By Larry Penkav
CHAPEL HILL — Someone in the UNC basketball family had a decision to make. Will he return for another season or move on to a new chapter in life?
Charlie Jones, the sentinel guarding the tunnel at Carmichael Auditorium and then at the Smith Center for 38 years, had been mulling his future as the official monitor of the inner sanctum of Carolina basketball. Jones was still uncertain as he worked his last shift of the season Monday on senior night for Brady Manek, Leaky Black and Ryan McAdoo.
On Tuesday, however, Jones had made up his mind.
“It’s something I’m going to really miss,” he said over the phone. “There comes a time you have to draw the line and give it up. I don’t want to be a liability.”
Jones, 83, said he’s in good health and “feel[s] like I can keep going and enjoy it. But each year adds to my age. I decided to go ahead and make the decision for a good reason” rather than overstaying and becoming a burden.
As the monitor of the tunnel leading to the players’ dressing room, Jones is responsible for “making sure the tunnel is clear and safe for the players. I check IDs of people going into the tunnel and let people know where they’re supposed to be.”
Sometimes that means a person isn’t happy when told the tunnel is limited to people with credentials. That’s when Jones falls back on his philosophy, “A soft answer turns away wrath.”
“Circumstances can’t control you,” he said. “You have to overcome a situation. I represent the university, so I want to make sure you enjoy yourself and want to come back.”
Always a Tar Heels fan, Jones said he wanted to be involved with UNC in some way after his service in the Navy. A friend of his, Marvin Portress, helped Jones get his foot in the door.
One day Jones received a call and was asked to work that night to help at a game in Carmichael, working at the door where students entered. Soon after, he was “asked to take the tunnel because I could get along with people.”
That was in 1985 and he’s been working the tunnel ever since, moving to the Smith Center when it opened in 1986.
“It’s more than just standing there,” Jones said. “It takes a certain personality and I had a way of getting along with people. My relationship with God helps me enjoy people.”
When someone comes along who isn’t happy with the rules, Jones said this motto kicks in: “A good negotiation is better than a bad stand. I use language to offset what they’re saying. It’s worked pretty good.”
Jones admits that he wasn’t always easy to get along with. “I was a bad guy. I once was not a very likeable person.” But he credits Christ for “chang[ing] the concept of my whole life.”
A result of that change in his personality has been his 38 years representing UNC at basketball and football games.
“I love to be active over there,” said Jones. “It was my dream to work at Carolina. To be able to work on the front line was a dream come true. I always tried to be an ambassador for the university. Character refers to who I am. I hope I was who I portrayed I was.”
Beside getting older, Jones’ reason for leaving the tunnel is to spend more time with his family. In May, he and his wife Barbara will celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary on a Caribbean cruise.
Jones says his priorities in life are his faith, his family and Carolina. He calls Barbara “the jewel of my life.” They have four children, and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
“My family is the pride of my life.”
By retiring from the job, Jones says he’ll “let the younger come in and gain the rewards” that he has enjoyed.
“You have to come to reality in life, set a goal to what you can do,” he said. “My main concern is to follow the leadership of the Lord.”
He credits the leaders he’s worked with at UNC, including Ellen Culler, John Brenner, Brett Botta and Janis Matson. He also had good relationships with the five coaches he worked with — Dean Smith, Bill Guthridge, Matt Doherty, Roy Williams and Hubert Davis. And there are others he worked with who are too numerous to name.
“I have wonderful memories that I’ll always cherish,” said Jones. “And you can’t take them away from me. I’m going to miss those people, but life goes on.
“I hope people will be able to say, ‘It was good knowing Charles Jones.’ ”
Larry Penkava has been writing for newspapers since 1982. He has covered UNC sports, particularly the behind-the-scenes stories, for three years. When he’s not watching the Tar Heels, he enjoys running and reading.