Southlandish! * Tobacco Road (part 2)


Tobacco Road   { Featured Southerly }  Part 2

Beautiful Obsession: If you aren’t from North Carolina, it might be hard to understand the importance of basketball–specifically, college basketball–to the people of the state.

Much like Boston has the Red Sox abigfourcovernd New York has the Yankees and Texas has, well, football in general, North Carolina has college basketball.

(And barbecue. But that’s a subject for another post.)

To put it bluntly:

“The game of basketball is much more than a popular spectator and participant sport in North Carolina. [It] is a statewide obsession.” ***

And to see this statewide obsession in action, look no further than the Atlantic Coast Conference.

In spite of the shifting numbers and allegiances of other university teams in recent years, the ACC has been bolstered by the Big Four–Carolina, Duke, NC State and Wake Forest–since the conference’s creation in 1953.

The same mid-century era that saw the boom days of Big Tobacco (discussed in Part 1) also saw the birth of the ACC.

Not only that, but the popularity of college basketball and its record-setting game attendance during those years led the same region known that was known as the capital of tobacco to be proclaimed “the basketball capital of the world.” ***

Let’s take a closer look at how a football conference became a basketball powerhouse.

Wait…Football? For all of the hype about Tobacco Road and ACC basketball, the Big Four were originally known as powerhouse…football teams?

That’s right: In 1953 The Big Four teams left the Southern Conference and joined the new Atlantic Coast Conference in an attempt to put the region’s best football teams together.

Of course as we well know now, the following decades proved the ACC to be “the premier college basketball conference in the country.”***

But it was not always thus.

In fact, the early decades of college basketball actually pre-date conference play, with basketball games first appearing in YMCAs across the country in the 1890s. Within the first 30 years of basketball’s inception, almost all colleges and universities statewide had an organized men’s basketball team, with smatterings of local competitions and the occasional game with teams from neighboring states.

Although there is no exact record of the first organized collegiate basketball game, there are two games in the running–and both involve Wake Forest College (as it was originally called). One record indicates that Wake Forest competed against (and lost to) Guilford College on February 6, 1906. Another record shows that Wake Forest competed against (and beat) Duke University (then called Trinity College) on March 2, 1906.

But it was not until 1921 that the first important attempt “to organize competition between college teams” was made by the founding of the Southern Conference. UNC-CH and NCSU were among the 14 schools original to this conference, with Duke joining in 1928 to “elevate the profile of its sports programs.”***

Other schools included

Flash forward about twenty years to 1946, a crucial year in the history of basketball for the state of North Carolina. First, UNC-CH finished second in the NCAA tournament. Second–and perhaps more significantly–NCSU hired head coach Everett Case, who almost immediately boosted the NCSU program (which at the time was not as prominent as the other 3 schools in the Big Four) and instituted changes that brought North Carolina basketball to the fore of national sports.

History of an Empire: To bring up the level of play for his team, Coach Case devoted much of his attention to recruitment, realizing that if he wanted to lure the best athletes to his program year after year, he would have to change the way the sport and the college were perceived.

Case was a pioneer in the marketing of basketball, and many of the customs we commonly associate with basketball games and victories were begun under his direction: He spoke freely with the media and relentlessly sold himself and his team to the general public, making a show of such things as pregame player introductions and encouraging previously unknown traditions such as cutting down the basketball nets after big wins.

Case also insisted that North Carolina State build a new arena that would showcase the program. When Reynolds Coliseum was completed in 1949, it boasted attendance figures greater than those at Madison Square Garden in New York City and prompted one prominent local sports editor to opine that Raleigh had become “the basketball capital of the world.” ***

To put this state-of-the-art venue to good use, a new tournament was organized to be hosted there each December: the Dixie Classic, a single-elimination tournament pitting The Big Four against four of the other best teams in the country. The tournament was held from 1949 through 1960 and not only fueled the intense rivalries between the North Carolina schools but also “raised the national profile of the teams…putting them on par with contemporary national powerhouses such as Kansas, Kentucky, and Indiana.” After 12 years, the Dixie Classic was cancelled due to a point-shaving scandal and was never reinstated. *** (Meanwhile, though, Case had also begun the ACC tournament in 1954, so the region was not without other avenues for showcasing rivalries.)

The heyday of this meteoric rise of the state’s basketball programs also saw the first televised basketball games. The first televised game was a 1955 UNC-CH/Wake Forest match-up filmed by by UNC-TV, a public television station, as the station’s “first experimental broadcast, shown on delay from Woolen Gymnasium in Chapel Hill” (97). Later that year, a Final Four game featuring UNC-CH was also broadcast. These televised games were a huge hit among North Carolina viewers and had the effect of turning players and coaches into media stars.

Then in 1957 when UNC-CH became the first state team to win the NCAA tournament, the championship became a watershed moment for basketball in the state of North Carolina, a sentiment best summed up by Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford who said “that before that storybook 1957 championship, ‘ACC basketball was popular’ in the state'” but that afterward “‘It was woven into the fabric of North Carolina society.'” +

Summary: Although no one knows for sure who first used the term Tobacco Road as a way to talk about university sports in this state, by the 1950s, the time when Big Tobacco was at its peak and Big Four basketball was in full swing, the term “was a standard description in North Carolina newspapers.” **

Given the state’s economic history and the proximity and prominence of its four major universities and their sports programs, Tobacco Road was “a natural fit for “the four basketball programs that blossomed like the bright leaf in the Carolina soil.” **

Lagniappe (a little something thrown in for good measure):

  • Basketball Road: Read this linked article for a more complete history of basketball in the state of North Carolina. Courtesy of Our State Magazine. The Story of ACC Basketball
  • The Making of an Empire: View this linked video for a brief telling of “the story of the historic basketball programs from Tobacco Road and the history of the rivalry between these Division 1 basketball programs.”

  • The Big Four Tournament: Picking up more or less where the Dixie Classic left off, the Big Four Tournament was held in Greensboro from 1971 to 1981 as a sort of pre-season conference play-off.
  • Facts & Figures: “Since the ACC conference was formed in 1953, the four North Carolina member schools were responsible for 16 of the first 17 basketball championships, 27 of the first 30, and have now captured 50 of the 59 titles in ACC hoops history.” ++
  • In the 1950s, Coach Frank McGuire at UNC-CH helped to put Tar Heel basketball on the map. Then he moved a little further south, to the “other Carolina,” the University of South Carolina. McGuire built an elite basketball program for the Gamecocks…and we see where they are today…

Sources: {click title of online source to visit}

Dennis, Brady. “Basketball Road: The Story of ACC Basketball.” Our State. July 2012. Web. 19 Mar. 2015. +

Featherston, Alwyn. Tobacco Road: Duke, Carolina, N.C. State, Wake Forest & the History of the Most Intense Backyard Rivalries in Sports. Guilford, Conn.: Lyons Press, 2006. Print. **

Garner, Dwight. “Pulp Valentine: Erskine Caldwell’s Lurid Vision of the American South.” 24 May 2006. Web. 19 Mar. 2015. *

Kamberg, Mary-Lane. America’s Most Winning Teams: North Carolina Basketball. New York: Rosen Publishing Group, 2014. Print. (juvenile lit)

Simpson-Vos, Mark. “Basketball.” Encyclopedia of North Carolina. Ed. William Powell. Chapel Hill, NC: U of North Carolina Press, 2006. Print. 95-98. ***

Yeargin, W.W. “Tobacco.” Encyclopedia of North Carolina. Ed. William Powell. Chapel Hill: U of NC Press, 2006. Print. 1120-1122. **** ++

Images Sources: {click title of online source to visit}

Barstow road sign: image courtesy James McCallum via Pinterest @

NC basketball map:

Big Four Cover:

tobacco warehouse postcard:

Visit the online shop at clover & pine on Etsy to view graphic art and custom designs.