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UNC Basketball and Freshman Interviews

A long standing policy of Carolina Basketball quietly ended last week

Dean Smith

Last week brought about the usual at UNC’s annual media day. There was the team picture, a Roy Williams press conference, and breakout interviews with members of the team. However, this media day was monumental in a lot of ways.

For the first time, the assembled press was allowed to interview UNC’s freshmen prior to their first game. This is why you were able to hear from Cole Anthony last week, which had to be jarring for long-time fans of Carolina basketball. For nearly five decades, freshmen had not been allowed at these events, which meant that some of the more colorful stories about freshmen's initial college experiences couldn’t come out until during the season.

Why was this the case? The answer, is, of course, Dean Smith.

Dean did not like that freshmen were eligible to play immediately. All one has to do is pick up a copy of A Coach’s Life and you’ll read multiple instances where he decries the idea that freshmen could play. He said in multiple instances that if he were in charge of the NCAA he would immediately go back to the age where they were ineligible. After he retired in 1997, he voiced this in Sports Illustrated:

Whether he plays sports or not, a freshman has to learn to live away from home, function in a more demanding academic environment and adapt to a new social setting. How can it be in his best interests to be distracted from those things by team meetings, film sessions, media interviews and practice, not to mention the travel that causes missed class time?

Freshmen became immediately eligible to play starting in 1972, when the NCAA ended the rule where any person playing college sports had to spend a year on the junior varsity team. It was at this point that Dean Smith decided that if freshmen weren't going to learn how to play for a team via the jayvee squad, he'd have to make sure there were other ways. Thus, Dean's freshmen infamously had to carry film projectors, be the last in line for water breaks, and serve some punishments for upperclassmen. Coach Smith didn’t consider this hazing or singling the players out, rather it was a way to help players that had been catered to and singled out learn that to win, you had to play as a team.

That attitude carried to media availability, as he would not make his freshmen available for interviews until they had at least played their first game. Presumably, he didn’t want focus taken off the players who had been through the grind before, and it was the first lesson for freshman that life in college was different than in high school. In an era where the majority of players didn’t leave school early, and the ones that did still played at least two years of basketball, the practice was rarely questioned.

Once Smith retired, his successors continued this practice even as the world of college basketball changed drastically. By the time the NBA instituted its age limit in 2005, Roy Williams was in his second year coaching at Carolina, and he still saw no reason to change the rule. So, the likes of Ty Lawson, Tyler Hansbrough, Kendall Marshall, even up to Nassir Little and Coby White last year had to sit back and ignore the media after Late Night with Roy and the preseason media day. The reasoning changed from acclimating freshmen to the team to “it was tradition.”

To be frank, continuing the tradition made less and less sense as time went on. High school phenoms have their own social media feeds, make videos to announce where they are going to go, and are pretty savvy about dealing with the media by the time they step on campus. There is little doubt that this sort of restriction was likely used against Roy Williams and UNC as being unfriendly to the type of player looking to go to the NBA after one year of college, and there was less and less benefit to holding onto the decision.

Thus, without much fanfare, Carolina made all players available to the media last week. The monumental event was met with...mostly a shrug. Local media tweeted it out, and then went about their business. In return, freshmen talked about such earth-shattering things like.. the tattoos they had on their arms:

The not-said portion of this is that there is a pretty strong likelihood that had the tradition continued, about half of the team wouldn’t have been out on the floor for next year’s version. Between the expected one and done departure of Anthony, a senior in Brandon Robinson, and two graduate transfers, as well as the fact that the 2020 class is shaping up to be one of Roy Williams’ best ever, it was going to be unrealistic to keep them from speaking to the media.

For as much as the narrative goes that Roy Williams is a stubborn man rooted in his ways, in recent years he’s shown that’s just not the case. He’s adjusted his offense based on his personnel, relaxed the rule on freshmen interviews, recruited multiple point guards to make sure he was never without one in case of injury, and embraced the one and done era of college basketball. There’s a reason he continues to succeed, and clearly Williams had decided that this was one tradition that just no longer made any sense. The world keeps spinning.