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Blue Bloods Retrospective: North Carolina Basketball

Every program in this series got to the top of the mountain in a different way. Proving there is no one correct way to get to the top and stay there. There are a couple of common threads among the programs discussed so far. The centerpiece is the rock-solid coach that is the heartbeat of his team’s success and is reflected in the names of their programs being one of the first you read. Every Blue Blood program has unique people associated with just that program and the North Carolina Tar Heels are no exception. 

UNC checks every box to be a blue blood. To start they are at the bare minimum top five in every category that measures how much your program won in the history of the sport. Top three in both totals wins and win percentage. An NCAA record 20 Final Fours with 11 trips to the championship and six wins across five separate decades. They also rank first in most weeks being ranked in the top 25 with 922 weeks straight. 

Needless to say, the sustained success is there and ranks at the top consistently. The six championships they have won spans across three head coaches in Dean Smith, Roy Williams, and Frank McGuire. Dean Smith and Roy Williams, in particular, are two of the most successful coaches of all time. They both also had a profound influence on the sport and coached some great players in their time. 

Having the greatest basketball player of all time go to your college doesn’t hurt the UNC case either as Michael Jordan and Dean Smith were a legendary duo that won one of UNC’s championships together. From any viewpoint or perspective you look at it, the facts undeniably scream UNC Basketball’s greatness and their status as a blue blood program.  

Before I move forward, it’s worth mentioning that there is no defined order or ranking of any of these programs on my end. This is only meant to be a series centered around recognizing and appreciating greatness rather than comparing it. 

Believe it or not, there was a time before Dean Smith became the coach of the Tar Heels. UNC played their first basketball game on January 27th in 1911 beating Virginia Christian. Nearly a decade later, they played their first game against later to be arch-rival Duke in 1920. They won the first matchup of the Tobacco Road rivalry by a low score of 36-25. 

North Carolina was originally apart of the Southern Conference which later split up into the SEC and ACC decades later. The year they did split to become one of the first members of the ACC was also the same year a new coach came into the fold. His name was Frank McGuire and he would be the first coach to lead UNC to glory in 1957. 

Before Jordan and Smith there were McGuire and Rosenbluth. Lennie Rosenbluth was North Carolina’s best player in their first championship run and was named National Player of the Year in 1957 as well as being three-time all ACC. The year prior to the championship, UNC defeated Duke to win their first ACC regular-season title. Rosenbluth scored 31 points in the win and it marked the first of many conference titles in Chapel Hill. 

The next season, all the pieces fell into place for a real championship run.  North Carolina won the triple crown of college hoops by winning the regular season, conference tournament, and NCAA championship all in the same year. Their record stood at a perfect 32-0 and had the perfect ending by beating fellow blue blood Kansas in the championship game. That was a Kansas team that had an all-time great Wilt Chamberlain on their team but still couldn’t defeat the Tar Heels of North Carolina. 

Another crazy part of that title run was the fact that UNC won both the final two games in triple overtime. So why did McGuire’s run end after only eight years considering he was a championship coach? Well in 1960, UNC was put on probation for illegal recruiting actions which had them not participating in the following tournament. 

The said theory is that after McGuire players graduated in 1957, he was unable to recruit new players to live up to the same standard, resulting in cheating to entice prospects. UNC was in a bad place as a program and needed a refresh to start from scratch, enter Dean Edwards Smith.  

The waters were no doubt murky when Smith arrived to try and revitalize the program. Coming off the scandals, the task was to, over time, make North Carolina an attractive school for talented high school players. In fact, UNC originally hired Smith just as a short term option until they could find the right candidate. 

His story is truly one that defies all odds, and with everything stacked against him, he chose to be great. The first few years weren’t easy and his teams struggled to win over 20 games. 1967 was the breakout year as Dean Smith led the Tar Heels to his first Final Four of many. So if Smith wasn’t seen as the long term solution at first and he didn’t start winning right away, then why did he continue to coach?  Turns out, he did everything right under the surface to put the pieces in place to win later. 

First of all he brought their recruiting back to prominence in a few short years. The strategy was to acknowledge and be honest about the mistakes they had made in the past but be optimistic about the future. Smith explained how each and every recruit could change the direction of the program and by doing this he attempted to build a strong relationship with every player he met. 

Even from the start, Smith developed his philosophies that flourished throughout his career. Above all else, teamwork was the most important aspect of winning basketball in Dean Smith’s eyes. When a player checked out of the game for UNC, every player on the bench stood up and clapped for the player coming out of the game. Additionally, every Carolina player who scored a basket would have to point to the player that assisted the basket. These chemistry bonding exercises became staples of the UNC culture for decades and spread across the country as the program became more popular. 

Unlike lots of other coaches, Smith’s winning culture and tactics were well established before he actually won a championship. He did lead UNC to six Final Fours before finally cutting down the nets. In that fateful season in 1982, Smith would coach two players who would go on to win a combined 13 NBA titles. Freshman Michael Jordan and Junior James Worthy both led the charge along with Sam Perkins. 

Before the tournament, they had lost a total of two games and secured a one seed in the tournament.  In the championship game, it was UNC vs Georgetown and Patrick Ewing. It would not be the first time MJ got the best of Ewing in a meaningful game on the hardwood. Down the stretch of the game, Carolina needed a basket to take the lead. Jordan hit a catch and shoot jumper that was nothing but net and James Worthy stole a bad pass by the Hoyas to seal the game. 

This also wouldn’t be the first time Smith’s Tar Heels encountered a head scratching move from the opponent down the stretch. One of the most famous plays in college basketball history took place in the 1993 championship game vs the Fab Five of Michigan. North Carolina was famously on the right side of the Chris Webber timeout debacle that secured them their third title in school history.  

Not too long after his second title, Smith retired in 1997 after 879 wins at UNC which is still good for fifth on the all-time list. While two championships may not seem as earth-shattering as Wooden or Rupp or even K, in context it’s still an incredible feat. Smith’s legacy goes so much farther than just championships. He has some of the greatest influence on the sport the game has ever seen. 

From a strictly basketball perspective, Smith commonly called timeouts after made baskets so he could set the defense. He also focused on late-game situations and put a lot of pressure on his players so they would be ready for the fire when it came to a real game.  Because of this, it should be no surprise that Carolina came out on top in two of the tightest championship games in college hoops history. His “4 corners” offense which spaced the floor for his team and opened up the lane for drives broke opposing teams down. UNC was always unstoppable in transition because they were so well-conditioned. 

One last testament to Dean Smith’s greatness would be the fact that he sent over 50 players to the NBA. Pretty good in its own right, but with context, it is even more impressive. Remember that when he took the job, the program was just coming off a recruiting scandal. He turned a team with recruiting issues into a hotbed for players to get to the next level. The legacy of Dean Smith is the most significant chapter in the UNC basketball program and they would have a hard time replacing him but eventually, Roy Williams’ time came in Chapel Hill.  

After Smith’s retirement from coaching UNC, they went through coaches who delivered mixed results. Bill Guthridge was hired the very next season and stayed for a total of three years. He brought Carolina to two Final Fours in three years but retired due to age after his third season. A quick turnaround was made in the form of Matt Doherty. He also stayed for three years but delivered poor results. UNC ended up 8-20 one year which is still to date their worst seasonal performance of all time. He was fired right after the conclusion of their third-round loss in the NIT in 2002. 

UNC needed stability and someone with experience. Roy Williams had that experience, both as a head coach for Kansas and a former Dean Smith assistant for 11 years. It didn’t take long for Roy Williams to find success at UNC as the Tar Heels won their 4th championship in Williams’ third season. 

Williams’ history at Carolina is one of being able to rebound from tough circumstances. In two out of three of his championship wins at Carolina, the previous season his team reached the Final Four or championship game but fell short. First, in 2008 the Tar Heels finished in the top four with fellow blue blood programs Kansas and UCLA. UNC lost to the eventual champion Kansas who beat Memphis in a March Madness overtime classic. 

The very next season UNC was able to climb back to the Final Four where this time they finished the job. The 2009 team featured six future NBA players including Danny Green and Wayne Ellington. In the second time around, UNC fell to Villanova on the famous Jenkins championship buzzer-beater. What is lost about that game is the off-balance shot Marcus Paige took and made to tie the game. It is one of the most lost shots in basketball history as it captured the basketball world for a very short period of time. 

Following that heartbreak and the loss of Paige and Bryce Johnson, UNC retained Joel Berry and Kennedy Meeks and had a dramatic run through the tournament. That year, Carolina was on the right side of the buzzer as freshman Luke Maye hit a jump shot with 0.3 seconds left on the clock to push UNC over Kentucky and to the Final Four. They ended up beating Oregon and Gonzaga to win the championship in 2017 and avenge the previous year’s loss. 

Even though Roy Williams holds one more championship than Dean Smith, he can’t unseat Smith as the historic face of UNC basketball. Despite the extra title, Williams has had numerous disappointing seasons and has been criticized for not living up to recruiting standards. I would argue that due to their lack of recruiting prowess, the three titles are even more impressive especially since one of them came in the one and done era. 

Not only has Williams won a lot at UNC but he has also carried on the tradition of the “Carolina Way” started by Dean Smith. The Carolina Way was Smith’s way of preaching to his players to play hard, play smart, and do it together. In a way, it has become the motto of the program and Williams has carried on Smith’s legacy by continuing to use the phrase to this day. It’s a shining example of influence from a coach being passed down and honoring the legacy of the greats that came before you. 

To recap, UNC is a clear cut blue blood program because of their exceptional sustained success in many eras, one of the greatest coaches of all time who had a tremendous influence on the sport, and the grand amount of talented players and storied moments that have shaped the fabric of college basketball history.          

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