized as follows, “Tatum’s tenure was an era in which an inadequate stadium became ultra-adequate and an inadequate library became more inadequate.“

Two years later he was at the University of North Carolina. The North Carolina student paper was apparently not glad to see him come. The Daily Tar Heel called Tatum “a parasitic monster of open professionalism.“

Call it revisionist history or selective memory, but for several years the Atlantic Coast Conference conferred the James Tatum Award to “the top senior student-athlete among the league’s football players.“ The ACC says (trying to maintain a straight face) “The Tatum Award is given annually in the memory of the late Jim Tatum, a two-time ACC Coach of the Year, who believed strongly in the concept of the student-athlete.”  (YIKES, burp, gurgle …. wink, wink)

Jim Tatum was the epitome of a certain breed of winning football coach, a giant tending to paunch since his playing days, a man with a muscular glad-hand and sharp tongue, a celebrity of sorts who had had so much acclaim that he floated on an air of supreme self-confidence, certain that things would be fine—so long as he won.

Once, when the student paper at his alma mater, North Carolina, took him to task for “playing to win and win alone,” Big Jim Tatum replied: “Winning isn’t the most important thing—it’s the only thing.”  That was the way things usually did work out for James Moore Tatum.

The man who at Maryland once rolled up a 74-13 score on a hapless Missouri team coached by his old master, Don Faurot, sat through a season of agonizing (2-7-1) defeat. The 1959 season, with 24 returning lettermen, was to be THE year for North Carolina. But that July, his huge 240-lb. body covered with a red rash, Jim Tatum was rushed to the university hospital. Doctors diagnosed an overwhelming attack of Rocky Mountain fever that had affected his vital organs.

At 10:40 PM on July 23, 1959, the day after his 46th birthday, “Sunny Jim” Tatum died.Tatum is buried in The Old Chapel Hill Cemetary.

>>><<<“….. the evil that men do lives after them,
the good is often interred with their bones ….”.
or vice versa. 

In compiling this material I could not help but compare Tatum’s style to his UNC coaching contemporary Frank McGuire …..  a UNC Legend of Gia-normous proportion to be exceeded only by his young assistant and bench successor.  While the more naïve Hark The Sounders may perceive McGuire of ethereal quality (until going to South Carolina at which point “ethereal” was replaced by “utter depths of Hell ….) ….. McGuire, like Tatum, was amply armored with an over-bearing ego, a satchel-full of personality quirks and a gunny sack full of grudges, feuds and a “it ain’t cheatin’ unless they catch me” attitude.

 Jim Tatum and Frank McGuire were coaching Pied Pipers.  Yes, they would cure the plague for which they was hired ….. but the very dominating personalities that enabled them to do so, would then be a new dilemma itself.   But there will always be another Hamlin and more desperate burgeomeisters and always …… more sewers fulla rats.


Sources For Tatum Bio :,9171,825833,00.html#ixzz0W59YyAhQ

BobLee on “Hard Bounces” …… If you are NOT receiving regular e-mail alerts of new BLSays columns it is due to “HARD BOUNCES”.  A “Hard Bounce” is caused (1) by spam filters, (2) liberal politicians, (3) lack of glucosamine (and controitin), and (4) not enough good TV shows like Bonanza and Have Gun Will Travel..

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