When University of North Carolina men’s basketball coach Roy Williams agreed to bring his nationally ranked and highly popular team to Elon for the opening game in the university’s brand new Schar Center a lot of thoughts probably went through his mind. Typically coaches in major conferences don’t like to go on the road for regular season games against teams from smaller universities. Williams, the longtime coach, has been the exception. The Tar Heels have done so before.
That’s one piece of history that led to the incredible scene Friday, Nov. 9 2018 in the Schar Center when a capacity crowd generated the kind of excitement generally seen at big-time college games. It was great fun to be there. Another is the genuine respect and affection Williams has for the late Maurice Koury, who died in March of 2016. He spoke of it before and after the game, noting in the latter that he looked up and saw Maurice Koury’s name on the Elon practice facility. Maurice Koury and his family have been tremendous supporters of both Elon and UNC over the past few decades. Williams never forgets it.
I wrote more about this in a column after Mr. Koury died. It still speaks to the impact the man had and still has on two great universities. And the practice facility that has his name is in the background at the Schar Center. He would have wanted it that way.
Upon hearing of the death last week of Maurice Koury among the first places we called for information and reaction was the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. It made sense to do so. Koury, a prominent Burlington industrialist for decades and one likely far better known for his vast philanthropic efforts, graduated from UNC. A dorm there is named for him. A swimming center is, too, as is the library at the alumni center.
But where he really made his most publicly known mark was in the financing and construction of a famous facility that doesn’t have his name on it — the Dean E. Smith Center, where UNC plays basketball. Without the work and monetary support of Maurice Koury and the admiration commanded by Smith, the legendary coach who passed away last year, that multi-purpose arena would’ve been almost impossible to build without the use of taxpayer funding.
And yet, it happened, $33 million worth of private donations ensured this. It was a point of pride for UNC supporters then and now. It should be.
With so much historic goodwill, of course, the folks at UNC were more than willing to oblige when asked about the passing of Koury at age 86. After giving our reporter Isaac Groves some information, a UNC representative called back later in the day to say that current Tar Heels basketball coach Roy Williams wanted to be a part of any story about Maurice Koury. He was en route to Washington with his team at the time for the ACC Tournament. He promised to give a statement when the bus arrived.
And he did.
“Mr. Koury was a true Carolina gem. He was immensely dedicated to the entire university, not just athletics. He loved Coach Smith and loved Carolina basketball and he made me feel like he loved me. But he supported the university even more to the highest degree. Yes, he offered that support financially, but even more with his heart. We’ve lost one of the great Tar Heels and I don’t say that very often. He was a great man,” Williams said.
Not long after, this arrived via email to all media outlets in the state. Gov. Pat McCrory also wanted to say something about Koury.
“I was saddened to hear of the passing of Maurice Koury this week. I cannot think of many other people who have had such a broad impact on our state. Whether it was in manufacturing, retail, development, academics or civic duty, he was a leader in so many facets here in North Carolina,” McCrory said. “His legacy will be felt for generations to come. Ann and I offer our sympathy and prayers to his family on their loss.”
Both men are correct. I wasn’t surprised by the heartfelt sentiments expressed by either one. What did surprise me is how little I — or most anyone else — actually knew about Maurice Koury.
I suspect he liked it that way.
I NEVER MET Maurice Koury. That in itself seems to defy the odds. For decades he was among Burlington’s most prominent business, civic and political leaders. He had an interest in education and in sports — two areas of life where I spent a good portion of my career in newspapers. As first a sports writer and then an editor, our paths would seem destined to cross in one place or another. I covered the first game ever played at the Smith Center in 1986, about the only thing I can really hang my hat on as a historic moment in sports that I wrote about. I’m relatively certain Maurice Koury was there, too. He was a Smith Center fixture, in those great seats he had.
Yet I never managed to meet him in the 17 years I lived and worked in Alamance County. And Koury, not even once, sought the spotlight. Not one time did he call requesting that something he was involved in be covered by a reporter or photographer. That might be a record.
Not that he was unknown or anything.
Koury and his brother Ernest were in the hosiery business together, an operation that spun off dozens of other enterprises. The Koury name became so prominently attached to operations like the Ramada Inn in Burlington or Four Seasons Mall in Greensboro that I once asked in the 1980s if there was anything Maurice Koury didn’t have a hand in. They provided backing for businesses and politicians, sometimes endorsing the latter.
But when I looked through the Times-News computer archives from 1992 to 2007, only a couple dozen stories involving Maurice Koury exist. Nearly all have to do with significant contributions to Elon College and later Elon University, UNC or Blessed Sacrament Catholic School. Donations to local public schools are sometimes mentioned. He crops up in stories about coaching searches at UNC. One story was about a silent auction fundraiser for Blessed Sacrament honoring Koury. Dean Smith was there in what had to be one of his final public appearances. The only quote from Koury himself was one of shock that the ailing coach was there.
Education was a singular passion and hundreds of students have been aided by scholarships as a result. He served on a variety of boards and commissions involving everything from banking to liquor sales.
Not bad for the son of immigrants from Lebanon who came to America in the 1920s. In many ways, he was the American dream in body and spirit. He became the best known, least-known person in North Carolina.
It’s a legacy that goes beyond admirable. Wish I had the chance to shake his hand.