North Carolina men’s basketball’s first NCAA Tournament championship was in 1957. The Lennie Rosenbluth-led team went a perfect 32-0. They won consecutive triple overtimes games to win the championship, including knocking off Wilt Chamberlain and Kansas in the final.
However, it is not the first national championship the school claims. For that one, you have to go back to the early days of the basketball team, before the NCAA Tournament even existed.
Ahead of the 1923-24 season, Norman Shepard was named the new basketball coach at UNC. A former minor league baseball player, Shepard took the job as something to do on the side while finishing law school. As we’ve gone over in past Tar Heel Firsts, the coaching choices in the early days of college sports are very different that any scenario that would arise today. His goal was never particularly to make a career in coaching basketball, but that’s exactly what his debut season would lead to.
Shepard inherited a good team. They were led by Cartwright Carmichael, who had been named an All-American the previous season. It was also the first year for Jack Cobb, who you may recognize from seeing his name in the rafters among the other retired jerseys. The previous season, UNC had gone 15-1, winning the Southern Conference regular season championship.
They opened the season on December 15th, beating the Durham Elks 33-20. Two weeks later they added a 32-29 win over the Charlotte YMCA. What then followed was 22 consecutive regular season wins. That includes ones over the likes of normal opponents like Duke, NC State, and Virginia and ones over some slightly more unusual ones like Lynchburg and Washington & Lee. Oh, and for good measure there was also another over the Durham Elks.
In late February, UNC traveled to Atlanta to being the Southern Conference Tournament. Their first opponent was Kentucky, in what would be the first of many meeting between the schools. Carolina came out on top in that one, and followed that up with a win over Vanderbilt the following day. In the next round, they faced off against Mississippi State.
A couple paragraphs up, I mentioned that the previous year UNC had won the conference regular season title. They had not won the tournament title. Mississippi State had come out on top in the 1923 Southern Conference Tournament. While the Bulldogs did not have as good a season in ‘23-24, they were still the defending champs. Carolina dispatched them to set a date with Alabama.
In a fairly low-scoring game even for 1924, UNC came out on top 26-18. Back home in Chapel Hill, the news of the win was cause for celebration. Students all over campus celebrated the win, even setting a bonfire on an athletic field.
After the season, Shepard decided not to return as coach, exploring other business opportunities. He is still the only coach in history to have an undefeated debut season as coach.
The core of that team, mainly Cobb, went on to win two more Southern Conference Tournament championships the next two seasons under coaches Monk McDonald and Harlan Sanborn.
However, at the time the 1924 season wasn’t recognized anywhere as a “national championship.” In 1936, the Helms Athletic Foundation was founded. It’s main goal was naming All-Americans and national champions in a time when the polls weren’t really as widespread. However, they also decided to retroactively name national champions and gave the basketball title for 1923-24 to UNC.
Shepard eventually returned to coaching with Guilford in 1928. He also coached Randolph-Macon, Davidson, and Harvard, but never really reached the same level of success as he did in that one year in Chapel Hill.
UNC is one of two schools to claim national titles for 1923-24. The other is Butler, who cite a victory in the AAU National Tournament as basis for their claim. The NCAA Tournament came into existence in 1939, and has subsequently ended arguments about who gets the claim what.
Whether or not this title should count with the Tar Heels’ five NCAA Tournaments is up to you, and probably hinges on what school you root for.
Powell, Adam. University of North Carolina Basketball. Arcadia Pub., 2005.
Rappoport, Ken. Tales from the Tar Heel Locker Room. Sports Pub. L.L.C., 2005.