Remembering the Dixie Classic

“It was late, close to midnight, one December night in 1956.”

These are the opening lines of “The Classic: How Everett Case and His Tournament Brought Big-Time Basketball to the South,” Bethany Bradsher’s book about The Dixie Classic, which will be featured on UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch this weekend.

She continues, “A thirteen-year-old boy named Tim Nicholls had feasted all day at the hulking arena called the William Neal Reynolds Coliseum—feasted on hot dogs, on barbecue served up in the Reynolds basement, and most of all on basketball.

“Nicholls was worn out, but it was the good kind of tired that comes from overdosing on something you love. As a Christmas present, he had received a coveted book of tickets for the Dixie Basketball Classic, so he had spent his day in Raleigh on the North Carolina State University campus watching four games featuring his favorite team, North Carolina, the host team, N. C. State, local favorites Duke and Wake Forest, and visiting squads Iowa, West Virginia, Utah, and DePaul.

“Nicholls had one of the best seats in the house for much of the action—he had befriended the woman who played the coliseum organ, and she let him sit on the bench when she wasn’t entertaining the crowd during time-outs or between periods. The teams from the North Carolina colleges, known as the Big Four, had dominated that day in the Classic’s opening round. They all easily dispatched their out-of-state opponents, and the next afternoon Tim would come back to see his Tar Heels take on Duke.”

These words took me back 60 years when my father gave me a memorable Christmas present. We drove from Davidson to Raleigh for the Dixie Classic’s opening round, a daylong, four-game marathon of “big time” basketball. It was more than the games for me. I was with my dad, by ourselves, in the crowd, talking about the players and the teams, as colleagues.

Whenever folks my age start talking about basketball, there is likely to be a story or two about Dixie Classic tickets in their Christmas stockings.

The late Pete Brennan, talking about the unbeaten 1956-57 national championship Carolina basketball team, never forgot to mention that team’s victory over Wake Forest in the Dixie Classic’s championship game.

These wonderful memories are disappearing. Those of us who were kids in those days from 1949 through 1960 are fading away. So Bradsher’s history of the Classic is a gift to us.

At a time when we are struggling to deal with the fallout from the puzzling and passionate relationship between big time sports and universities, an understanding of the powerful hold the Dixie Classic had on North Carolina sports fans and university partisans is an important key.

Bradsher tells of the glory days. The crowds. The close games. The humiliation of the nation’s top teams, none of which ever won the tournament.

But she also tells the tale of the tragic and scandalous demise of the tournament.  Point shaving by players under the direction of seedy petty criminals threatened to destroy the reputations of the universities that Dixie Class fans loved, the same universities that were beloved treasures for every North Carolinian.
UNC President William Friday and the chancellors of Carolina and N.C. State did not hesitate. They shut down the Classic.

Their audacious, decisive action angered a generation of Dixie Classic fans and put their jobs in jeopardy.
But, by sending a clear signal that athletics did not control the universities’ agendas, they solidified their institutions’ educational reputations and set an example that should inspire and guide the leaders of today.

Deems May reply to Dr. Harmon

Dear Dr. Harmon,
Your August 12 opinion published by in response to my feelings of Coach Davis’ firing, indicated that my letter “could not have hit further from the intended mark.” I must respectfully disagree by saying that if my letter elicited  combative responses from you and Mr. Chansky of Chapelboro fame, then the letter hit dead center of the mark. While I certainly welcome dissenting opinions to my views on Carolina Football they mostly come from rivals, not fellow alumni. This merely confirms that there is a faction that asserts that big time football is just not worth it. If it takes me coming across as egomaniacal or even narcissistic to make fans aware of this faction, then so be it.
In your referencing my use of pronouns, I must say that when writing what is essentially an op-ed piece, self-referencing pronouns are needed when conveying one’s  opinion. I certainly don’t think speaking in third person would have been appropriate. With that being said, I am of the opinion that this was indeed a football issue and not a University issue.  The foundation of over 210 years of academic excellence at Carolina will not be weakened by a few student-athletes cutting corners or an honor court missing a plagiarized paper. I sincerely doubt that applications are down or that there have been students who decided to go elsewhere because of this “widespread academic fraud involving the football program” that you so grossly exaggerate. Contrarily, there are many students that aspire to come to Carolina because they would be proud to say that they attended  the same school as Michael Jordan or Mia Hamm.
I would also vehemently  disagree with your quote that “reasonable people who care about the University care not a whit whether I honor my pledge to the Rams Club.” There are many student-athletes that are good kids who direly depend on donations annually from me and fellow Ram’s Club members.  They, along with those who work for the Ram’s Club do give a ‘whit’ and they do care for our school. This statement by you further corroborates my anxiety of de-emphasis across all of athletics.
Butch Davis is my good friend and by pointing that out, I merely affirmed that this was not going to be an objective piece. Butch made a bad hire, he admitted it and was preparing to make sure that it never happened again. The academic stuff was not his fault. I didn’t feel a need to offer a defense given that the NCAA did that for me by not citing him in their report. I’m sorry if you feel that I “trashed” William Friday and Holden Thorp. That is a strong accusation and I take it seriously, however I did not attack them personally, just what I thought was a bad decision at a horrible time. In my fear of our administration “giving up on football” and returning to mediocrity, along with the vexing silence from others who shared my fears,  probably prompted the use of more fervent rhetoric than was necessary. I’ve never quite learned how to temper this.
I am not versed on the hiring of Dean Smith and so I cannot comment on it. However, if they were purposely  de-emphasizing basketball by hiring him, then they obviously failed miserably, as we all know how it turned out. I do not want to gamble and hope that our football team will be that fortunate. The next AD hire will be the most important hiring since the aforementioned Smith hire. This will dictate whether or not my fears or realized, not the recent expansion of the football facilities. I know I’m using those dreaded pronouns again, but no one else is talking and that certainly is disconcerting.
  In your last sentence you write,  “If you want to hold sway with these people, please focus on our real problems and offer solutions.” To whom are you referring by sweeping such broad brush when you say “these people?” Academicians? Fans? Students? I’m not sure but let’s start with you. You and a guest join my wife (Susan, gymnast, class of 1992) and me in our suite for a game. Let’s go down on the field before the game, up in the suite during the game and in the locker room after the game. I’ll walk you through the whole experience. Win or lose, the camaraderie that you will witness in the locker room following the contest will give you an up close perspective enabling you to understand the passion that drives so many of us, whether you embrace it or not. I hope you take me up on the offer.
Deems May
Class of 1991

Photo Courtesy of Deems May and Mandatory Credit: Gary Newkirk  /Allsport – 4 Oct 1992:  Tight end Deems May of the San Diego Chargers looks on during a game against the Seattle Seahawks at Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego, California.  The Chargers won the game, 17-6.

A Letter to Deems May

Dear Deems,
Your August 01 letter published by could not have been further from the intended mark. The subject should have been the University of North Carolina, but it was Deems May.
Your letter included the pronouns “I” 37 times, “my” 11 times and “me” 7 times, for a total of 55 self-references to you. You present your credentials by letting us know you are a member of the Rams Club, played football at the University, participate in Tar Heel Sports Radio, submit a weekly column to InsideCarolina and received 25 media requests to respond. The only credential you need to expose in a letter such as yours is that you are a 1991 graduate of the University.   Reasonable people who care about the University care not a whit whether you honor your pledge to the Rams Club, participate in Tar Heel Sports Radio or write a weekly column for InsideCarolina.
You offer no defense of Butch Davis other than he is your good friend, but you trash William Friday and Holden Thorp. You refer to the de-emphasis of football by the above two individuals 7 times. In one instance you refer to “total de-emphasis.” Whatever could you mean by that in the face of the recent expansion of the football facilities?
One would infer from your letter that Butch Davis was fired simply to de-emphasize football at the University. This is a far-fetched assumption, since documented information about recent academic fraud involving the football program is widespread. If Butch Davis were fired solely to de-emphasize football, he would surely have legal recourse.
In view of the information available to the public, there is no indication that the University is de-emphasizing football, but if it takes de-emphasis to clean up the program, then so be it. In 1961, the University purposely and without apology de-emphasized basketball because of improprieties committed by its coach and a few players. Dean Smith was hired by the school’s chancellor, William B. Aycock, who charged the new coach with running a clean program. The right thing was done then and many people who love the University think the right thing is being done now. If you want to hold sway with these people, please focus on our real problems and offer solutions.
Joseph M. Harmon, MD

UNC 1966 and 1970

“They are trying to eat Big Bird”

The hundreds of William Friday’s friends and fans who gathered to hear him speak last week might not have guessed that the institutions he worked so hard to build were threatened by the just-released legislative budget proposals.

But he gave them a big clue when he opened his remarks with, “They are trying to eat Big Bird.”
The luncheon gathering, hosted by UNC-TV, celebrated the 40th anniversary of Friday’s television program, “North Carolina People,” and the approximately 2,000 people who have been his guests, one of them every week on UNC-TV since 1971.
Friday is 90 years old. So people are wondering how much longer the program will continue. But, as Friday has scaled back some activities, his enjoyment of and commitment to the program has increased. Folks at UNC-TV say that they are already planning for a 45th anniversary party five years from now.
But it was not always that way. Friday told his audience that it all started when his friend and colleague Jay Jenkins persuaded him, over his objections, to host a program with four living governors. That program was a success. Jenkins and UNC-TV director John Young pushed him to do a one-on-one interview. He did, and did it again and again every week, ever since.
His comments last week were vintage “Bill Friday,” self deprecating and so respectful of the people he was addressing.
“This occasion is about you and is not about me.
“You know,” he said, “former UNC President Dick Spangler was visiting in Dallas [in Gaston County where Friday grew up] and stopped in a filling station where a group of men were gathered. ‘Do you all know Bill Friday?’ Spangler asked. ‘Yep,’ they answered. ‘Didn’t he play baseball?’ Spangler continued.
“‘Yep, and if he had stuck with baseball he might have amounted to something.’”
Friday continued to put himself down. “You know we get fan mail every now and then. Early on, one of them came on a postcard that just said, ‘Mister, ain’t you got but one necktie?’”
Friday said that he had learned several lessons from his television experience. Lesson number one came with his first guest, UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Robert House.
“We knew he would be good because he could talk your head off. I prepared about 30 questions. I was on number 29 and we were only nine minutes into the program.”
House was giving short “yes or no” answers to every question.
“I got into a cold sweat. Then I remembered that Chancellor House had written a book. One of the topics was about American cheese. So I asked him what was it like? And for the next 20 minutes he went on without interruption.
“So lesson number one is never ask a question that can be answered yes or no.”
Friday’s lesson number two is that “every North Carolinian has a story to tell. So the lesson is to be quiet and listen.”
Lesson number three, Friday said, is that conversations with his guests have “real historic significance.” Their spontaneous comments and expressions will give special insights for those who study the history of our times. But it is not only for history. Friday said he wanted today’s viewers to be enlightened, as when he interviewed the doctors who treated his heart condition.
Then, for those who might not have yet guessed his concern about his cherished institutions, he said, “Yesterday’s budget proposals as they relate to the university and UNC-TV would, if fully implemented, be a tragedy.”
In closing, he thanked the crowd for letting him visit in their homes every week and, with a wink, said, “By the way, I’ve got a new necktie.”

Now, those are my thoughts. What are yours? Comment below.