Archive for May, 2011

The NC Sports Hall of Fame’s 5 Greatest Moments in History

I am a bit late on the scene with this one, but I had been meaning to post for a while on the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame’s five finalists for the greatest sports moment in the history of our state. Recently, the Hall announced that Carolina’s 1957 national title victory over Wilt Chamberlain and Kansas won the voting as the #1 Greatest Moment.

There is little to dispute here – as the most recognizable and widely followed sports institution in the state, this honor, whether bestowed democratically or not, was going to belong to the Heels. The ’57 tournament title is arguably our most significant, and not only for being the first; it was an epic three overtime win over a great team and a great player, and it was the first time that basketball was televised across North Carolina. The following season a collection of regular season games were televised, and Carolina basketball was on its way to becoming one of our state’s most important cultural institutions.

The Hall got it right at the top, important since that moment will define the larger project, which organizers hope will draw more attention to the museum. But the Hall’s list of five finalists peaks early and gets worse. As Scott Fowler points out in his column on the project, the five finalists are without representation by professional sports or Duke.

Both of these omissions are reasonable, and I will even defend Duke’s. Christian Laettner’s game-winning turnaround to defeat Kentucky in 1992 is comfortably in the top five greatest moments in national college basketball history; but at the time the proportion of this state to which it was significant was far too small for it to be a defining moment in our history.

As for the omission of professional sports, I am far from indignant – like most North Carolinians I am first and foremost a college basketball fan, and it is one of the great characteristics of our state that we have had multiple professional sports teams for over a decade yet can put together a top five list excluding them. As I will note shortly, this is not because our pro teams have been terrible. It is because we are one of a small handful of states with access to pro sports teams that have consistently preferred the college brand as a whole.

However… though it may be possible to construct reasonably a list of our five greatest moments with no mention of professional sports, ultimately the results of the list make this difficult to defend. Attribute the flaws of the list to improperly defined terms: when most of us think of “great moments” we are imagining moments that were culturally significant to North Carolina in a lasting manner, memories that will be passed on to later generations of sports fans. If we assume these terms – which the museum folks clearly did not – we can toss immediately from the list Jim Beatty’s mile run and the formation of the ACC. The first is a tremendous accomplishment, but that’s not the measure. The second is the product of someone severely overthinking this project; yes, that is significant, but absolutely no one remembers it because no one was watching and no one was there.

If I was reconstructing the list, I would mostly leave the remaining moments in tact: they chose the right moments from our storied college basketball history, my only suggestion (credit to Fowler on this one) being to sub in State’s 1974 upset of the UCLA dynasty in the tournament for their win over Maryland a couple of weeks earlier. I might also add Carolina’s 1982 title as greatest moment #6, unable to separate it from the other three college basketball moments since this was Dean’s long overdue first title.

That leaves two remaining spots, and the choices are so obvious – both coming in the past decade – that perhaps the museum folks just didn’t mark post-2000 history high enough. One is the 2006 Stanley Cup Championship by the Carolina Hurricanes. It remains the only professional sports title in North Carolina history (a mark not to be broken any time soon), and it mesmerized, for a brief period of time, a state full of people who know nothing about the sport. Native hockey haters can sneer, but my memory reports truthfully: 30 of my friends huddled around a television to watch a Hurricanes playoff game at my high school graduation party, and the Weynand family (at my coaxing) watched the clinching victory together from a hotel room in Washington, D.C. It was significant.

The other is assuredly less controversial: pick a moment from the amazing 2003 season of the Cardiac Cat Carolina Panthers. It could be one of the four regular season overtime victories, especially the October one over the Colts that took us to 5-0 and alerted the city, and the country, of the special season in progress. If you are looking for moments, it would have to be watching Steve Smith streak across the middle of the field and take a simple slant route 60 yards to end abruptly the NFC Divisional game against the Rams with a touchdown. The moment chosen by the Hall as one of the 22 greatest moments, but not advanced to the final five, was the victory over Philadelphia to win the NFC title and clinch a trip to the Super Bowl (this was technically my first time rushing a street in celebration, and the only time it was not Franklin Street, but Symphony Woods Drive in my neighborhood in Charlotte).

Those last three playoff games nearly shut down Charlotte in total focused attention – I was playing a rec basketball game during the first half of the Rams game and receiving updates from a teammate’s dad sitting on the front row. During that few week span, the Panthers pervaded conversation in the same way the Heels do during March Madness, and it also cemented the Panthers as the state’s first and only perenially relevant professional sports team. It was surreal month – a team from North Carolina playing in what is by far the nation’s biggest sporting event? That’s a top five moment.

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The Roy Williams model for building national champions: strategy or luck?

Thanks to a tip from Shannon, I read this post from a UNC recruiting blogger offering his interpretation of Carolina’s ability to keep so many highly talented players in school. It’s a nice theory: Carolina and Duke regularly pass on the guys who would turn pro after one season in favor of high-character players that are committed to staying and winning, capitalizing on their status to be “selective about skill and personality.”

There are elements of this that are absolutely true. Character is a major factor in Roy’s recruitment of players, and even a casual college basketball fan recognizes a fundamental difference between his model and that of John Calipari at Kentucky. It’s also true that keeping players in school as been the most critical component of college basketball success over the last decade, and Carolina’s two titles during that span – and its set up for a third next season – especially demonstrate this trend.

But to suggest intentionality by Roy to become the anti-Calipari, the coach who actively seeks players who will stay three years in order to win a title when they do, is an idealistic and inaccurate picture of Carolina basketball. As much as we want to think otherwise, Roy’s players – though they may not have a singular focus on getting to the NBA as soon as possible – do have it as their end goal, and a quick look at our most recent NBA prospects immediately dismisses this blogger’s theory. It is nonsense to derive theories of this nature from the decisions of thirteen individuals, and that is the most problematic aspect of his argument: the history of Carolina basketball, and his interpretation if it, would have to be radically different if merely two or three of these players had made alternative decisions. And it very nearly happened:

Marvin Williams and Brandan Wright: Two of the top recruits in the country who both turned pro after one season.

Ed Davis: Returned for his sophomore season despite establishing himself as an early pick, but only one more season was enough to convince him he would rather be in the NBA.

Sean May, Rashad McCants, and Raymond Felton: It is difficult to know for certain how close these three were to leaving after 2004, if at all, but it is certainly true that their decision to return was a calculated benefit from a draft stock perspective even had we not won the 2005 title, after which all three became lottery picks.

Tyler Hansbrough: He is one of two players on this list that fits the blogger’s theory, but for that reason it should be cautioned that his extremely exceptional case is exactly that: extremely exceptional, even strictly within the realm of Carolina basketball.

Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington, and Danny Green: The exception of Hansbrough is contrasted with the decisions of his teammates and fellow national champions. The textual critic in me reads the statements of each player following their decision to withdraw from the draft in 2008 and notices that all three reference the negative results of testing their draft stock as their reason for staying. Danny Green stayed and cemented his legacy as one of my favorite Tar Heels ever (I am looking now at his jersey hanging on my wall). But the fact remains that these three returned only because their stock wasn’t where it needed to be to justify the jump, and in doing so drastically changed the course of college basketball history. The ability for a blogger to even speculate on this suggested recruiting strategy of Roy Williams teetered on the difficult decisions of three individuals who declared for the draft and subsequently withdrew; had they chosen the alternative, we are not having this conversation.

Harrison Barnes, John Henson, and Tyler Zeller: In this team there may be a general exception; it certainly appears that the desire to win was a bigger factor for these three than with past groups, but that itself does not reveal a recruiting strategy. Only Barnes does not have the potential for substantial gain by staying, and we will never know what Henson, and in turn Barnes, would have decided had John been a projected top five pick as he was coming out of high school. Thankfully, that is irrelevant, and I will ruminate on this special group in a later post.

Roy recruited Barnes so heavily no doubt because he thought there was a chance he would stay. But he took a risk there nonetheless, just as he did, and lost, with Wright, Davis, and Williams. UNC recruits from among the top players in the country, all of whom want to play in the NBA, and actually to adjust our strategy as this blogger suggests would come at our expense. That the 2005, 2009, and 2012 teams exist as they do reflect a perfect storm of varying motivations, but in most cases a calculated assessment of NBA draft stock that came back negative was a significant factor in a player’s decision to return.

The point here is not that Carolina players do not want to stay in school and win – many others would have turned pro in the same circumstances, so there is no questioning that a desire to win and be a part of a great tradition plays a role in keeping players in school. The point is that it isn’t always the determining factor, certainly not often enough to establish a trend, and that Roy has benefited from, among other factors, a little bit of luck.

Carolina football’s big weekend…

I don’t plan on being in the habit of posting on football, even when the season starts, but it is difficult to ignore this past weekend’s NFL draft, one that Carolina knew a year and a half ago would be historic for the program. It took a roundabout way of arriving, and it looked much different than originally anticipated, but we did have our weekend in the sun leading the nation with nine draftees to set a school record and get pundits talking again about just how talented our 2010 team was.

The immediately obvious answer to how a team with nine players drafted never won more than 8 games is that three of the first four did not play a down this season, but it isn’t the best. For one, three straight bowl appearances with eight wins is a major accomplishment for this program that matches our historic concentration of NFL prospects. Secondly, the balance of our nine picks (five on defense, four on offense) does not accurately reflect the dynamic of our team. The past three seasons will always be marked by a nationally elite defense coupled unfortunately with a mediocre offense. If the scandal that sidelined most of our star defensive players had never happened, it is possible that we would have been top ten in the country or higher, but it is also possible that our offense provided a ceiling for this team that couldn’t be eclipsed.

The decision by the Houston Texans to draft T.J. Yates in the fifth round today glosses over the wide gap between our defense and our offense in a way that borders on insanity. T.J. Yates is not a fifth round quarterback. He isn’t even worth a look as an undrafted free agent. But he is tall with a strong arm and gained attention as Carolina entered the top 25 during his career thanks largely to our defense. To anticipate objections to the harshness: I’m not hating on T.J. – he did some great things at Carolina – but a mediocre to good QB in the ACC doesn’t get to play in the NFL. The other bizarre pick from our offense was the selection of Ryan Taylor by the Packers. Taylor was so far off the draft board Mel Kiper hadn’t ranked him among available TE’s or bothered to give him a grade, and the Packers chose him above undrafted but injury prone Zach Pianalto.

What this weekend’s draft might have looked like if a) these two exceptionally strange picks did not occur and b) our defense stars were never sidelined by scandal and maintained their draft stock of spring 2010:

From the defense alone, Quinn is a top three pick, Austin goes in the first round, and in addition to Carter, Sturdivant, and Searcy, NFL teams also select Kendric Burney, Deunta Williams, and Charles Brown. All but Searcy were at one time ranked in Todd McShay’s Top 40.

That would have left our count at a more appropriate balance of 8 for the defense and two for the offense, three if Pianalto is selected as he should have been. This demonstrates two points about our season and the draft: that this NFL draft could have been even bigger for the Heels and remains a missed opportunity, and that our offense may never have been good enough to realize the potential of the D.