UNC Now

The story, 25 years later, behind how the Smith Center became known for ‘wine and cheese’

Florida State players celebrate in the closing seconds as teammate Sam Cassell goes to the free throw line in the Seminoles upset of the Tar Heels in the Smith Center, Dec. 15, 1991.
Florida State players celebrate in the closing seconds as teammate Sam Cassell goes to the free throw line in the Seminoles upset of the Tar Heels in the Smith Center, Dec. 15, 1991. News & Observer file photo

All these years, and people have been saying it backward almost the entire time. Perhaps that’s the first thing to know, 25 years later, about the origin story: It was never a “wine and cheese” crowd to begin with.

Over time, that’s what the phrase has morphed into, the original words transposed. Those three words have become engrained, undoubtedly despised by some who love North Carolina and beloved by those who like to despise UNC, or at least have some fun at its expense.

For a quarter-century now – right or wrong, fair or not – the crowds at the Smith Center have carried that “wine and cheese” reputation. It was born exactly 25 years ago on Thursday, on Dec. 15, 1991, after Florida State’s 86-74 victory at UNC.

It was the Seminoles’ first conference game after joining the ACC. And afterward, Sam Cassell says, remembering the moment after all this time, “A reporter asks me: ‘What did you think of the crowd?’ 

***

Cassell, who went on to play in the NBA for 16 seasons, is an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Clippers. Back then, he was Florida State’s junior point guard, and he was elated after the Seminoles’ victory.

In the days before it, he’d heard all about UNC’s mystique, the difficulty of winning on the road in the ACC, the task that awaited the Seminoles at the Smith Center. He knew, too, what people thought when they thought of Florida State – true still but even more so 25 years ago.

“Florida State,” Cassell says, “had been known for years for what? Football.”

Cassell remembers the game because it was Florida State’s first in the ACC, and because it was at North Carolina, and because of everything that happened after, the words that have endured. But first he remembers the beginning. He remembers laughter.

He heard it, he says now, while he and his teammates made their way from the tunnel to the court. He looked up in the cavernous Smith Center, which had opened nearly six years earlier, and Cassell says he saw people snickering at the sight of the Seminoles, a season removed from the Metro Conference.

“They were laughing,” Cassell says. “We knew that our football team was going to dominate in the ACC conference. No one thought that basketball was going to have an impact.”

But that thought was wrong, wasn’t it? The Seminoles, with five players who averaged double-figures in scoring, finished 11-5 in their first season in the ACC, and their surprising success – surprising to outsiders, that is – in league play began that mid-December night at UNC.

***

Perhaps the second thing to know about the phrase is that it probably doesn’t exist if not for the Tallahassee wine bar that became familiar to Cassell. He says he walked past it “all the time.” It wasn’t far from where he lived, about 15 minutes away from the Florida State campus.

Cassell never went inside, he says, and he can’t remember what it was called.

“Shoot, man,” he says, trying to place it. “It’s been 25 years.”

All he remembers is that it was a wine bar, and that it seemed to be a “classy place.” And he remembers something else, too.

“I walked by there repeatedly,” Cassell says during a phone conversation, a few hours before the Clippers have a game to play. “And I knew they served cheese plates.”

For whatever reason, the image of the wine bar stuck with Cassell. It found a home in some corner of his mind, and he can still see it, if only faded, some of the details, like the name, lost to the years.

When Florida State’s game at UNC began 25 years ago some of the crowd “was loud,” Cassell says. And yet he noticed that people closest to the court – “the alumni,” as Cassell puts it – weren’t all that loud. The people making the most noise were somewhere else, up high in a building with more than 21,000 seats.

“The student body was up in the Bob Uecker seats,” Cassell says with a laugh, referencing a 1980s Miller Lite commercial that left Uecker, a former Major Leaguer turned actor and broadcaster, in the upper reaches of a baseball stadium. “We could hear them. But they weren’t as loud as I was expecting them to be. Like, you know, Cameron Indoor? They’re pretty loud.”

***

All week in practice, Cassell says, Florida State coach Pat Kennedy had been telling his team it had a chance. People weren’t expecting much out of the Seminoles when they traveled to Chapel Hill to play No. 5 UNC, especially since one of Florida State’s best players, Doug Edwards, was suspended.

Kennedy had already put together a guard-oriented team, with three guards – Cassell, Bob Sura and Chuck Graham – among the top five scorers. Without the 6-foot-9 Edwards, Kennedy decided to go extra small and rely upon Charlie Ward, the 6-1 guard who’d go on to win the Heisman Trophy in football two years later.

“We had four guards on the court at one time,” Cassell says. “And that was unheard of in the ACC conference, to play four guys that are under 6-5.”

Cassell, 47, went on to play 993 games in the NBA. He played in 66 at Florida State. And yet he still remembers that he scored 22 points that night at UNC. The Seminoles built a 14-3 lead, led by seven at halftime and withstood the Tar Heels’ late rally.

All the while the atmosphere didn’t necessarily impress Cassell, though he remembers the Smith Center as “a nice arena.” Florida State gave UNC its first loss that season. Kennedy, the Seminoles coach, described his team’s victory as one of the most important in school history. The Seminoles walked off the court, to their locker room, and little did Cassell know he was about to make more history.

***

Cassell wasn’t trying to be nasty, he says now, wasn’t trying to be inflammatory.

“It wasn’t an insult to the fans at Carolina,” he says.

It just sort of came out when a reporter approached him, asking what he thought about the crowd and the atmosphere. Cassell began to make the connections – most of the noise coming from up high, the older “alumni,” as he still describes it, sitting closer, observing the game with a sense of detachment.

He thought of the wine bar he often walked past back home, and he thought of the plates of cheese he knew they served there. And he thought of the people he’d seen sitting inside, drinking their wine, eating their cheese, relaxed.

The pieces fit together in his mind and before he knew it he had an answer. What did he think of the crowd?

“This is not a Duke kind of crowd,” Cassell said. “It’s more like a cheese and wine crowd, kind of laid back.”

Mickey McCarthy, a columnist with The News & Observer, took note of Cassell’s reaction. The next morning, Cassell’s words appeared in McCarthy’s column in the Dec. 16, 1991 edition of The N&O.

Most other reporters covering the game, if not all of them, missed the moment. Cassell’s “cheese and wine” comment didn’t make it in any other accounts of the game that are still available online.

At least two newspapers from Florida – the Orlando Sentinel and the St. Petersburg Times – sent a reporter to cover the game. Neither one included Cassell’s famous words in their stories.

***

Those words soon spread, though, and Cassell’s quote took on a life of its own, changing over time. When Florida State came back to play at the Smith Center the next season, a story in the Orlando Sentinel referenced the line, but now it was different from the one McCarthy wrote in his column.

By January 1993, Cassell’s words had changed to these, according to the Sentinel:

“This is like a cheese and wine crowd here,” he was said to have said that night 25 years ago. “We’re going to a lot tougher gyms than this. This can’t possibly be like going into Duke or N.C. State. These people in Chapel Hill are laid-back.”

And then, over time, the order of the words became reversed. No longer was it a “cheese and wine” crowd, as Cassell said originally, but now it had become “wine and cheese” – the description that’s still used 25 years later.

Cassell remembers saying what he said, but he doesn’t necessarily remember the order of his words, or the commentary that surrounded them. And he never imagined then, a quarter century ago, that people would still be referencing his reference to a Tallahassee wine bar whose name is lost to history.

“Not at all,” he says now. “It’s amazing that they still talk about it. I thought that would be a one-year thing, and it was over.”

It wasn’t, though. That next season, Florida State built a big lead at UNC before the Tar Heels came back from a 21-point second-half deficit to win. It remains one of the great comebacks in school history.

Cassell says he knew what was coming afterward.

“And of course, they said, ‘Was it a wine and cheese crowd tonight?’ ” Cassell says, laughing. “Yes. Yes it was.”

***

Twenty-five years later, the atmosphere at the Smith Center is still a source of debate, and controversy. Some UNC fans undoubtedly wonder why they get picked on. Others want more students around the court to create a noisier, rowdier environment.

Roy Williams, the UNC coach, recently lamented – as he has done several times over the years – the lack of a consistently loud, energetic atmosphere at the Smith Center. After UNC’s loss at Indiana on Nov. 30, Williams said he wished his team could have the kind of support the Hoosiers did that night at Assembly Hall.

“I’d like to play in front of a crowd like that in the Smith Center every night other than the frickin’ Duke game,” Williams said then. After a victory against Tennessee on Sunday, he praised those in attendance in the Smith Center.

Sometimes the guys on the team talk about the home atmosphere, senior guard Nate Britt said, but by now, “everyone’s used to it.” He said he liked road games better.

“I don’t think it has much to do with our crowd or our atmosphere here, but it feels a little bit better,” he said, “when you can go in somebody else’s house and get a tough win when their crowd is really into it.”

Cassell can relate, even if he didn’t find UNC’s crowd too into it that night 25 years ago. He grew up an “ACC guy,” he says, from Baltimore, and he says it “was actually fun,” walking into the Smith Center for Florida State’s first ACC game.

He’s speaking from a gym in Florida. In a few hours the Clippers will play the Orlando Magic. Cassell wonders for a moment if the Smith Center has changed, whether the students are still up high. He learns that some have been moved to the court, behind one of the baskets.

That gets him thinking about Clemson’s Littlejohn Coliseum, which was among the most difficult places Cassell says he played, along with Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium. He thinks back to that old wine bar, the customers he’d see in there, and he remembers a game at the Smith Center on a December night 25 years ago.

“That wasn’t no hostile crowd,” he says, comparing the people at the Smith Center to those he saw with their wine glasses and cheese plates. “So that’s where I got that from. … It wasn’t rowdy. I could never say that about Cameron Indoor Stadium.”

Andrew Carter: 919-829-8944, @_andrewcarter

  Comments