(First of a Series)
by Rick Brewer
As the golden anniversary of Carolina’s 1967 season winds down, it is shaping up much like the one 50 years ago.
Carolina will head into next week’s ACC Tournament as the top seed once again. That’s what happened in 1967 as the Tar Heels began a three-year run of unequalled dominance.
And, dominance is the only way to describe what has happened here on the basketball court in the last five decades.
There have been 46 seasons of at least 20 wins in this 50-year period. The Tar Heels have appeared in 43 NCAA Tournaments, more than anyone else. That total would be 47 except the NCAA only took one school from each league until the mid-1970s, leaving the 1970, 1971, 1973 and 1974 teams in the NIT.
Carolina has made an unmatched 17 trips to the Final Four in this stretch. That’s over a third of the Final Fours played in the last 50 years.
The Tar Heels have finished in the top five of one of the national polls 22 times in this period.
Carolina has finished lower than third in the ACC standings only five times since 1967. In 18 straight years from 1967 to 1985 the Tar Heels were first or second every season. Then came a third-place finish in 1986 in which Carolina still won 28 games and reached the Sweet 16.
Starting with that three-season stretch in 1967, the Tar Heels have won 25 of 50 ACC regular-season titles and 17 ACC Tournament championships.
It’s been a remarkable record of consistency. This success began with those great teams from 1967, 1968 and 1969.
Of course, the school had been a national basketball power throughout the sport’s history here. Carolina had some of the nation’s best teams throughout the 1920s, 1930s and mid-1940s.
After a short downturn, Frank McGuire took the coaching job. Starting in 1956, the Tar Heels finished first in the ACC five of six years. There was the undefeated national championship team of 1957.
When McGuire left for the NBA, Dean Smith was given the task of rebuilding the program. It took a while to get the pieces in place, but his work culminated in the 1967 season.
This is the 50th anniversary of a three-year stretch that saw the Tar Heels win three straight ACC regular-season and ACC Tournament championships. That is still the only time that has occurred in league history. Carolina became the first ACC team to reach three consecutive Final Fours. But, the road to the NCAA Tournament was much more difficult then.
Following the tradition of the old Southern Conference from which it was formed for the 1953-54 school year, the ACC had elected to decide its champion in a post-season tournament. A school could go unbeaten in regular-season play, but if it didn't win the tournament it meant nothing. The champion was the team that could survive the annual league shootout in March.
It wasn't the fairest way to determine a true champion. It is, however, part of this conference's mystique and tradition. Even today it is the tournament winner who is recognized as the league champion.
Now it's not devastating for the regular-season winner who might get upset in the ACC Tournament. That team is sure to still get an NCAA invitation. But, until 1975 only the champion from each conference was allowed in the national championship field.
So those 1967-68-69 Carolina teams played under the greatest pressure a team could know. They had proven themselves the best team in the league each season, but still had to win three games each March just to earn the title "champion."
The players on those teams have become legendary. There were the superstars-- Bob Lewis, Larry Miller and Charlie Scott; the sophomore class of 1967 which was the nucleus of all three teams-- Bill Bunting, Rusty Clark, Dick Grubar, Joe Brown and Gerald Tuttle; and others who were parts of one or two of the teams like Tom Gauntlett, Eddie Fogler, Jim Delany and Lee Dedmon.
Lewis was a senior on the 1967 team. He had been Smith's most highly-regarded recruit to that time after setting prep scoring records in Washington, D.C.
Although only 6-3, he was a tremendous leaper. Because of Carolina's lack of size, he was forced to play in the frontcourt during his first two varsity seasons.
Lewis led the ACC in scoring as a junior with a 27.4 average. His scoring dropped to 18.4 as a senior, but with better talent around him his role changed. He moved to his more natural guard position and became a playmaker as well as a scorer. He won All-ACC honors in each of those final two years.
Miller had been an even more heralded prospect than Lewis. In a time before recruiting news became a daily staple of newspaper reporting, Miller's decision to attend Carolina was stripped across all eight columns of the Durham Morning Herald in a banner headline.
He came from Catasauqua, Pa. and was a 6-4, 210-pound forward who some regarded as the best high school player in America. He averaged 20.9 points and 10.3 rebounds as a sophomore.
Miller was unique as a player. Although he was rarely as tall as frontcourt opponents, he averaged 9.2 rebounds over his three varsity seasons. He was an incredible competitor who probably scored on more off-balance shots than anyone this league has ever seen. He seemingly "willed" shots home. A lefthander, he was at his best driving to the basket with a player or two hanging on him. He averaged 21.8 points over his three varsity seasons.
With Miller shooting 54.2 percent from the floor as a sophomore and Lewis hitting 52.9 percent of his shots, Carolina led the nation in field goal percentage with a mark of 51.7.
Despite all the heroics of those two stars, that 1965-66 team's final record was 16-11. Help, however, was on the way.
TO COME: Putting The Pieces Together