North Carolina’s first NCAA championship in any sport was when the 1956-57 men’s basketball team went undefeated and beat Kansas in triple overtime. The first national championship that the school claims is the Helms Foundation one from 1924, as you probably know.
In part, those dates are because not long before that, there just wasn’t a ton of chances. Most tournaments in various sports didn’t come into existence until the 1930s or 40s. The NCAA didn’t even govern women’s college sports until the 80s.
However, plenty of Tar Heel teams existed before the respective championships. And plenty of them competed and won championships of various sorts. So, let’s go back into the history books and look at some of the first conference championships won by various UNC teams.
Unsurprisingly, the first in school history belongs to the men’s basketball team. Two years before the undefeated team, the 1922 team won the Southern Conference Tournament.
In 1921-22, the UNC basketball team finished the regular season with a 9-5 record. They lost two games to the Durham YMCA (early college sports were weird), and went 3-3 in conference play. They were led by Cartwright Carmichael, who we learned about last week, and his brother Billy, who finished as the team’s two leading scorers.
They then headed to Atlanta, for the first ever Southern Conference Tournament, where they were matched up with Howard in the first round. (That’s the school in Alabama now known as Samford, not the one in Washington DC.) They won by 14, and followed that up with an even bigger win the next day over Newberry. Georgia managed to keep it a little closer, but UNC still prevailed in the next round. Their semifinal win over Alabama produced the most 1920s college basketball score of all time when Carolina won 20-11. They finished things off with a win over Mercer in the final to bring home the first conference title in any sport. Bigger things would be a ahead for the Carmichael brothers in this particular UNC era.
A few months later, football would join the party. The 1922 UNC football team opened the season with a crushing win over Wake Forest, but followed that up with a loss to Yale. They wouldn’t do that again.
Carolina finished the season on an eight-game winning streak, finishing with a 9-1 record. They allowed just 51 points total over the course of those last eight games, with 12 of them coming in one game. They would finish the Southern Conference season 5-0, allowing them to win a conference title...sort of. They and several other teams topped the conference with undefeated league records, because at the time, the conference was a loose assortment of teams that didn’t all need to play each other. However, UNC’s five wins is the most of that group, it should be noted.
The most successful team on the women’s side of things is, of course, soccer. Due to the aforementioned delay in the general development of women’s sports, Anson Dorrance’s program had actually won several NCAA titles before an ACC one.
The ACC did not have a women’s soccer tournament until 1988, at which point, the Tar Heels had already won six NCAA championships and an AIAW one. In that first ever ACCT, they actually lost to NC State in the title game. However, they would right that wrong the following year, and beat the Wolfpack to bring home a conference championship. (It should be noted, they also righted the 1988 wrong in 1988 as well, beating them in the NCAA championship game.
Women’s basketball actually beat women’s soccer to the punch on the conference title front. In 1983-84, coach Jennifer Alley’s squad finished the regular season 20-7 tied for third in the conference.
In their first game of the tournament, they squeaked by with a one-point win over a Clemson team that had just beaten them to wrap up the regular season. That’s as close as anyone would get to them that week. The Tar Heels followed that up with wins over Virginia and NC State by a combined 51 points to win the title and clinch a NCAA Tournament spot. However, that would actually be their last ACC title until 1994, where they added another trophy to their haul.
Pretty much every program at the school has won multiple conference crowns over the years. However, they all needed to start somewhere.