by Bob Rose for Conference Carolinas
WILSON, N.C. — As the only remaining original member of Conference Carolinas, Barton College serves as the shining beacon on the athletic hill as the league celebrates its 90-year anniversary on Dec. 6, 2020.
Founded as Atlantic Christian College in 1902, the school did not field an intercollegiate sports team for the first five years of its existence. Then in 1907, a rag-tag group of baseball student-athletes, under the auspices of first-year coach James (J.J.) Walker, became the first team to represent the college on the athletic field of competition.
In what amounted to a half cup of coffee, Atlantic Christian posted a 0-2 season record. So much for grand openings.
Yet, the school continued to add sports to its modest athletic program over the next two decades, including men’s basketball (1914), football (1920), boxing and men’s tennis (1928).
According to unofficial sports historian C.J. Holliday, the football team unveiled a first-ever Bulldog mascot in 1928. Named “Mutt,” it should be noted that the dog was not an English Bulldog full breed but, indeed, a mutt.
Then at the height of the Great Depression, the school joined its first-and only-athletic conference. Atlantic Christian College President Howard Stevens Hilley, a Rhodes scholar and Oxford graduate who would preside over the college for 29 years (1920-49), attended a meeting of school Presidents from Appalachian State, Catawba, Guilford, Elon, High Point and Lenoir-Rhyne at the Washington Duke Hotel in Durham, N.C. on Dec. 6, 1930. When the meeting adjourned, the North State Intercollegiate Conference (the forerunner to Conference Carolinas) was born.
For Barton College (renamed in 1990), it’s a marriage that has lasted 90 years. To put that into proper perspective, Duke and North Carolina have belonged to the Atlantic Coast Conference for 67 years (ACC was founded on May 8, 1953), while South Carolina accepted the invitation to join the Southeastern Conference on Sept. 25, 1990.
Beyond being the elder statesmen of Conference Carolinas, Barton continues to thrive in league competition. The Bulldogs captured the conference’s coveted Joby Hawn All-Sports Cup three straight years from 2002-03 through 2004-05, and claimed national championships in tennis (1979 and 1984 NAIA) and men’s basketball (2007 NCAA Division II).
A church-affiliated school with an enrollment of 1,200, former four-time NAIA Tennis Coach of the Year Tom Parham credits the school’s athletic prowess and longevity to two words: humility and pride.
“We are such a small school with a limited budget compared to many of the other programs,” said Parham, who steered Barton to a pair of NAIA National Championships and 11 consecutive conference crowns during his tenure (1964-83). “Wilson was a nice little tobacco town filled with teachers and preachers. Not a lot of big money folks. But we still managed to be successful. It was the quality people at Barton that made the difference.”
Parham, who also served as Barton’s athletic director from 1983-85, was the architect behind the school’s first national championship in any sport when his 1979 men’s tennis team ran the table in the NAIA Tournament.
In many ways, that national title opened the door for many Barton athletic teams to bust down barriers and flourish.
“I think we made a real statement to the other sports on campus,” said Parham. “We showed our kids that you can be as good as anybody in America. Of all the legacies I left at Barton, this one is the one I’m most proud of.”
And unlike most college tennis programs, that 1979 squad was composed primarily of American-born players. One of those student-athletes was Tom Morris, a two-time All-American and the No. 1 singles player for the Bulldogs for four straight seasons.
Morris, who was inducted into the North Carolina Tennis Hall of Fame in 2010, later enjoyed a sterling coaching career. He was a four-time Conference Carolinas Coach of the Year in leading Barton’s men’s team to six conference championships and women’s squad to four league crowns. He later coached East Carolina’s women’s tennis team to the most victories (320) in school history over 22 seasons and also guided the men’s team for the Pirates to 68 wins in six years.
Parham said Barton’s culture in athletics began to turn in the early 1970’s with the hiring of David Atkins as Athletic Director in 1972.
“We were overmatched for a long period of time,” said the legendary tennis coach. “I think we were eighth out of the eight conference teams in overall sports success for 20 straight years. We went through the tough Vietnam era, where our previous Athletic Director wouldn’t let the student-athletes wear long hair or even jeans. When Atkins came in, he supported women’s athletics and the recruiting of minority and international athletes to the school. Before long, we went from eighth to first in the conference.”
Barton, which has held the mantle of last surviving charter member of Conference Carolinas for the past 31 years when Catawba departed in 1989, also benefited greatly from the unswerving leadership of former Athletic Director Gary Hall, who assumed the reins the same year Catawba left the conference. Hall is the longest-tenured AD in school history (1989-2015) and still holds the title of Emeritus Athletic Director.
Also serving as chair of the physical education department and head men’s soccer coach, Hall oversaw the expansion of intercollegiate sports from nine to 23 (including cheer and dance) that are offered today. His experience at Barton actually started in 1978 when he enrolled as a student, so he has been a keen observer of the growth of Bulldogs athletics for 42 years.
“One of the real pivotal moments at Barton was when we and Conference Carolinas changed our affiliation from NAIA to NCAA Division II in 1995,” said Hall. “I was chairing the league’s AD Committee at the time and I’m very proud of the fact that all of the schools wanted to move as a unit because it was in our best interest to seek Division II affiliation.”
Hall harkens back to the 2002-05 period as a seminal time in Barton’s athletic history.
“Years earlier, we decided that we wanted to be competitively successful, not only gender equitable but sport equitable across the board,” he added. “We set the goal of winning the conference’s all-sports award. When we won the Hawn Cup three years in a row, I remember us taking a photo in front of the Bell Tower on campus featuring all our student-athletes, support staff and coaches. That photo became a banner that hung in the gymnasium for quite some time. It was very rewarding because everyone pulled for each other, fulfilling a very unifying goal.”
Hall credits coaching continuity as key to consistent success for Barton’s sports programs.
“Another goal that emerged significantly during those years was finding stability in head coaching positions,” said Hall. “We began to have people serve for longer periods of time. They stayed and produced results. And we hired and retained good support staff as well.”
The other catalyst for Barton was when its men’s basketball team won the 2007 NCAA Division II Championship in Cinderella fashion, erasing a seven-point deficit in the final 39 seconds in the title game to beat Winona State, 77-75.
Hall remembers the incredible swell of support for the team upon their return to the Wilson campus.
“Our mayor, Bruce Rose, called me up right after the game. He said the city had just purchased an automated phone notification system and asked if I was okay with him testing it by notifying the community of the team’s itinerary coming home. I said yes, but little did I know that thousands of residents would respond by lining the highway and gathering on campus!”
Another person with long ties to Barton athletics is Russell Rawlings, whose first memories of the school’s teams came during childhood.
“I grew up in Wilson and first started going to basketball games in the mid-60’s when Wilson Gymnasium first opened,” said Rawlings. “I’ve had an affinity for Barton athletics ever since.”
It’s no wonder Rawlings is such a Barton fan. His life has been intertwined with the college for seven decades. He attended then Atlantic Christian College from 1974-78 while also covering its sports teams for the local Wilson Daily Times. Then he joined the school as Alumni Director in 1984, serving in that position for four years. Later, he moved to Barton’s public relations and development offices for a 10-year stint from 1990-94. Since then, Rawlings has served as an athletic board member and volunteer alumnus, and has filled the master of ceremonies role at the school’s annual Athletic Hall of Fame banquet for the past 35 years.
With that breadth of institutional knowledge, Rawlings is eminently qualified to make comparisons of Barton athletic teams over several generations and eras.
“I think the growth and visibility of the athletic program has been the biggest change,” said Rawlings. “And beneath that are individuals and teams that bookmarked that transition over the years. I credit the administrators for their awareness, dedication and importance placed on athletics, which has made it all possible.”
The former sports writer expressed a particular fondness for the 1979 Bulldogs’ men’s tennis team that won the NAIA National Championship and its colorful coach, Tom Parham.
“It was the first Barton team to win a national title,” he said. “I was particularly close to that team and the coach, as I covered it for the newspaper. Parham took a program from the ground and showed the school and the town what was possible. Beyond being a great coach, Tom was such an interesting person. He was a brilliant scholar who also loved music. He tried to hide his amazing competitive spirit, but I would get a glimpse during matches. We’re still good friends to this day, and as far as I’m concerned, the line for great Barton coaches will always form behind him.”
While he still cherishes those Bulldog teams of his childhood, Rawlings claims the school’s athletic prowess has made a quantum leap in the 21st Century.
“Barton sports have grown exponentially in the last two decades,” he said. “The 2007 national basketball champions generated more enthusiasm in the community and on campus and there’s greater support now. I’m also very impressed with the current administration. We have the perfect president (Dr. Douglas N. Searcy) for the time we’re in. His enthusiasm, leadership and ability to get things done is tremendous. He and our Athletic Director (Todd Wilkinson) are a great combination.”
Rawlings also credits the school’s investment in improved facilities, more scholarships and notable coaches as a major part of the equation.
“In those early years, we had no facilities. The teams played at the local high school or recreation center. I think our affiliation with the conference also spurred growth because the league provided a measuring stick for us. You could point to the other schools in the conference and say ‘this is where we want to get to.'”
Adding yet another veteran voice to the Barton conversation is C.J. Holliday, the unofficial sports historian whose 50th Graduation Reunion at the school was postponed this year due to COVID-19.
An avid researcher of Barton sports, Holliday has been known to dig deep into old newspaper files and game programs to unearth new findings about his beloved Bulldogs. He speaks fondly of his days as a student when he became a fan.
“It was very exciting,” he said. “We played Appalachian State, Western Carolina, High Point and other good teams. Back in those days, there weren’t many NCAA Division I schools, so NAIA coaches had a chance to recruit some really quality players.”
Such future NBA stars like Lloyd “World B.” Free (Philadelphia 76ers) and M.L. Carr (Boston Celtics) played in the conference in those days.
“When schools like Western Carolina came here, the gym was filled,” Holliday recalled. “We beat some good teams like Georgia Southern and Old Dominion. Atlantic Christian had a run-and-gun reputation and played an exciting brand of basketball.”
Now some 50 years later, Holliday continues his love affair with the Barton Bulldogs. He offers an explanation for his long-time affection and loyalty to the program.
“For me, it’s just about being a fan,” he said. “I just love the college and the people there. It’s a small, special place. Even as a fan, you’re treated like a big fish in a small pond. You have an opportunity for so much access and recognition. You become part of the family.”
The same can be said for Barton’s 90-year affiliation with Conference Carolinas. Small, special and family. The Bulldogs have set the example as the conference’s patriarch member since 1930.
Bob Rose is a longtime sports public relations executive who has worked for the San Francisco Giants, Oakland Athletics, the NFL Cardinals, Cal, Stanford and other organizations. Conference Carolinas’ official storyteller, Rose will incorporate unique features through his “Body, Mind, and Soul” series into the 90th anniversary celebration.