Looking Back... A Look at the 1958 Dixie Classic
Dec. 10, 2008
These days, you practically need an atlas to follow early-season ACC basketball. Every time you turn around, somebody is playing in Alaska, Hawaii, or Puerto Rico; the Preseason NIT or Coaches versus Cancer, filling the pre-ACC portion of the schedule with tournaments, classics, and challenges that match the ACC against the best teams and players from across the country.
It hasn't always been that way. There was a time when the season began after Thanksgiving, a time before ESPN and the internet made it possible to follow almost any program from a distance, a time when top intersectional games were rare and even the greatest players were more read about than actually seen in action.
There were a few notable exceptions. One of the most prominent was the Dixie Classic, the pride of Tobacco Road.
The Dixie Classic was the brainstorm of Raleigh News and Observer sportswriter Dick Herbert and NC State coach Everett Case.
The concept was simple. State and its local counterparts Duke, Wake Forest, and the North Carolina comprised half the eight-team field. The other four teams were top teams from across the country.
The Dixie Classic was first held in 1949, made possible by the opening of Reynolds Coliseum on the State campus. Seating 12,400, Reynolds was the largest basketball facility in the mid-Atlantic.
The Dixie Classic was a three-day affair, held between Christmas and New Year's. Everybody played all three days, culminating in a final day where the games determined first, third, fifth, and seventh place. A common format today, not so much in 1949.
It was the Big Four against the world and Case made sure to invite quality teams; Southern California, Holy Cross, Oregon State, Minnesota, Villanova, DePaul, Iowa, Utah, Duquesne, Marquette, and St. Louis were some of the participants.
Vic Bubas played in the first Dixie Classic for NC State and coached in most of the rest, either as an assistant at State or the head coach at Duke. Bubas says, "We put our very best out there. The tournament gained in importance every year. We had a lot of big names on stage and the fans responded. It became part of the holiday culture."
The Dixie Classic was never bigger than 50 years ago. The 1958 Dixie Classic brought together an unmatched collection of team and individual talent. Start with the local teams. The host Wolfpack entered the Dixie Classic with a 6-1 record, the sole loss to powerful Kansas State. NC State was ranked fifth in the AP poll.
North Carolina was 5-0 and ranked third. Duke was in the process of replacing all five starters from its 1958 team and was 2-4. Wake Forest was 3-3.
But the real excitement was on the visiting side of the equation. Yale was the sacrificial lamb but Louisville, Michigan State, and Cincinnati were formidable opponents. Michigan State was ranked seventh; Cincinnati second in the AP poll, first in UPI.
Cincinnati boasted the nation's top player, 6'5" junior Oscar Robertson. The "Big O" had averaged 35.1 points per game the previous season and came to Raleigh averaging 38 points per game. UNC coach Frank McGuire said of the `58 Classic, "I'd never seen anything like it. Not even the heyday of Madison Square Garden. I couldn't answer my phone for three days, so many people thought I could get them tickets."
Robertson and Michigan State's Johnny Green were among the top African-American players in the field. Black players had been coming to Reynolds since the early 1950s, but they were still visiting the segregated South. Robertson writes in his autobiography of his disappointment at being unable to stay in a Raleigh hotel; the Cincinnati team stayed at an NC State fraternity house temporarily vacated for the holiday break.
The first round was structured so that none of the local teams played each other. Three of the four games were blowouts. North Carolina hammered Yale 92-65, Cincinnati beat Wake Forest 92-70, and Michigan State beat Duke 82-57.
The Cincinnati-Wake Forest game was not without drama. It was a physical game, with Wake's Dave Budd being given the assignment of controlling Robertson. Early in the contest, Budd informed Robertson that "I'm going to be with you wherever you go." When Budd was forced to the bench with his third foul, Robertson responded, "Now, where are you going to be?"
The rivalry intensified midway through the second half. Robertson and Budd got tangled up scrambling for a loose ball. Robertson describes what happened next. "Our legs and bodies tangled up, and we rolled around and started wrestling for control of the ball. Other players thought we were fighting and gathered around. The crowd went insane. People were screaming every curse word in the book."
Budd also downplayed the incident, saying after the game, "It was a lot of pushing and shoving. But nobody hit each other."
It took five minutes to restore order and continue the game. Robertson ended with 29 points and 14 rebounds.
The Wolfpack had the closest call on opening day. Lou Pucillo was a senior, the ACC's best guard. He leaves no doubt that Case took the Classic seriously. "We didn't watch any of the other games. Case took us off campus to a local hotel. We watched film, went over scouting reports. We were focused on winning the championship."
State was matched against unranked but dangerous Louisville, a team that Pucillo calls "a sleeper. Nobody was talking about them."
They were after this game. There were 17 lead-changes and eight ties but State appeared to have sewn up the win when they took a 60-54 lead with 16 seconds left. But they missed the front end of two one-and-ones and Louisville star Don Goldstein scored six points to send the game to overtime.
Case's team regrouped and controlled the extra period, winning 67-61. Pucillo says, "We escaped." Bob MacGillivray led State with 20 points, four fewer than Goldstein.
The second day boasted a pair of highly anticipated games. The preliminaries were taken care of in the afternoon session, a 56-53 Duke win over Yale and a 76-64 Louisville victory over Wake Forest.
The North Carolina-Michigan State game was a rematch of a memorable 1957 Final Four game won by UNC in three overtimes.
The game was tied at 58 when Johnny Green scored to give the Spartans a two-point lead. Carolina couldn't answer and Michigan State padded its lead from the line, making the final a deceptive 75-58.
Green, a spectacular 6'5" leaper known as "Jumpin' Johnny", led Michigan State with 20 points and 14 rebounds and keyed them to a 57-38 rebound advantage over the bigger but slower Tar Heels. Lee Shaffer led UNC with 20 points.
Then there was State and Cincinnati. Pucillo says, "We may have overlooked Louisville because we were so focused on Oscar. [State guard] Dan Englehardt was from Indiana and he had been telling us how good Oscar was. We had never seen him play, so he was almost like a mythical creature."
Bubas gives a coach's analysis of Robertson. "He wasn't the best dribbler, he wasn't the best shooter. But I never saw him do anything fancy. He reduced the game to its simplest form. You couldn't stop him one-on-one but if you left a teammate open, he would always find them. The greatest players made their teammates better and nobody did that better than Oscar."
Case and Bubas came up with what Case called "a fouled-up zone." Pucillo explains. "When Oscar was in the post, we played a 1-3-1 zone with Englehardt in front of Oscar and John Richter behind him. When Oscar moved outside, we switched to a 2-1-2. Our instructions were to ignore the ball fake and stick with him everywhere he went."
The defense didn't exactly shut down Robertson; he had another 29-point effort. But that was well below his average and it was enough to enable State to control most of the game.
In fact, State never trailed, breaking an 11-11 tie with an 11-2 run. It was 32-24 at intermission. Cincinnati closed to 61-56 late but State held on for a 69-60 win. Richter, State's 6'8" senior center, dominated inside with 26 points and 15 rebounds.
Day three was one of the great days in Big Four history. Budd scored 18 points to lead Wake Forest to an 85-76 win over Yale for seventh place.
Then Duke surprised Louisville 57-54 for fifth place, overcoming a late 53-48 deficit behind Howard Hurt, who led all scorers with 24 points. It was 54-54 when Hurt was fouled driving to the basket with seconds left. He made both foul shots and a subsequent free throw following a technical foul called on a protesting Louisville player.
This left the four powerhouses to finish the tournament. North Carolina and Cincinnati met for third place, a consolation game involving two of the top three teams in the nation.
The result was an exceptional game, fast-paced, high-scoring, and fiercely competitive. Both teams made more than half of their field goals and neither ever opened up much of a lead. York Larese hit a long shot at the buzzer to give UNC a 45-42 lead at intermission.
Cincinnati controlled much of the second half and led 84-77 with four minutes left. The Tar Heels fought back, with baskets by Shaffer, Doug Moe, and Dick Kepley sandwiched around four free throws, giving Carolina an 87-86 lead.
The game's deciding play occurred with 30 seconds left when Shaffer scored inside on a follow-shot and drew a foul. His free throw made the score 90-86. Robertson scored late but a Cincinnati turnover ended its last chance. The final was 90-88.
Robertson finished with his third-straight 29-point performance, while Shaffer led UNC with 26 points.
This left the two States to play for the title. Pucillo says, "We could have had a letdown after beating Cincinnati but Case wouldn't let us. He really wanted to win the thing."
Michigan State led by nine early but a 20-4 Wolfpack run gave them some separation. It was 43-32 at intermission and NC State extended the lead to 64-47. The Spartans pulled as close as 64-55 but Case turned the game over to Pucillo and Englehardt, both skilled ball-handlers. State played keep-away down the stretch, winning 70-61.
Pucillo led all scorers with 22 points, but Richter was named tournament MVP after scoring 16 points and helping hold Green to 4 points and 6 rebounds. Following the game, Michigan State coach Forddy Anderson called this "the best tournament we've ever participated in. The better team won tonight." The Dixie Classic record 73,600 fans no doubt agreed.
State's win propelled them to second in the AP poll. The Wolfpack reached number one the following week and captured the 1959 ACC Tournament. NC State was not eligible for the NCAA Tournament that year so ACC runner-up UNC went instead. The Tar Heels were shocked in the tournament by Navy.
Lou Pucillo spent most of his post-playing career in sales. "It's not just that I'm talking about that tournament 50 years later," Pucillo says. "It's that I've been talking about it for almost all of that 50 years. Everywhere I go in North Carolina, somebody has memories of that Dixie Classic. It was a memorable week."
Louisville and Michigan State advanced to the Mideast regional title game, where Louisville pulled the upset, 88-81, to advance to their first Final Four.
Cincinnati beat Kansas State to win the Midwest regional, while Robertson again won the national player-of-the-year awards.
Cincinnati and Louisville lost their Final Four semifinal games and Cincinnati won the consolation game 98-85, a consolation game that could have been played three months earlier in Raleigh.
Jim Sumner's articles on southern sports history have appeared in the ACC Handbook, the ACC Area Sports Journal, Blue Devil Weekly, Inside Carolina, the Wolfpacker, Baseball America, Basketball America, and other publications. His latest book, Tales From the Duke Blue Devils Hardwood, was published in 2005. In his bimonthly column "Looking Back... by Jim Sumner", he will examine the rich history of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
This article can not be copied or reproduced without the express written consent of the Atlantic Coast Conference.