If you don't live in Fayetteville, NC, and subscribe to the local newspaper or read it online, you may have missed the interesting seven-part series the Fayetteville Observer did about the 100th anniversary of Carolina basketball. They chronicled the Tar Heel program decade-by-decade and had a number of features to go along with each highlighted time frame. It is a good read and worth your time to click the links and explore a little bit.
What caught my eye, however, was the feature piece for the 1920s, which explores Carolina's 1924 Helms Foundation championship. The virtues and vices of the Helms title have been explored here at THF and I will not delve into them again. But the Observer's Dan Wiederer, who has seemed to have a love-hate relationship with UNC basketball over the past few years (see Danny Green's father, his piece about Roy and the Presbyterian fan that got a beat-down from Steve Kirschner, and his new book on the '09 team) suggests something I've never heard before:
Maybe the 1924 team didn't deserve to be national champions at all.
Wiederer plays the usual anti-Helms arguments: that it was retroactive, that it was mythical, that UNC gives it the same treatment as the NCAA banners, no one else but Kansas even acknowledges it, etc, etc. Then he takes it a step further by trotting out "noted ACC historian" Al Featherston to discount the legitimacy of the Helms Foundation and of just how good the 1924 UNC team actually was.
Yes, that Al Featherston. Duke grad, writer for the Durham Herald-Sun for 31 years, and current correspondent for GoDuke.com. Or, as Blue Devil Nation. com puts it, "When you talk of the Duke beat in journalism, the first name that comes to mind is Al Featherston."
Featherston suggests that there was no Helms panel picking the retroactive national champs, as the popular myth goes - only a single person. He goes further, saying that despite the 1924 team's 26-0 record, they didn't play anyone outside the south so how good they actually were can't be gauged. And he uses the fact that UNC went 0-10 in the 1920s and 2-7 in the 1930s against teams from outside the south as his guide that the '24 team wasn't up to snuff.
The 1924 team had a pair of all-Americans, Jack Cobb and Cartwright Carmichael (the two jerseys in the Smith Center rafters without numbers since basketball jerseys didn't have numbers back then), but Featherston claims that the best basketball back then was being played in the east and midwest, so Carolina probably wasn't worthy of being called "national champions."
Never mind the fact that quoting Al Featherston - who does know his ACC hoops, by the way - is like asking Art Chansky to rationally comment on anything Duke. Is that really the best source you could find, Dan? Was Al's bias on the phone with you during the interview with you? But Wiederer notes "critics do wonder whether the Tar Heels were good enough to be worthy of that 'national champions' label." The only critic I have ever heard challenge the 1924 Helms title on anything other than how it was awarded is Featherston.
The level to which Carolina fans and ABCers alike obsess over a designation given nearly 70 years ago to a team that played nearly 90 years ago escapes me. Either you believe it's appropriate to celebrate it the way UNC does or not. But to attempt to discredit the validity of the award itself by discrediting the team that won it is stepping the anti-Helms argument up a notch. And to cite someone who is noted for his coverage of and association with Duke to comment on a subject like this is akin to asking Dick Cheney to rate Barack Obama's job performance - he may be correct, but then again what do you expect him to say and you will always question the motives. Plus, it really is a stretch to say that the '24 team would not have beaten teams outside the south because Carolina was winless the rest of the decade. By that logic, I guess the 2005 team wasn't worthy of the national title because the 2002 team was 8-20.
There's the pop culture saying that goes "don't hate the player, hate the game." Well in this case, Dan and Al, hate the Helms Foundation title if you like, but don't hate the 1924 team.