As college football grew rapidly in popularity in the early twentieth century, the Tar Heels soon began attracting more fans than could fit in Emerson Field, which could hold only around 3,000 people. A group of alumni led an effort to build a new stadium and began raising money. The fund-raising effort reached William Rand Kenan Jr., a graduate of the class of 1894 and a member of one of Carolina's earliest football teams. Kenan initially gave $1,000 and eventually agreed to donate the entire amount required for the stadium, around $275,000. It was to be named Kenan Stadium in memory of his parents, William R. Kenan Sr. and Mary Hargrave Kenan.
In 2018 a faculty committee and some journalists —including from the Daily Tar Heel, which ran a front-page story on the stadium —criticized the university for honoring Kenan Sr., one of the leaders of the 1898 Wilmington coup that overturned a multiracial government and murdered numerous African American citizens. Following public discussion and criticism, the university announced that the plaque honoring William Kenan Sr. would be changed to focus instead on William Kenan Jr. in recognition of his substantial financial support of the university.
The stadium was built south of campus in a natural valley over Meeting of the Waters Creek. It was designed by Atwood and Nash, a prominent North Carolina firm that had worked on many significant buildings around the state and on campus. The new stadium was so well received that it attracted the attention of other universities. Atwood and Nash were later hired to provide designs for new stadiums at the University of Georgia and the University of Alabama. Kenan Stadium hosted its first football game, a UNC victory over Davidson, on November 12, 1927. It was formally dedicated a few weeks later, on Thanksgiving Day, during the UNC-Virginia game.
The stadium has undergone several additions and renovations. In 1963 upper decks were added, increasing the seating capacity to 43,000. More seats were added in each of the following three decades, with a major renovation and expansion taking place in 2010—11. This renovation resulted in the demolition of the original field house to make way for the Loudermilk Center for Excellence, an academic support program for UNC student athletes.
The university's annual spring commencement has been held in Kenan Stadium since the 1930s. It has hosted speeches by U.S. presidents (John F. Kennedy in 1963 and Bill Clinton in 1993) and major concerts, including U2 in 1983 and Bruce Springsteen in 2003.
Date Established: 1926
Date Range: 1926 – Present