Sunday, July 22, 2007

The national title that wasn't?

There is a story in today's Charleston Gazette (W.V.) about a couple of old basketball players. One, Nemo Nearman, played at UNC in the late 1940s. The other, Hot Rod Hundley, intended to play for NC State beginning in 1953 but ended up at West Virginia instead. The Wolfpack, unfortunately, were put on probation shortly after his arrival in Raleigh, so Hundley packed his bags and left.

How did NC State end up on probation? From the article:

Nearman used the occasion to have dinner with Hundley and reminisce about the NCAA violations that had made him in ineligible at North Carolina State in 1953.

Also present at the dinner was a Nearman friend and former North Carolina classmate — a former sportswriter named Julian Scheer, whom he introduced to Hundley.

As it happens, Scheer in 1953 had discovered Hundley and other N.C. State players working out illegally in Raleigh and had written an expose in a Charlotte newspaper, leading to the NCAA sanctions and Hundley’s ineligibility with the Wolfpack.

An expose written by a Carolina grad! They really are out to get us!omg!111

Hundley recalls:

Red Brown, the coach at West Virginia, was a good coach and a great guy, but my first choice was North Carolina State. I liked coach Everett Case, and along with Kentucky they were the best thing in the South. I could tell Coach Case knew a lot about basketball and they had a lot of talent in their program. I went there for a couple of visits and they treated me well. He had invited me down there illegally for a tryout my sophomore year in high school. That summer they put me in a basketball camp and got me a job as a lifeguard at pool on the NC State campus, even though I couldn't swim. I was assigned to the wading pool, but mostly I got paid for laying in the sun. It was like Grand Central Station the way they had kids coming in from everywhere in the country. I've never seen anything like it. They put me up in a dorm and I spent my days lying by the pool and spent my nights driving a fancy Olds and wearing the fancy duds they gave me. I was loving it. Like I said, they treated me well.

A little too well, maybe. The Atlantic Coast Conference declared 14 of North Carolina State's players ineligible because they were brought in for tryouts as high school students, which was against the rules, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association was starting to investigate the school's recruiting practices as well. The NCAA was looking for even harsher penalties for both the school and individuals, and my name got mentioned. NC State wasn't doing anything other schools weren't doing. They just got caught. But I was one of the ones they brought in for illegal tryouts and I was scared. If I went there now, would I be jeopardizing my career?

If that's accurate, it's a prime example of how morally bankrupt college basketball had become in the 1950s. I god. A car, clothes, and a job as a lifeguard even though he couldn't swim. And I thought the '80s were the most embarrassing years in our program's history. I've always felt a mixture of pride and shame when I think about our basketball legacy; this doesn't exactly help.

Anyway, back to the Gazette article:

During the three-hour dinner, Scheer posed a question: How would things have turned out if the story had not been written, the NCAA had not intervened and had he remained at North Carolina State?

“In my junior year,’’ said Hot Rod, “we would have won a national championship.’’

My first reaction was that he was just blowing smoke, but he may have been right. Hundley became an excellent college basketball player: he scored over 2000 points during his career at WVU and during his junior year averaged more than 26 points and 13 rebounds per game. His junior year at NC State would have been '55-'56. That season, the Wolfpack won the ACC title and were ranked #2 in the final AP poll. He and Ron Shavlik would have made for a killer tandem. Who knows; maybe, had Hundley stayed in Raleigh, Bill Russell's San Francisco teams would never have celebrated back-to-back titles.