Here comes Tar Heel basketball! Tonight the Tar Heels hit the court in a pre-season exhibition game against Barton College. To get you warmed up, we’re sharing a conversation we had with Adam Lucas, publisher of Tar Heel Monthly and Tar Heels Today and a columnist on TarHeelBlue.com. He is author of six books on Carolina Basketball, the most recent of which is Carolina Basketball: A Century of Excellence. In the definitive centennial history of the University of North Carolina men’s basketball team, Lucas chronicles the coaches, players, venues, rivalries, challenges, and triumphs that have defined the program through its first 100 years. In this interview, he reflects on the past, present, and future of one of the most storied programs in the history of the game.
Q: What was your own introduction to the Tar Heels? And how long have you been covering the men’s basketball program at Carolina?
A: I grew up in Cary in a family of Tar Heels and started going to basketball games when I was six years old. I went to both of the “last” games at Carmichael and have been to every game at the Smith Center. In other words, I didn’t have much choice. My parents were/are huge fans who were nice enough to always write me an excuse note on the Friday of the ACC Tournament so we could take our annual family trip to Greensboro, Charlotte, Atlanta, Landover, or wherever the Tournament might be held.
I’ve been covering the team since 2001 for TarHeelBlue.com and Tar Heel Monthly. Prior to that, I covered the Tar Heels for a variety of other outlets dating back to approximately 1996.
Q: Describe the concept of “family” in the Carolina basketball program. How does it compare to programs at other universities?
A: It doesn’t compare because it’s simply not the same. That might be the biggest thing I learned while researching the book. As Carolina people, we’ve heard so much about the Carolina family that it’s natural to think that it must be the same everywhere else. It’s a fundamental part of this program, so it must be the same at other programs. According to the players who have gone on to the NBA or to work elsewhere in basketball, it’s simply not the same. It doesn’t exist at other schools, and the players from other schools are envious that it exists in Chapel Hill. There’s one person who must be credited for that idea of family: Dean Smith. He’s the one who made it a priority to stay in touch with all his lettermen. He’s the one who decided to care about them as people rather than as basketball players.
Q: What, in your opinion, was the biggest moment in Carolina basketball history?
A: It would have to be the 1957 national title. That’s the event that turned Carolina basketball from a sport into a lifestyle. The undefeated record and the personalities involved with that team captured the state. The interest level within North Carolina prompted unprecedented television coverage at a time when most of the college sports focus was on football. And in a very important sidelight, a young assistant coach named Dean Smith was introduced to Frank McGuire at the Final Four in Kansas City. If Carolina hadn’t made it to the Final Four, those two might never have met. And if they hadn’t met, McGuire’s successor at Carolina could have been someone very different, and the last 50 years would look very different.
A: It all started with 1957. Even then, though, Carolina was still largely a “football school.” But this team of New Yorkers, coached by a New Yorker, had such great success that it was impossible to ignore. It’s pretty simple: people love a winner. And the ’57 team wasn’t just a winner. They were a team that went undefeated, with multiple last-second finishes. Then they capped their season by winning back-to-back triple-overtime games, the last of which was against the most hyped player in the game of basketball to that point, Wilt Chamberlain. It sounds like something out of a Disney movie.
Q: How has the general attitude toward basketball changed on campus in the past 100 years? Has there always been such a strong support for the team?
A: One major advantage Carolina had is the proximity of very successful rivals. Sure, it’s a major headache to have Duke eight miles down the road and State 30 minutes away, but when the sport was still growing, it was a major benefit to have two of he program’s biggest rivals–plus Wake Forest–in such close proximity. There was a long period of time when NC State was actually the standard-setter for college basketball in this area. Frank McGuire and Dean Smith deserve the credit for reversing that. And they’re also the ones who made the program into a winner, and people love a winner. It soon became obvious that Smith seemed to understand that running a successful program at Carolina was about more than just victories. Students and alums seemed to identify with the fact that he was trying to make his program something that endured for a long period rather than just starting over every year with a brand new team. He wanted his 1962 team to have a connection to his 1996 team, and that connected the fans in the same way it connected the players. The fact that my dad could point out plays run by Vince Carter that he remembered watching Larry Miller run meant we always had something to talk about as fans.
Q: Who are the “greats” of Carolina basketball’s history and how have they contributed to the tradition?
A: The primary “great” is Dean Smith. He laid the foundation for everything else and enabled everyone else to be a part of the program. He wouldn’t like hearing this, because he made a constant effort to ensure that the program was about the players, but without him we wouldn’t be having this conversation and many of the players we think of as icons wouldn’t have been Tar Heels. My opinion is that if you ask Carolina fans to name their favorite player, the ones they consider the truest Tar Heels, the majority will mention one of two names: Phil Ford or Tyler Hansbrough. Ford played point guard, the position Carolina fans seem to identify with the most and the position most integral to Carolina’s success. He was a Rocky Mount native, so he understood how important basketball was/is on Tobacco Road. And he just seemed to have that desire to win that came through on the court. Hansbrough is this generation’s Ford. In an era when the very best players might only stay one or two years, he stayed all four. We got to watch him grow up. He very easily could have left after his junior season, because he had achieved almost everything a college player could achieve. But he wanted to win a national title, and to do it the way he did it–with the most dominating team run in Carolina NCAA history–cemented his place at the very top of the UNC pantheon.
Of course, that doesn’t include Michael Jordan, the best basketball player in the history of the game. He was a great, great college player and he hit maybe the most famous shot in Tar Heel basketball history with his game-winning jumper in the 1982 NCAA title game. But at least some of his legend came from his success in the NBA. No matter what Ford and Hansbrough did or do beyond Chapel Hill, they’re always going to be Carolina legends.
Q: How does the current Carolina basketball team compare to teams of the past hundred years?
A: As long as Roy Williams is in charge, there will be some similarities. His style might be slightly more up-tempo than Dean Smith preferred, and his defenses are a little less multiple than Coach Smith (Williams strongly prefers man-to-man, Smith would mix in a zone more frequently). But in the way the program is run and the way it integrates itself with the Chapel Hill/UNC community, it’s almost identical. I think it short-changes Williams to say he’s a Smith clone. Lots of coaches have worked for Dean Smith and not gone on to win more than 600 games. If it was as simple as copying Smith, everyone would be doing it. But there’s no question that Williams did a terrific job of taking the Smith foundation and making a few tweaks that have made it wildly successful for him.
Q: How does the most recent Tar Heel victory at the NCAA tournament in 2009 rate against the past championships?
A: It was the most dominating NCAA Tournament performance ever by a Carolina team. All the other UNC national champions had at least one very close call. The 1957 team needed back-to-back triple-overtime wins. The 1982 team almost lost its very first NCAA game to James Madison. The 1993 team needed overtime to beat Cincinnati. The 2005 team got a scare from Villanova and a very tight title game against Illinois in a virtual home game for the Illini. But the closest anyone came to the 2009 team in the NCAA Tournament was a 12-point win over Oklahoma. That’s remarkable. In a tournament that values upsets and includes only the best 64 teams, no one came within double-digits of Carolina. That includes Michigan State, which was basically playing on its home floor. It was similar to the environment Carolina would’ve had if the Tar Heels could play the national title game in Greensboro.
That 2009 team was probably the best offensive team Carolina has ever had. There were so many offensive options. In almost all cases, all five players on the floor were a legitimate offensive threat, and it just proved to be too hard for opponents to guard.
Q: Considering how Carolina has dealt with losing seasons in the past, how do you predict this coming season’s team will handle the past season’s disappointments?
A: It’s hard to say, because Roy Williams has never had a season like the one he just had. It’s simply never happened before. And then you factor in the roster turnover from last year–Ed Davis gone to the pros, a pair of seniors who graduated, a pair of transfers, and a senior who was recently dismissed from the team–and it’s more a brand-new roster than it is an evolution of last year. It’s often said that the biggest jump for a college basketball player happens between their freshman and sophomore seasons. That needs to be the case for Carolina, because John Henson, Dexter Strickland, and Leslie McDonald are talented players who need to have a more mature season.
Carolina fans are conditioned to value the teams with veteran leadership. Other than Tyler Zeller, this team isn’t going to have that. So it opens the window for the freshman class of Harrison Barnes, Kendall Marshall, and Reggie Bullock to dictate some of the team’s personality. Considering the way Williams has praised Barnes in the preseason, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he could be one of those rare freshman go-to guys. One uncertainty, though, is the major collective lack of important minutes played in big games by this team. Because of last season’s lack of success, no one on this team has played an ACC Tournament championship-type game or a big late-season ACC road game or an NCAA Tournament elimination game. Those games feel different, and this team will be experiencing that for the first time.
Q: How would you characterize the current Carolina/Duke rivalry?
A: Honestly, I almost feel like it’s hurting the rest of Carolina’s rivalries. Does anyone remember that Carolina used to play pretty big games against Virginia, NC State and Maryland? There’s an entire generation of fans that has grown up valuing the Duke game over everything else. That’s great for those two or three times a year that Carolina and Duke meet. Those games are national stories in a terrific environment. But there’s so much more to being Carolina than just beating Duke.
Q: How has Carolina basketball influenced basketball across the country?
A: Again, you have to go back to Dean Smith. There have been entire books written about his impact on the game. He perfected so many basketball innovations–the huddle at the foul line, the tired signal, the Four Corners, the importance of Senior Day. . . . It goes on and on. You can still see it when Carolina goes on the road–when the Tar Heels travel to face an opponent, it’s a big deal to be playing against North Carolina. You can also see it when new opponents come into the Smith Center. You’ll catch them looking up at the banners during pregame stretching. Carolina basketball is a big deal. It’s one of only a handful of programs that makes the average viewer stop when they’re flipping through the TV channels.
I think you also have to mention the way that Carolina influenced basketball off the court. Bringing Charles Scott into the ACC was a big deal. The emphasis that Smith put on equality and on the academics of his players was a big deal. It’s one thing to win a lot of games. A lot of coaches have achieved that. It’s quite another thing to win a lot of games with the standards Smith set for everything that happened outside of the basketball arena.
Q: What do you predict for the next one hundred years of Carolina basketball?
A: The biggest difference at the start of this century of basketball as compared to the start of the first century is the incredible amount of money involved. Carolina is one of the very few schools in the country that can place an equal value on basketball as it does on football. Usually, the money follows football. That’s not the case in Chapel Hill, and that’s both a great asset and a tremendous amount of pressure. One of the most interesting things I want to watch over the next five or ten years is how the Tar Heels continue to evolve the game day basketball experience. The Smith Center is a very big arena in this era when fans can watch games comfortably at home in high definition and (soon) in 3D. It’s going to be a real challenge to bring 22,000 people to Chapel Hill 15 times a year. Coach Smith was in a different era and didn’t have to pay much attention to marketing–just roll the balls out, produce a winning team, and watch the fans come. It’s not that way anymore.
That naturally brings up the facilities question. Carolina has already played in the Smith Center longer than the program played in Carmichael. Would the program be better suited in a smaller arena with more luxury boxes and even better student seating? That’s a question that will have to be answered in the next decade. In that same time frame, the Tar Heels will have to find a replacement for Roy Williams. I don’t think there’s that no-brainer choice out there for that pick. When Coach Smith reached retirement age, everyone knew Williams would make a great successor. There’s no similar pick out there for Williams out there right now. Tar Heel fans need to keep a close eye on the national landscape over the next five years and see if that person develops. And, if it doesn’t develop within the Carolina family, does that mean it’s time to go outside the family? And if so, can that person understand the importance of the Carolina family that has formed the backbone of the program for the last 50 years?