What’s the difference between a tragedy and a travesty?
A tragedy would have been if the Tar Heels had lost in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.
A travesty would be having the season end without the school recognizing on its 50th anniversary what some – including, apparently, Dean Smith – consider the most important team in UNC basketball history.
Rick Brewer, who retired in 2000 as associate athletic director at UNC after 25 years in the athletics department, still writes for the www.goheels.com website. He recently wrote a three-part series about that team, one that he said “began a three-year run of unequalled dominance.”
The numbers back up that lofty assessment. The 1967 Tar Heel class was the first and only one to win three consecutive ACC regular-season and tournament titles. Good thing, too, because in those days only the tournament winner advanced to the NCAA tournament. Rap your heads around that, young ’uns: No matter how great your ACC regular season was – 13-1? 12-2? – an off night at the ACC tournament got you sent home or to the consolation prize National Invitation Tournament.
Brewer, a freshman at UNC in the fall of 1967, had a closeup view of the team. His view was not, however, as close as the one Dick Grubar had.
Grubar, a Schenectady, N.Y. native, was a guard on the ’67-’68-’69 teams, and when I spoke with him last week, he said he was disappointed that there was no formal acknowledgment of that squad by the athletic department, no invitation for players to come to a game en masse and, presumably, be able to bask in the Dean Dome devotees’ adoration.
“I don’t think they showed us any love. I think it was important because it was the beginning,” he said of the 1967 team. “The program hadn’t really done anything since ’57. That (1967) was Dean’s first championship team. Other than Rick Brewer’s piece, there’s been no mention at all.”
The 1966 team was 16-11, good but not world-beaters, and probably not good enough today to ensure the continued employment of a coach who’d already been hung in effigy by fans. Brewer, who studies these things, though, said there was no real pressure on Smith after that underwhelming season.
“People had certainly been down on him for a couple of years,” Brewer told me when I called him, “but the freshman team had Dickie, Rusty Clark and Bill Bunting, so people could see that we were going to be a lot better the following year... He was in pretty good shape, I think. The people here at the university knew that he’d gotten things settled.”
It’s hard to tell if Smith had the same level of confidence in his future that Brewer expressed, though. Grubar, who winters in St. Petersburg, Fla., and springs, summers and falls in Greensboro, said he has a picture signed by Smith proclaiming the ’67 team his most important one. He also said Smith expressed doubt about his future “if we hadn’t won ... They had hung him in effigy in ’64, and he really hadn’t established himself. He had Bob Lewis and Larry Miller, but they couldn’t win with only those two guys.”
Brewer said he’d followed the team on television before he arrived as a student, but the ’68 team was the first one he followed up close.
That was the first team I followed, period.
I was 9 and, prior to that, was most likely to be found in the woods playing “Combat!” when the Heels played those Saturday afternoon games brought to you by The Pilot insurance company. If the war in the woods behind our homes was rained out, we’d be watching Buster Crabbe or Tarzan on television and probably rooting for that short-suit-wearing, tree-limb-swinging colonialist.
Yeah, I know.
Once I discovered Larry Miller and that left-handed jump shot, though, it was all over. Because of him, I started wearing two wristbands everywhere I went – wore ’em so often they had to be surgically removed.
One of the other important accomplishments of that 1967 team is that it persuaded a skinny dude from New York who had already agreed to go to another North Carolina school to change his mind and come to Chapel Hill.
When that kid, Charles Scott, made his official visit to the campus, Grubar was his host.
Grubar recalled: “We hit it off pretty good. As you know, there were not many minorities at Carolina at the time, but I took him around and showed him the university. I took him to where everybody was, whites and minorities. I took him to a lot of the white fraternity parties and introduced him to a lot of people. That showed him there was not the prejudice there that was being sold to him by other schools” that were bad-mouthing UNC and the South.
“He got the opportunity to see who else he would be playing with, too,” Grubar said.
Meeting his prospective teammates “most definitely” influenced his decision to matriculate at UNC, Scott said last week. Grubar, he said, took him to see the Temptations, which would have been enough to sell me on the place. (During his visit to Duke the next week, though, he was taken to the Stallion Club to see Otis Redding. Decisions, decisions.)
Grubar and Scott, as have many of their former teammates, remain friends: Grubar said players from the 1967 through 1972 teams will get together in May for dinner at a local restaurant and a cookout at the Durham farm of former player Jim Delany.
“Had it not been for Dick and Joe Brown and Rusty Clark and those guys,” Scott said, “you wouldn’t be reading about me at UNC. I was going to Davidson.”
The UNC players he met, he said, “were just great guys to be with.”
And that, as the poet Robert Frost wrote, has made all the difference – even 50 years later.