UNC basketball road homecoming games: A brief and incomplete history

North Carolina players hoist Dean Smith after the Tar Heels’ victory in the ACC tournament championship game in 1972. Earlier that season, UNC’s tradition of the road homecoming game began.
North Carolina players hoist Dean Smith after the Tar Heels’ victory in the ACC tournament championship game in 1972. Earlier that season, UNC’s tradition of the road homecoming game began. NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

North Carolina over the years has been to London and to the Netherlands and on a plane the day after playing against Duke, all in the name of a road game in a player’s hometown, or close to it. And now UNC will be headed to Iowa.

Again next season the Tar Heels are going on the road for a homecoming. UNC announced last week that it would play at Northern Iowa, not too far from Marcus Paige’s hometown of Marion, Iowa.

And so the tradition of the road homecoming game – one that began, like so many others, under Dean Smith – will continue after something of a hiatus. It’s because of that tradition that the game at Northern Iowa immediately made sense, given Paige’s connection to the state.

The road homecoming game isn’t as visible a part of Smith’s legacy as, say, pointing to the assist man. But it has, over time, become part of UNC’s basketball tradition, though the road homecomings were more prevalent in the past than they are now (more on that later).

The announcement that UNC would be Iowa-bound inspired some thought about the origins and history of the road homecoming game. I knew it went back a ways. I knew it began under Smith, who once took a team to the Netherlands, of all places, because of Serge Zwikker’s roots there.

But there was a lot I didn’t know, too, especially about the origins of the tradition. Curious, late last week I contacted Steve Kirschner, the longtime UNC men’s basketball sports information director.

Kirschner then contacted Rick Brewer, his predecessor, and Woody Durham, the Tar Heels’ longtime play-by-play radio voice who retired a few years ago. Kirschner asked them the same thing I’d asked him: How the tradition began, and for any especially notable homecomings over the years.

What follows is a brief and incomplete history of UNC’s road homecoming tradition:

How it started

It began, best anyone can tell, with a game on Dec. 4, 1971, at Pittsburgh. That was the second game of the season for the Tar Heels, who were ranked second nationally (note how late the season began back then, relative to today).

Entering 1971-72 season, UNC’s best two returning players were Dennis Wuycik and George Karl. Both arrived at UNC from Pennsylvania, and both arrived from places close to Pittsburgh – Wuycik from Ambridge and Karl from Penn Hills.

So UNC, the story goes, scheduled a game at Pitt so that Wuycik, a senior on that team, and Karl, a sophomore, could play in a college game close to their hometowns and, presumably, in front of no shortage of friends and family members. That’s how it started.

Pretty soon, Smith made a point of scheduling games solely for the purpose of allowing his players a chance to play at least one game near home. For players who arrived at UNC from states within the ACC’s borders – which back then stretched quaintly from South Carolina to Maryland – the conference schedule offered annual homecomings.

For those who arrived at UNC from states without an ACC school, though, Smith at times had to be creative to make a homecoming a reality. UNC, for instance, played at Yale on Dec. 21, 1974, because Yale was close – or close enough, at least, at about 110 miles away – to Mitch Kupchak’s hometown of Brentwood, N.Y.

The road to Tulsa

Ideally, Kirschner said after speaking with Brewer and Durham, Smith preferred for a player to have his homecoming game during his junior season. The thinking behind that was that if a player left after his junior season, at least he left after having had a chance to play a college game near home.

Sometimes, though, it wasn’t possible to schedule a player’s homecoming game during his junior season. So it might have come during his senior season. Or even during his freshman season.

That was the case for Steve Hale, who arrived at UNC from Oklahoma. And not long after his arrival he found himself back in his home state for a game at Tulsa on Dec. 17, 1982, in an event called the Oil City Classic. Unkind it was for the Tar Heels, who lost 84-74.

So that was unique, traveling to Tulsa for a game. And so was playing a road game the day after playing Duke at home. That would never happen today. Ever. At least not intentionally. But it happened in 1986.

UNC opened the Smith Center with a 95-92 victory against Duke on Jan. 18. The next day, the Tar Heels flew to Wisconsin – junior center Joe Wolf was from Kohler, don’t you know – where they played at Marquette. UNC won by two, completing a stretch in which it won four games in nine days.

To London and Hershey, Pa.

If scheduling a game at Marquette the day after playing Duke at home doesn’t convince you of how important it was for Smith to schedule these kind of homecoming games, then maybe this will: UNC in 1987 went to London – that’s in England – for a two-day exhibition tournament.

The reason? Because Steve Bucknall, then a junior point guard, was from London. UNC also played in Germany for Henrik Rodl and it was back in Europe, in the Netherlands, when Zwikker, the 7-foot-3 center, came to UNC in the mid-1990s.

Back then, in the 1980s and ’90s, UNC’s homecoming games were a regular part of the schedule. In December 1988 the Tar Heels played against Towson State in Hershey, Pa., because that wasn’t too far from Jeff Lebo’s hometown of Carlisle, Pa.

The Tar Heels went to Alabama for Pete Chilcutt and to Butler for Eric Montross, who was born in Indianapolis. And though the homecoming games still happen – UNC played at St. Louis for Tyler Hansbrough and against Valparaiso in Chicago for Bobby Frasor and at Evansville for Tyler Zeller – they’re less common than they used to be.

Part of the reason is that the ACC has become larger. No need for a homecoming game for Joel James, for instance, given that UNC often plays at Miami, which isn’t too far from his hometown of West Palm Beach. But another reason is that scheduling is different nowadays, too.

Smith clearly made it a priority to bring players back home. Is it the same priority for Roy Williams? Probably not, though that’s not necessarily either a good thing or a bad thing – just a sign that times have changed. There’s more of an emphasis on playing as many home games as possible – which helps an athletic department’s bottom line – and teams schedule more selectively, too.

So UNC going on the road for Paige is something of a throwback to a different time, when these kinds of trips were a lot more common. Then again, Paige is something of a throwback, too – a four-year starter in an era of constant player movement and turnover in college basketball.

His homecoming game at Northern Iowa will be UNC’s first since Zeller’s in 2010. It has been a while, but the tradition lives on.

Carter: 919-829-8944;

Twitter: @_andrewcarter