The W.A. Erwin Cup: Background

Part One: Background

Ladies and gentlemen, today is an important day in our historic rivalry. Today, we cease to be indebted to a tire company’s notion of Duke and Carolina. Today, we honor a man whose name spans two schools, and yet is all but forgotten to history. Today, we seek at long last to honestly measure the year-long merit of the schools closest to our heart. Today, the fight begins in earnest.

Thus, we introduce:

The W.A. Erwin Cup

The good stuff is coming, but bear with me now as I take you through a tour of the history and background that led us to this critical point.

Some of you may have heard of the “Carlyle Cup.” This was an attempt, apparently by a Greensboro jewelry company that went out of business in 2009, to pit UNC and Duke against each other in a yearly sports competition. Their scoring system, which underwent a change in 2004, was basic; whichever team won the season series in men’s basketball, women’s basketball, and football would get 2 points, and the winner in the other 20 sports would earn 1 point apiece. If they split head-to-head meetings, the point(s) went to the highest finisher in the ACC.

Duke won the first Cup, in 2000-01, 14-12. Carolina won the next year, Duke won two in a row, and Carolina has won the last seven.* When Carlyle went out of business, Continental Tire picked up the sponsorship and renamed the whole enterprise “The Battle of the Blues.”

*They tied in 2006-07, and Carolina retained the Cup by rule.

But these results? They don’t matter. With such a badly flawed points system, winning the Cup or the Battle or whatever is roughly equal to winning a game of rock, paper, scissors against a computer. It doesn’t tell you anything about the year in sports, it only ever picks the right winner by accident, and it’s too simple for these modern times. That’s why nobody ever talks about it. Nobody cares.

Duke and UNC fans are obsessive. When we describe a basketball game, we would never say, ‘hoorah, on this day our team was fortunate enough to outscore the opponent!’ And if someone did, we’d probably spray them with mace, regardless of affiliation. It would be only fair. But bland statements like that have found their competitive equivalent in the Battle of the Blues.

Here are the main problems:

1 – In real life, men’s basketball is more important than any other sport. Football is second. The 2:1 ratio does not accurately reflect that relationship. And as much as I love women’s basketball (citation needed), it doesn’t belong on that tier.

2 – Road wins are harder than home wins. There’s nothing to account for this in the scoring system.

3 – They weirdly combine men’s and women’s fencing into one. I’d like to see you do that if a war was on, you bastards!

4 – ACC championships, Final Four appearances, and national championships are huge in any sport, but aren’t represented here. If one school attains that level, the regular season results are diminished in importance. If Duke upsets Carolina in the Dean Dome this year, it’ll be big news. If Carolina goes on to win the national title, it’ll be small news. No real Duke fan would ever bring it up again. A national title, or even a Final Four, is an instant trump card.

5 – The sponsors. Carlyle Jewelers? They were owned by a New York City parent company, and even their ‘local’ branch wasn’t in the Triangle. What they hell do they know about the rivalry? About as much as I know about blood diamonds (disappointingly, not the color of blood.)

And hey, you know why Continental Tire is called “Continental Tire”? Because they’re from continental Europe. GASP! That’s right: this is a German company that bought its way into America in 1987 (realizing a Nazi dream 40 years too late, if I may editorialize), then ceased tire production in Charlotte and laid off almost 1,000 workers nationwide before moving the remnants of the plant to South Carolina. Yeah, they seem to be great representatives for Duke and UNC. We may as well elect Hitler to the House of Representatives.*

*If we do, he should replace Boehner.

Enough. The Crap-Pile Cup and the Battle of the Bullshits have failed us for a decade. They’ve had their chance, and they blew it. It’s time to take matters into our own hands. Kinda like a certain American hero I know. A man whose name you can’t miss if you’ve ever been to the Triangle, but who has been systematically erased from the history books because he’s too damn real. A man I call:

William Allen Erwin

Take another look at the photo above. That glorious black-and-white group photo of true, stalwart Americans. William Allen Erwin- W.A. to his pals- is in the top row, second from left. In other words, he’s the baddest looking dude in a picture of men who would shoot you on site if you even whispered the word ‘France.’ Here’s the only other photo I could find:

He’s in the second carriage, on our left. You notice he’s the dude holding the reins; W.A. Erwin wouldn’t let another man drive him anywhere. Later that day, he wrestled the horse and won.

Now for the story of how he came to personify the Cup. Will (site designer) and I were trying to think of a good name for a competition between Duke and UNC. We threw out Caldwell Cup (because Erskine Caldwell wrote this appropriate book, whose cover I love). That seemed cool, until I googled ‘Caldwell Cup’ and found out it was also the name of a trophy given to the best fraternity at N.C. State. Seriously. We offer that school neither comfort nor quarter in these parts, so I dropped Caldwell like I’ve dropped so many Red Terrors when they forget their place.

Then we thought of the “Tobacco Road Cup,” but rejected it for not being cool enough. Next came the “Robertson Cup,” because the Robertson scholars are kids who study at both schools. Then I thought back to my time at Duke. I never knew a Robertson scholar. I think there are only like four in every class. Actually, I knew one. She was a blond girl from North Dakota who never asked me out. Weird group of kids.

So I sat there thinking. What connects Duke and Carolina? What’s something common to both schools that I can use for a Cup name?

Then it hit me: something that literally connects the two schools. A road.

I had two choices. Highway 15-501 was the first, and that stretch of hell, to put it eloquently, blows. It’s like one giant Wal-Mart after another, and each Wal-Mart is built from stoplights that are always red. It might be the worst road in America, outside of New Jersey. Thankfully, there was one more option: Erwin Road.

I love driving on Erwin. It’s a lovely, winding stretch of pastoral serenity joining Chapel Hill and Durham, and it’s a great alternative to the highway. You pass churches, gorgeous homes, and farm country. It’s the honest-to-god “back way.” And thinking about it, I realized I had no idea who it was named for. There’s a lot of Erwin in these parts, but I’ve never heard a peep about the man himself.

So I got to researching. Here are some true facts I unearthed about William Allen Erwin.

-Born 1856 in Bellevue, North Carolina, died 1932 in Durham. He was born on a plantation, but he was only seven when Lincoln issued the emancipation proclamation. So, uh…we dodged that whole slavery bullet. Whew.

-His uncle was E.M. Holt, “the Mad Textile King of North Carolina.” That’s a nickname I just gave him, mind you, but from what I can tell the man owned so many mills he could weave you a two-story cotton house inside an hour.

-W.A. dicked around in the family business for a while, but in 1893 he got serious and set off on his own, starting Erwin Cotton Mills in West Durham. Soon, he was rolling in green and building more mills wherever he found a free acre. Eventually he owned twelve of them, and all together they boasted encompassed “290,000 spindles and 7,450 looms.”

7,450 looms, guys! GO ASK THE OLDEST MEANEST PERSON YOU KNOW HOW MANY LOOMS IS A LOT, AND IF THEY TELL YOU A NUMBER HIGHER THAN 7, THEY’RE LYING THROUGH THEIR ROTTED DENTURES. (In 1986, the last of the Durham mills was closed by the new owner, J.P. Stevens.)

-In October 1889, he married someone named Sadie L. Smedes (depending on the source, her dad’s name was either Albert or Aldert. You gotta root for Aldert on that one.) According to local legend, she was the hottest debutante in the south. They had four kids.

-He was super into churches, especially Episcopalian. The book “Durham County, ” by Jean Bradley Anderson, had this tidbit: “W.A. Erwin had the Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist churches in West Durham painted pea green.” Fair enough.

-He headed up the Durham County Tuberculosis society, which shows that the dude respects lungs. He also built churches, served as a county food administrator, was a layman at the Episcopal Church, and helped start a “Commonwealth Club” so he and other rich people could keep making money.

-Now for the good stuff: his character. He called his textile workers “my people.” He also had specific advice for his workers about how to tighten their belts when World War One came along: “have as many slices of bread as usual, but cut them thinner.” That’s either a total asshole thing to say to poor people, or it’s good hardboiled American wisdom. We’ll go with the latter.

-Someone unidentified said, “you’d be surprised how much of his own personal money he would use to help sick employees.” Then a dude named Arthur Cole said, “he preaches baths, swimming pools, and that kind of thing and then won’t pay a wage that is anything near even a living wage.” Cole, eh? Sounds French.

-His son served in World War One and lived to tell about it. When he came back home a decorated veteran, legend has it that his father smiled at him for the first time ever. It lasted less than one second, and was followed by a stern order: “get back to work.”

-He wrote this to a friend about his business approach: “I have striven not to become rich, but have centered my whole heart and soul in the desire and ambition to make a man after the type of my father in character, and with it to maintain his name and honor, and to establish for myself all the success in a business way that faithful, earnest and persistent efforts may bring.” That letter got him laid like seventeen times.

-In another letter to the guy who would succeed him as president of Erwin Mills, he went on at length about how important it was to keep up a “cordial enterprising spirit” with the workers, because that had “deeper roots” than just policy. Then he ended with this line: “We must treat everybody right, but must keep in mind that our stockholders come first.” You think the man kept two eyes on the money? Damn right.

So. William Allen Erwin. Complicated dude. But I’ll tell you this: he was North Carolina all the way. And he was America all the way. He had within him a lot of the contradictions of the larger national history, as an academic might say. Or as a dime novelist would say, ‘ye would surely covet his kind if yer ranks needed spiffin’ come the village donnybrook.’

Say what you will about the man, but you cannot deny this: he is a worthy sponsor of the Duke-UNC rivalry. In fact, I would hazard a guess that he is the perfect sponsor of our new Cup. So let’s welcome him with open arms. Our spirited games, playing on emotions and leading to desperate action and wild claims, are now watched with interest by the soul of W.A. Erwin. We shall not disappoint.

Coming this afternoon: The rules!

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8 Responses to The W.A. Erwin Cup: Background

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  1. sanfransoxfan says:

    Textiles? Are you sure he wasn’t a big NC State supporter? All of his management team must have been from there by the ’00’s and beyond.

  2. jchenkel says:

    I’m torn.

    On one hand, Erwin seems more Carolina-ish than Duke-ish. The picture painted above sounds like more of a UNC guy than Duke guy (born and bred in the area doesn’t sound very Duke-ish) (those might be fightin’ words around here) (I still stand by them).

    On the other hand, it looks like his textile business supported the Dukes’ tobacco industry. And Erwin Road runs right through the Duke campus, putting it near and dear to the Duke faithful around here. It comes into Chapel Hill but I doubt many students even know where it is (I did because I went to a church on Erwin Road and had friends that lived out there).

    And on a third hand…he went to UK (A&M College of Kentucky at the time). Huh?

    1. Shane says:

      Wow. You outed a secret I was hoping to keep for some time, which is that Erwin had close connections with the Duke family. I didn’t learn this until a bit later in my research, and was trying to keep it quiet. Nicely parsed, my friend…nicely parsed.

  3. jchenkel says:

    But then again, I guess that’s the point. He covers both sides. And he would have rooted for UK against Laettner, so I’ll support it!

  4. TarHeelAlex says:

    Yes, 15/501 sucks. It is the epitome of urban sprawl.

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