What Phil Ford Meant to UNC
On the day where Tyler Hansbrough seems destined to break Phil Ford's all-time scoring record at UNC, a fellow Tar Heel fan has asked me to write a bit about why Phil Ford might be the most important Tar Heel of all time.
For all of you UNC fans who only remember the post-1982 Tar Heels, it is difficult to understand the general plight of UNC basketball back in 1975. Yes, the Tar Heels still had an excellent program, having won at least 20 games in 1971, 1972, 1973, and 1974 and winning the NIT in 1971 and finishing 3rd in the nation in 1972.
But Carolina had lost the recruiting battles for Tom McMillen, Tom Burleson and David Thompson, and didn't even recruit Durham's John Lucas, and the Tar Heels seemed to have fallen back a step and were actually getting a run for their money by NC State for most popular team in the state of North Carolina.
Even though the Tar Heels played up-tempo basketball, they were still known for their rigorous system and sets, and yes, the Four Corners, at a time when NC State and Maryland seemed to have teams that played a more joyful, expressive and exciting form of basketball. Although Carolina had had excellent players such as Bobby Jones and Bob McAdoo(for one season), they didn't seem to have the kinds of athletes that State and Maryland had in David Thompson, Kenny Carr, John Lucas, Brad Davis and Len Elmore.
The 1974 season ended in a disheartening fashion for UNC, as they were trounced by 20 points versus Maryland in the ACC semi-finals, in a game they were never in. It was one of the worse losses ever for Carolina and they simply were outclassed by the Terps.
State and Maryland went on to put on a basketball clinic in the ACC finals in a 103-100 thriller that Maryland probably should have won, probably deserved to win, but in the end, it was NC State's year. State would then go on to defeat perennial champion UCLA in double-overtime in the NCAA semi-finals, in a game that UCLA probably should have won and probably deserved to win. Two nights later, after rolling over Marquette, NC State and Norm Sloan were on top of the world.
It was possibly the greatest year in ACC history, with the number one team overall, two of the top five and three of the top ten teams hailing from the Atlantic Coast Conference. But UNC had lost five out of six against Maryland and NC State, and was definitely an afterthought during the 1974 season.
Lefty had said he would bring a powerhouse to Maryland and he had done it, almost overnight, it seemed, and NC State was now national champion with all of their team except Burleson coming back and with the excellent Kenny Carr due as a freshman. Carolina looked like the odd man out, about to join Duke as a has-been who used to rule the ACC.
Now, I don't have any television ratings to show you, but during this period, the Norm Sloan television show was a widely seen show and I seem to remember it even being on during prime time. For the first time since Vic Bubas retired, Dean Smith had an in-state rival.
As we moved ahead to 1975, things seemed to be only worse for Carolina. Yes, the Heels had added the dynamic Walter Davis in 1974 and now Phil Ford in 1975, but NC State had added Kenny Carr to take Tom Burleson's spot.
Maryland lost Elmore and McMillen but still had John Lucas and had added Brad Davis and were playing a three guard offensive set with great results. Even Clemson, with Tree Rollins, Stan Rome and Skip Wise appeared to be better than Carolina.
Pre-season magazines saw the Heels as being significantly behind the Wolfpack and Terrapins and falling further.
The season did not start off particularly well, with the Heels going 5-3 to begin the year, although the initial schedule was killer. They lost to future NCAA title runner-up, Kentucky, 90-78, and then lost to Duke and NC State in the Big Four tournament.(Big Four teams regularly played four times a year during this era!). After squeaking by Wake Forest and Clemson at home, Carolina lost a heart-breaker to NC State in overtime, 88-85.
Not the end of the world, you say? This marked the ninth time in a row that Norm Sloan and the Wolfback had beaten Smith and UNC. Nine times! This included Big Four, ACC tourney and regular season games. No one ever had or ever would have such a run against Smith.
This is where Phil Ford comes in.
And perhaps, it really is not fair to frame things like that. Walter Davis may have been every bit the player Ford was and perhaps even his better. Davis was Carolina's first freshman starter. Nor is there much doubt about who the better professional player was, even comparing Ford's best pro years to Davis's. Mitch Kupchak was a future Olympian, All American and NBA champion.
Nevertheless, UNC began to turn things around subtly, after the second NC State defeat that year, and Ford began attracting attention, and to many, including Dean Smith, I believe, Phil Ford would go on to be associated with the change of the Carolina program from being an excellent basketball school, to being perhaps the best. And 1975, Ford's freshman year was the pivotal year.
I will return to this point, but basically no one thought Carolina was anything but a NIT team that season, even allowing for the new rule change which was to allow two ACC teams to go to the NCAA tourney. As the season progressed, Carolina would go on to lose at Clemson, as expected, and dishearteningly, at Virginia, but the Heels did manage to upset Maryland in College Park and then finally, after 9 fruitless attempts, most of them very close games, the Heels beat the Wolfpack in Carmichael Auditorium, and then closed out with a win at Duke, to finish 8-4 in the ACC.
There ended up being a three-way tie for second in the conference, behind Maryland's 10-2, with State, Carolina and Clemson tied, although UNC was clearly seen as the lesser among these equals. Carolina won the coin toss and got second seed, which was big because it meant they only had to play either State or Maryland and not both to win the title.
I won't go into long detail about what was probably the greatest ACC tournament of all time. You can go to SI.com and type in "Phil Ford Kicks Up His Heels" to see the cover and read the orignal SI story but Carolina's wins, particularly against Wake Forest in the first round, were the rare ones that actually might have merited the overused adjective "unbelievable." I think this was Carolina's first basketball cover.
When Carolina beat NC State, Norm Sloan and David Thompson in the ACC Finals, it was a bit like when Muhammad Ali beat George Foreman just before that season started.
You knew that the Heels, like Ali, were still good. You knew it was possible, but you just didn't really see it happening unless you were an Ali or Carolina fan who thought with your heart instead of your head. Back then, it was NC State who seemed to always win those kinds of cardiac games and they had, just the night before, taken out top-seeded Maryland on a scintillating Kenny Carr dunk and appeared ready for the NCAA tourney to defend their title.
Walter Davis might have been the most valuable performer that night for the Heels, but nobody had the verve and effervescence that Phil Ford had. He loved to play basketball and you couldn't take your eyes off him.
I don't think the Heels really had a team that could compete for the title that year. UCLA was still great and would win it one last time for John Wooden. Kentucky, which had already trounced Carolina would finish second and was in UNC's regional, although Carolina got upset by Syracuse in the second round and the rematch never took place.
But the importance of this year can never be underestimated by UNC fans. Never again would Sloan or Driesell be considered on par with Dean Smith as a coach. Never again would NC State have a team as powerful or as popular as their 1973-75 squad. Norm Sloan's television show mostly disappeared and he left to coach at Florida three years later, never taking NC State to the NCAA tournament again.
Under his successor, Jim Valvano, State would eek out another title, to their credit, in 1983, but from this point on, their trajectory and Duke's trajectory crossed as basketball programs and by 1984, when Wake Forest went to the Elite Eight, NC State was well on its way to having the fourth best ACC basketball program in the state of North Carolina.
And Phil Ford got a lion's share of the credit for Carolina's revival, both because he was great and because he had style and charisma--Walter Davis seemed somehow boring compared to Phil--and also, perhaps, because he arrived the year of the turnaround and thus is associated with it in people's minds.
I have heard that Dean Smith believes that getting Ford was the difference in putting the program back on top in the state of North Carolina. While Ford was not as great a college player as either David Thompson before him or Michael Jordan after him, he certainly was the most acclaimed UNC player since Charlie Scott.
An Attempt at Both Objective and Subjective Analysis of Phil Ford as a Tar Heel
Ford was definitely my favorite player of that era and I think most of us who played guard pretended to be him in the backyard. As we look back historically and reassess, it is hard to know how to rate him compared to the Rosenbluth's and Jordan's and Daugherty's and Hansbrough's of the program. Looking back, he seemed fully as good or better to me than any post-1973 UNC player, with the exception of Jordan.
Yet, he definitely had rivals who were arguably just as good. Maryland had John Lucas and Clemson had Skip Wise, although only for one year. Wake Forest had Skip Brown and Marquette had Butch Lee, while Michigan had Ricky Davis and Indiana had Quinn Buckner. Phil Ford was not hands down better than any of these guys, in the way that Michael Jordan was simply hands down better than anyone he played against after his sophomore year.
Statistically, Phil Ford was barely--perhaps like Hansbrough in this respect--the best player on his team, which was saying something given that Walter Davis, Mitch Kupchak and Tom Lagarde all played on the 1976 Olympic team.
I would say that Phil Ford and Tyler Hansbrough shared another important attribute:
Basically, Phil Ford was Phil Ford from day one that he stepped on the court at Carolina in a way that no other four year player except Tyler Hansbrough has ever equaled. Did they both improve? Yes, but subtly.
Michael Jordan as a junior was worlds above Michael Jordan as a freshman. Phil Ford and Tyler Hansbrough were basically the best players on their team from year one and maintained this for four years in spite of the presence of your Walter Davis's, Mitch Kupchak's, Ty Lawson's and Brendan Wright's.
I think that another way that Phil Ford and Hansbrough are alike is something that they share with Michael Jordan. All three were the most recognized face in college basketball during their final year with Carolina. Ford had won the Olympic gold with Smith in 1976 and then dazzled in the Final Four in 1977, and by his senior year, he was the most recognized collegian in the sport, just as David Thompson was at State and Bill Walton before him at UCLA. Some seasons you really don't have that one guy that everyone remembers, but certainly, Ford, Jordan and Hansbrough were it.
Like David Thompson, it is hard for us to remember Phil Ford's true greatness as a collegian without some regret that his talent did not come to full fruition in the pro's. Phil started great, winning the rookie of the year with Kansas City and averaging 17 points and 8 assists during his first three seasons in the NBA, but then had a variety of problems that prevented him from ever performing at this level again.
But even looking at his college years, it is possible to perhaps overlook him in a program like UNC's because he never won the national title.
Carolina came close, losing a nail-biter to Marquette where the Heels had a chance to tie in the last two minutes, but unfortunately, Ford's senior season in 1978 was concluded by a flame-out in the ACC tournament semi-finals to Wake. This was followed by a loss in the NCAA first round that was the start of a NCAA tourney mini-slump (by UNC standards only) of three straight first round exits that would last until 1981.
Even more painful for me as an eleven year old boy, was the conclusion to the 1976 season. The 1976 team seemed to be a great, great team. Carolina went 11-1 in the ACC, losing only to Wake Forest in the Big Four tournament (Carolina rarely did well in the Big Four and certainly shed no tears upon its demise) and a last second loss to NC State at home, 68-67.
Entering the ACC tourney, UNC was 24-2 and after whipping Clemson in the semi's, 25-2 UNC took on last place University of Virginia, which had somehow made it into the finals.
Carolina now seemed a lock for the top seed in the Eastern Region. Indiana was undefeated and number one, but Marquette and UNC were right on the Hoosiers' Heels and this seemed like it could be Carolina's year, especially with the Eastern Regional wide open and much easier than Indiana and Marquette's Mideast Region.
Instead, disaster struck. The ACC officials allowed a very rough level of play in the final, and UVa played the perfect game down the stretch and essentially destroyed Carolina's season. Due to the loss, instead of getting the ultra-easy East Region, Carolina was sent to the same region with Indiana, Marquette and Alabama, arguably the top three teams in the country. Then, Ford somehow got hurt between the UVa loss and the Alabama game in the first round of the NCAA tourney, and Carolina ended up getting annihilated by the Crimson Tide.
My father had gotten us tickets to see Carolina in the NCAA's in the first round in Charlotte. Instead, we got to see UVa return to their last-place selves and go out meekly in the first round against a ho-hum opponent. VMI ended up in the East Region Finals that year, which shows just how easy the region might have been if Carolina had only gotten by UVa.
In the course of a week, Dean Smith's best season to date had gone from outstanding success to disaster, making the 25-4 team's achievements bittersweet to me. Even aside from the end of year fiascoes, perhaps Carolina fans should have been wary.
Statistical analysis was not in vogue then, but a look at the schedule shows that Carolina won three overtime games, with one of them, against Tulane, taking four overtimes to win. Also, both of our wins against Virginia had been very, very close, which we probably just saw as UVa getting lucky to be so close. UNC had also lost to a mediocre Wake team and barely beaten Miami of Ohio, Georgia Tech, (when they were not even in the ACC and definitely not known for basketball) and South Florida.
In retrospect, Carolina was probably not in Marquette or Indiana's class that year, although it would have been interesting to play either of them with a healthy Phil Ford. Alabama, who came closest of anyone to beating Indiana in the tournament, probably had their best team ever that season with Leon Douglas at center. Had UNC beaten UVa, however, the road would have been so much easier with Marquette, Indiana, Alabama and UCLA all bracketed away from Carolina until the finals.
1976 might have been the most disappointing season ever for a Dean Smith team, in the way it ended. The 1984 team lost to really good Duke and Indiana teams in close games. The 1971 team rebounded from a loss to USC in the ACC Finals to win the NIT when that was still a big deal and got to beat Duke in the process, in the NIT semi-finals in New York. The 1976 team lost to a mediocre UVa team and then got run out of the arena by Alabama.
Ford and Coach Smith were, together with Walter Davis, Mitch Kupchak and Tom Lagarde, able to redeem themselves, if not the Tar Heels, by winning perhaps the most important Olympic games ever in 1976, with Ford and Indiana's Quinn Buckner forming a talented backcourt that only Puerto Rico, with Butch Lee, could contend with.
Phil Ford's final year, in 1978 was kind of an afterthought when compared to his first three with all their up's and down's. Although Ford had another great year with memorable performances, the 1978 Tar Heels were neither particularly good, going 23-8 and losing to William and Mary, Furman and Providence, nor particularly memorable. 1978 belongs to Duke in most people's memories even though Carolina won a scintillating game over the Blue Devils in Ford's last game. Although Ford's statistics were good his senior year, they were probably not any better than they had been overall his two prior seasons.
Aside from his general excellence, Phil Ford will always be remembered as the master of the 4 Corners Offense.
I tend to be an agnostic on the effectiveness of the 4 Corners offense, without seeing any statistics showing its effectiveness versus Carolina’s generally excellent offense in their normal sets.