1974 Wolfpack: Phil Ford powered UNC’s turnaround in series

Phil Ford Celebrates 1975 ACC Championship win.

Phil Ford can still hear the silence at Reynolds Coliseum, and he can still place himself there the day David Thompson fell. Forty years later, the image and the sounds endure.

“I thought he had broken his neck,” Ford said recently, thinking back to the day Thompson, then an N.C. State junior, fell backward on his head after he attempted to block a shot against Pittsburgh during the 1974 NCAA tournament.

Thompson, it turned out, avoided serious injury that day. He returned to the bench after a trip to the hospital, a white bandage around his head, and the Wolfpack went on to win the national championship.

As a high school senior in Rocky Mount, Ford followed the tournament closely. He was at Reynolds that day, and then he was at the Greensboro Coliseum when the Wolfpack defeated UCLA in the Final Four.

Those were different times in college basketball – a time marked by the Bruins’ dynasty and, in the ACC, by N.C. State’s supremacy. Ford, then one of the top prospects in the state, considered playing for N.C. State before deciding to play for North Carolina and coach Dean Smith.

“Yeah,” he said last week, four decades later. “I was either coming to Carolina or going to N.C. State at the end.”

End of the streak

If Ford had gone to N.C. State, perhaps the Wolfpack would have continued its most dominant stretch in history against UNC. Between Feb. 29, 1972, and Jan. 4, 1975, the Wolfpack defeated the Tar Heels nine consecutive times.

To put that into perspective, N.C. State has defeated UNC nine times – total – since 1993, and just 23 times since Ford, then a freshman, helped end that nine-game winning streak in 1975. The UNC-N.C. State series has become so one-sided it’s difficult to remember that, at one time, it was the primary rivalry in North Carolina – and one of the most passionate in the country.

“I still look at State as the rivalry,” Ford said. “It was the big game when I was in school.”

Ford arrived at UNC amid somewhat perilous times. N.C. State, primarily because of Thompson, had become the best college basketball program in North Carolina.

On a smaller scale, the early-to-mid 1970s rekindled memories of a stretch during the 1940s and ’50s when N.C. State beat UNC in 20 out of 21 games. UNC then hired Frank McGuire in 1952, and he gradually built the Tar Heels into the national power they’ve usually been since.

During the mid-’70s, with N.C. State threatening the Tar Heels’ superiority, Ford’s arrival couldn’t have come at a better time. He went to UNC in the summer of 1974, not long after N.C. State had won the national championship, and more than any other player he turned the series back in the Tar Heels’ favor.

Not that Smith paid attention to such things, Ford said.

“Man, look – we never talked about it,” Ford said of UNC’s losing streak against the Wolfpack. “Coach Smith told me I may have to play (junior varsity) my freshman year. So we hardly ever talked about beating N.C. State.

“I was just trying to get on the court.”

Ford delivers as freshman

Ford did more than merely get on the court. His freshman season still is remembered as one of the best in ACC history.

Yet the shift in power in the ACC, and the state, didn’t happen easily. N.C. State beat UNC in the Big Four Tournament in Greensboro in Ford’s first game in the rivalry. The Tar Heels endured another loss to the Wolfpack in January 1975 at Reynolds Coliseum. It would be the last time until 1983, the Wolfpack’s second championship season, that any UNC team lost twice in a row against N.C. State.

Later in Ford’s freshman season, the Tar Heels finally beat the Wolfpack by two at Carmichael Auditorium. Thompson scored 32 points but couldn’t get the ball on the Wolfpack’s final possession, which ended when Tim Stoddard missed a long jumper. Smith’s plan was to double-team the ball. Smith told reporters, “I didn’t want to sit back and watch David Thompson get the last shot. I thought Stoddard had a good shot, but I’d rather see him shooting it than David.”

The teams met again that season in the ACC tournament championship game in Greensboro. UNC prevailed 70-66, ending Thompson’s college career. Ford, who scored a game-high 24 points and handed out five assists in the final, became the first freshman in league history to be named ACC tournament Most Valuable Player. He scored eight points during a decisive 11-0 run as the Tar Heels turned a three-point deficit into a 63-55 lead.

“I think my freshman year, you have to give coach Smith the credit,” Ford said. “They had the Big Four tournament, we came in fourth in the Big Four tournament that year. I think we lost to State and we lost to Duke. I can’t remember what order.

“But by the end of the year, coach Smith had turned us into a team good enough to win the ACC tournament.”

During Ford’s next three seasons, UNC went 6-3 against N.C. State. The Tar Heels have controlled the rivalry since, and Ford expressed surprise when told the Wolfpack had beaten UNC just 23 times since he helped end their streak 39 year ago.

Ford remembers a different time, when N.C. State was every bit as formidable an opponent as Duke is now.

“I didn’t know that,” Ford said, when told just how rare N.C. State victories against UNC have become. “But I know that N.C. State was the big game when I was in school, and it was the big game when I was in high school. And it’s still a big game to me. I think it’s lost some of its luster with the Duke-Carolina game now.

“But with us old guys, we still remember the N.C. State-Carolina days.”

Written by: Andrew Carter (Charlotte Observer)
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