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Tar Heel Firsts: The first UNC NCAA championship

Athletes in individual sports were the first to bring NCAA sanctioned titles to Chapel Hill.

The Match Europe v USA Minsk 2019 - Press Conference Photo by Oliver Hardt/Getty Images for European Athletics

As we’ve talked about in these Tar Heel Firsts posts, the first national championship claimed by the school was the 1924 basketball team’s. However as that was in a pre-NCAA Tournament era and awarded by the Helms Foundation, you won’t find that one listed in many record books. Most official sources will have Tar Heels men’s basketball at six titles and not seven.

Four years later, a couple North Carolina Tar Heels did win a NCAA national championship, and are the first in school history.

The first NCAA championship in what is a team sport was the 1957 men’s basketball title. However prior to that, a couple Tar Heels brought home individual national titles in a couple different sports. The first of those was in 1928.

The NCAA Track and Field Championships were held in 1921. the first official championship in any sport.

Seven years after that, a team of four UNC athletes competed in the now defunct four mile relay. The team of Hoyt Pritchett, Minor Barkley, June Fisher and Galen Elliot ran a time of 20:41.1 to win the race and the first NCAA national championship for the university.

The star of that team was Elliot, who in the two prior season, had been named an All-American, the first UNC Track and Field athlete to do so. Individual, he finished fourth in the mile at that year’s championships.

It should be noted that there is also some confusion about this championship. UNC claims it and lists it in their various media guides as an NCAA Championship. However, it was tough to find much information about this race in sources besides official Tar Heel ones. While there was at one point a mile relay, it’s hard to find much information about a four-mile relay existing at NCAA Championships. As most of us reading this are probably of a Carolina blue persuasion, we’re going to assume UNC didn’t invent this race out of thin air.

If this wasn’t in fact the first NCAA title, the actual correct answer is still in the running arena. In 1947, a decade before that first basketball title, Jack Milne won the individual cross country national championship. After him was Bill Albans in another track and field event in 1950 and Phil Drake in swimming in 1955 both bringing home titles before the 1957 basketball team brought home the first team championship.

Many others have won national titles in individual events in various sports in the years since. Even if that 1928 relay wasn’t technically a national title, the first official NCAA championship is school history still came via before the major ones you know about.