While college basketball fans all over the country have been mourning the cancellation of March Madness, there are plenty of veteran fans who still feel the loss of the madness that once consumed North Carolina during the Dixie Classic.
The Dixie Classic started in 1949 after Everett Case, the head coach for N.C. State, had the idea. The tournament, played each year between Christmas and New Year’s at N.C. State’s Reynolds Coliseum, consisted of three rounds. Participating teams included North Carolina’s “Big Four” schools — UNC, N.C. State, Duke and Wake Forest — along with four visiting teams from across the country.
UNC alumna Bethany Bradsher, who published a book titled "The Classic" in 2011, said that the ACC wasn’t formed until 1953, four years after the first Dixie Classic was held. By that time, basketball was becoming king in North Carolina.
The intense ACC rivalries, especially between the North Carolina schools, can be ascribed to the Dixie Classic: The tournament allowed the Big Four schools to distinguish themselves despite their geographical proximity.
“As his program grew, Carolina was like ‘Wait a minute, we need to keep up,’ so then they hired Frank McGuire from New York, which was a basketball hotbed,” Bradsher said. “Everett Case built this juggernaut, and then his program was the target.”
Case was in charge of extending invitations to the visiting teams from across the country. No school outside the Big Four ever won the Dixie Classic, and aside from Minnesota, no school was invited more than once.
Visiting schools included Brigham Young, Kansas and Michigan State, but perhaps the most memorable visiting team was Cincinnati in 1958, which included junior Oscar Robertson, the first African American to play in the tournament and a future NBA legend. Case had seen Robertson play as a first-year, later deciding he would invite the team to participate.
“(Case) played some long ball, like, 'Let’s look ahead and see who’s going to be good in a couple years,'” said Bradsher.
Case was right: in 1958 the Bearcats were the top team in the country, and Robertson was one of the country's best players. Robertson’s prodigious talent — and his willingness to bring it to a tournament where he couldn’t even sleep in the same hotel as his teammates — were eye-opening to coaches and fans alike.
“I think all the coaches — Dean Smith, Everett Case and others — knew that you needed a great player. And that’s what Oscar Robertson proved: if you get a star in there, people are gonna start to look differently on it,” Bradsher stated.
The visiting teams had already been decided upon for the 1961 Classic, but they never made the trip to Raleigh. That spring, a point-shaving scandal involving players from participating schools came to light, along with the news that gamblers were threatening players who didn't perform to expectations.
Ultimately, the call came down to University of North Carolina System President Bill Friday, who decided the Dixie Classic needed to be canceled in order to protect the athletes and discourage fraudulent practices in the sports world.
The decision was met with some criticism. Bradsher said that even those who respect Friday’s legacy still believe that was his one misstep: He went too far by canceling the Dixie Classic entirely.
There was even a movement in the early 2000s to bring back the tournament. It would be difficult to coordinate, however, and too different from the Dixie Classic of old, Bradsher said.
“It could never be the same,” Bradsher said. “I think you kind of want to keep the Dixie Classic encased in amber as something special.”
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