Two things happened this week that will reduce the amount of open real estate in the rafters of the Smith Center - and keep the pilot lights of ABCers lit.
With the victory over Duke on Saturday, UNC clinched its 29th regular-season title in the 59-year history of the Atlantic Coast Conference. And, holding with Carolina tradition, a banner commemorating the achievement will be hoisted to the top of the Dean Dome. Meanwhile, after being named ACC Player of the Year and second-team All-American, senior Tyler Zeller will be the 41st Tar Heel to have his jersey honored in the Smith Center, joining the eight retired jerseys on the top row.
ABCers love to complain about the sheer number of banners and the appearance of braggadocio, or alternately that it seems ostentatious and contrived, and that the simple act of breathing leads to an honored jersey. The primary point of contention is the ACC Champion banners, based on the fact that the official ACC Champion is the tournament champion. This is a vestige of the pre-1975 NCAA tournament days when only one team from each league qualified for the NCAA tournament, so the ACC tourney champ was designated to receive that bid. Dean Smith, among others, felt that a 14-game (now 16-game) schedule was a better measure of a league champion, and trumpeted his team's success during the regular season. The ACC still designates the tournament winner as the official league champion, but does unofficially recognize the regular-season winner. At least UNC does have the courtesy to designate on each banner whether or not the championship was for the regular season or tournament. And UNC is not alone in this style of banners, as NC State recently did the same when the banners in the RBC Center were redone.
I don't think anyone would take issue with the eight retired jerseys: Jack Cobb, George Glamack, Lennie Rosenbluth, Phil Ford, James Worthy, Michael Jordan, Antawn Jamison, and Tyler Hansbrough. All were national players of the year and many of them held or currently hold UNC or ACC records of some sort. Honored jerseys are a little different matter. Lots of schools and teams have "rings of honor" and the like for non-retired jerseys. But to be an "honored" jersey, a player must be ACC Player of the Year; be a first- or second-team All-American; MVP of a national champion; Most Outstanding Player in a Final Four; or Olympic gold medalist. Since collegians no longer play in the Olympics, no other Tar Heel will probably qualify under that criterion (although a stunning eight UNC players won gold medals as a collegian).
First-team All-Americans and ACC Players of the Year certainly deserve to be honored, and given the rarity of Olympic gold medals, a case can be made for that. Under those big three criteria, there are still 30 UNC players who would be honored (plus the 8 retired). As a UNC fan, I'm not as comfortable with the national champion MVP method (a.k.a. the "Lynch/Felton Rule") or the Final Four MOP method ("the D. Williams/Ellington Rule") and second-team All-Americans are a little specious, but again, that's my opinion.
But if you want to get an ABCer's blood boiling, just mention the 1924 National Championship banner. The NCAA tournament began in 1939. How were national champions determined prior to 1939? They weren’t. So then how does Carolina have a national championship from 15 years before the beginning of the NCAA tourney? You can thank the Helms Foundation for that.
The Helms Athletic Foundation was an athletic foundation based in Los Angeles, founded in 1936 by Bill Schroeder and Paul Helms. It put together a panel of experts to select National Champion teams and make All-America team selections in a number of college sports including football and basketball. The panel met annually to vote on a National Champion until 1982 and retroactively ranked football teams dating back to 1883 and basketball back to 1901. The Helms Foundation also operated a Hall of Fame for both college sports. (via Wikipedia)
So, in the late 1930s, a panel declared the 1924 undefeated Carolina team as national champions. For many years, a nondescript banner noted the award in the Smith Center, but when the banners were redone, the 1924 team was recognized with a full-blown championship banner just like the (then) four other NCAA tournament champions.
It is an easy target for ABCers to bloviate about UNC’s “made-up” championship, but it’s not like a school that has the 3rd most NCAA titles all-time has to gin up a basketball tradition. The 1924 team was one of 35 or so basketball teams thus honored pre-NCAA tournament, although few schools even recognize the Helms champions designation (e.g. Kentucky has a media guide section on it, but with 7 NCAA titles, I guess they don’t feel like they need to add their two Helms non-NCAA awards) and Kansas is the only other school than UNC I know that actually claims it.
I do have a number of problems with the ABCers argument. First is the retroactive nature of the title. Yes, it was awarded retroactively, but UNC was the only undefeated team in the country in the 1923-24 season. The counter to that argument is that UNC didn’t play anyone outside of the region that season. Can someone tell me what team did? This was 1924, for crying out loud. To use that line of thinking, it has been argued that much of the UCLA tournament success of the late 1960s and early 1970s was because the NCAA tourney at that time was truly regional, meaning UCLA only played weaker west coast teams until the Final Four.
Further, the ABC argument goes, the Helms Foundation is an illegitimate arbiter of declaring champions. The NCAA record book listed the Helms Champions (though carefully did not declare them national champions) until just a few years ago. But until the early to mid-1950s, the NCAA tournament was considered inferior to the National Invitation Tournament, so it could be argued that any of the NCAA champs of the 1930s and 40s were illegitimate given the weak competition.
But the crowning argument of the anti-Helms crowd is that it is a mythical national championship, awarded not on the court but by a panel of “experts” after the fact. Is that not what we do in Division I college football every year? Except for the retroactive element of the Helms titles, what is the difference in that or Georgia Tech’s split 1990 national title? When I go to Grant Field, I don’t see “1990 AP National Champions, split with Colorado” – I see “1990 National Champions” period. But college football is a different animal without a method for determining a champion while college basketball has such a method.
As for me, I have no problem if UNC wants to claim the Helms title as just that – the Helms title. I understand the desire to demonstrate Carolina's tradition of excellence in basketball predates the NCAA, but five NCAA titles in the last 55 years speaks for itself. If the 1924 banner was changed from just “national champions” to “Helms Foundation national champions” it would take the wind out of the ABC argument and make the basketball purists happier.
Still, UNC has a basketball tradition unlike practically any other school in the country, potentially excessive laundry in the rafters and all.