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Tar Heel Firsts: UNC’s first ever basketball coach

A former track star was a key part of what eventually became the powerhouse that is Carolina basketball.

NCAA Basketball: Western Carolina at North Carolina Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

The summer can be a bit of a slow period in college sports. While we here at Tar Heel Blog will be sure to cover any big news or whatever else may pop up, there’s also plenty of room for other things. To fill some of that void, we’ll occasionally be taking a walk through history and look at some notable firsts in UNC sports history.

When most people think about athletics at the University of North Carolina, the sport that comes to mind will be men’s basketball for a majority of people. It’s not the most successful, as women’s soccer has a pretty indisputable claim on that crown. Thanks to a combination of popularity of the sport, success on the court, and the genuine legends of the sport associated with the school, basketball has surpassed the notability of any other team at the university.

However, a successful basketball program just doesn’t pop up out of nowhere. Long before Dean Smith ever coached a game or Michael Jordan ever stepped on a court, there was already a history of basketball at the university. It just so happens that the history starts with an Olympic track star.

Nathanial “Nate” Cartmell was a sprinter who had won two silver medals in the 100 and 200 meters in the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis. Four years later, he followed that with a 200 meter bronze and a gold as part of a relay team. In 1909, the Kentucky-born Cantwell came to Chapel Hill to coach the school’s track and field team.

A couple years before that, the fairly new sport of basketball had been introduced in physical education classes by Dr. Robert Lawson, an alumn and a former Major League Baseball player. Club teams organized by students popped up and played against similar teams from other college, but there was no official varsity team.

By 1910, nearly all colleges in the state had fielded a varsity team, with UNC being one of the lone hold outs. Students, led by Marvin Ritch, were eventually able to successfully lobby the school to form a team in January 1911, with the first game to be played near the end of that month.

The school needed a coach for their new team, but there was a bit of a problem: there really wasn’t any funds to hire one. In order to save money, the school brought another coach over to head up the basketball team. The person they chose would be the track and field coach, Nathaniel Cartmell.

Cartmell had no experience coaching basketball, and really had no knowledge of the game. It is fairly amusing that the first coach of one of the best programs in college basketball was someone who barely knew the sport. To be fair, the game had only been invented 20 years before. There wasn’t exactly a pipeline of basketball-specific coaches to choose from.

UNC varsity basketball played their first ever game on January 27, 1911, when they beat Virginia Christian College 42-21. In their first ever season, they finished with a 7-4 record, which is not bad considering they had a non-basketball knowing sprinter for a coach.

Cartmell ended up leading the Carolina basketball program for four seasons. The team went 25-24 in that time. However, he was forced to leave after the 1914 season upon being accused of “playing dice with known gamblers.”

The now retired track star was a generally popular figure around campus. Between his departure and the lack of funds that led to his initial hiring nearly caused the end of the varsity basketball team. Cartmell’s replacement, Charles Doak, was also pulling double duty while heading up the baseball team. His heart wasn’t in it and participation numbers were down.

Luckily, the school never quite pulled the trigger on getting rid of the team. Ten years after Cartmell left, the team went 26-0. That season was retroactively awarded a national championship by the Helms Foundation and today that banner hangs with six others in the Smith Center.

Today, UNC are one of three schools that have won a NCAA Tournament championship under three different head coaches. There is a history in the program of great coaches. It’s funny to that that is all started with a guy who had no real clue what he was doing.


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Powell, Adam. University of North Carolina Basketball. Arcadia Pub., 2005

Lucas, Adam. Carolina Basketball: a Century of Excellence. University of North Carolina Press, 2010.

Chansky, Art. 100 Things North Carolina Fans Should Know & Do before They Die. Triumph Books LLC, 2015.