On February 17, 1946, the North Carolina State College basketball team lost to Duke 44-38 in half-empty Thompson Gym to end a dispiriting 6-12 campaign. State averaged only 39 points per game for the season. Fortunately, few noticed because few cared.
One year later, on February 25, 1947, Raleigh Fire Marshall W.R. Butts canceled a game between the State basketball team and the University of North Carolina. It seems that fans were spilling onto the floor and more were climbing into Thompson Gym through the restroom windows, endangering players and creating a fire hazard. The next week, Southern Conference officials hastily moved the post-season tournament from 3500-seat Raleigh Memorial Auditorium to 9000-seat Duke Indoor Stadium because of a dramatic increase in ticket demand.
What happened between the winter of 1946 and 1947? In the space of that single year, a diminutive Indiana transplant named Everett Case had permanently and irrevocably transformed the world of North Carolina sports. This is why I feel Everett Case--not Dean Smith, not Michael Jordan, not Richard Petty, not Charlie Justice, not Wallace Wade--is the most important figure in 20th -century North Carolina sports.
Case didn't invent basketball or introduce it to North Carolina. He wasn't the first coach in the state to win games and championships, and he wasn't the first coach to introduce fast-break basketball. College basketball was played in North Carolina before Case, and it was sometimes played very well. But few really cared. College football and minor-league baseball were the kingpins of the North Carolina sports scene in 1946. Case changed all that, and in a big way. Within a few years of his arrival in the South, "Tobacco Road" had become synonymous with basketball excellence. North Carolina was in the grips of a passionate love affair with college basketball that, a half-century later, shows no signs of abating.
Case never played college basketball and never coached college basketball before coming to N.C. State. But he was a high school coaching legend in the one place--Indiana--where a high school coach could become a legend. He was the first person to win four Indiana state championships. He coached in the Navy in World War II and stunned followers of Indiana basketball by accepting an offer to come to Raleigh in the summer of 1946.
Why did he choose to come to N.C. State? For years, the Raleigh school had toiled in the shadows of its nearby rivals, UNC in Chapel Hill and Duke University in Durham. University officials thought that basketball might be the way out. Construction of a massive coliseum was started before World War II, modeled after Duke Indoor Stadium, but was left standing as a skeleton for the duration of the war. The coliseum project and the opportunity to build something new enticed the 46-year-old bachelor to come to a very strange land.
Case entered a sporting environment in which college basketball was, at best, a poor third. He came to Raleigh the same year that football coaching immortal Wallace Wade returned to Duke after four years in the military. He came the same year football playing immortal Charlie "Choo-Choo" Justice enrolled at Chapel Hill. Wade and Justice were symbolic of a golden age of college football, a time when the attention of sports fans was riveted on games played in the sunshine on brisk autumn Saturday afternoons. The immediate post-war period also was a time when minor league baseball exploded in popularity; North Carolina boasted 42 teams in 1946 and 59 four years later.
The Case era at N.C. State catapulted college basketball to higher and higher levels, eventually taking it to the preeminent popularity it enjoys today. Relying on his reputation in Indiana, he was able to convince many of the top high school players to forsake local schools such as Indiana and Purdue and choose N.C. State--players such as Sammy Ranzino and Vic Bubas from Gary, Dick Dickey from Alexandria, Norm Sloan from Lawrence. Case unleashed his so-called 'Hoosier Hotshots' in a fast-paced brand of basketball that overwhelmed opponents and dazzled fans. Prior to Case's arrival, the highest point score ever made by a Wolfpack team was 71. Case's first N.C. State team equaled or surpassed that mark five times. That club averaged 60 points per game, an increase of more than 50 percent over its predecessor. His second State team scored an astonishing 75 points per game.
This up-tempo game led to two major accomplishments: It won ball games, and it won over fans. Case's early successes at State were unprecedented. In his first 10 seasons, Case won 267 games and lost only 60. His first six teams won the Southern Conference Tournament--his first loss came in 1953 when Wake Forest won 71-70. State moved to the Atlantic Coast Conference when that league was formed in 1954, and Case's teams won the first three tournament titles in the ACC. That resulted in a remarkable record of nine conference titles in 10 seasons for Case. For the first time, State basketball had a national presence. The Wolfpack finished third in the 1950 NCAA Tournament, became a regular in the AP poll, and began producing All-America players with regularity.
But none of this would have mattered if Case had not won over the fans. The exciting, fast-break basketball was a key factor, but it wasn't all. Vic Bubas, who played for Case at State and later served on Case's staff as an assistant before taking the head coaching job at Duke in 1959, put it this way: "The most remarkable thing about Case was his ability as a promoter of the game. Visionary is a good word. He won an award once as salesman of the year, and he deserved it. He understood all the things that go into promoting the game: cheer leading, music, promotion, working with media, food, everything."
And when Reynolds Coliseum opened in time for the 194950 season, it had the best tournament. That season, Case introduced the Dixie Classic. Each year, the Big Four (State, Carolina, Duke and Wake Forest) would invite four outside teams--powers such as Cincinnati, Utah, Minnesota and Michigan State--to take part in a three-day, eight-team tournament between Christmas and New Year's. The Dixie Classic gained national attention and became the top sporting event on the North Carolina calendar.
The competition scrambled to catch up. Facilities were improved and recruiting budgets were increased. State defeated archrival Carolina an unprecedented 15 consecutive times, leading to something approaching panic in Chapel Hill. UNC lured Frank McGuire away from St. John's to combat the "red menace." Wake Forest hired "Bones" McKinney and Duke hired Bubas, both of whom took their new schools to previously unheard-of heights, the Final Four.
In 1951 The News & Observer recognized Case's impact when it named him Tar Heel of the Week. "Since the little man came here from Indiana...basketball has almost supplanted politics as the favorite topic of conversation in the North Carolina capital," the article said. "This interest...is evident all across the state, which has reacted by building scores of additional high school gyms and insisting on better coaching material. Game attendance has picked up everywhere and makeshift goals have been erected in the most unlikely places--on trees, on the sides of barns, in tobacco warehouses --where budding collegiate stars spend their weekends working to perfect their basketball technique."
As the Case era drew to a close, recruiting violations landed N.C. State on probation for much of the late 1950s. Four of his players accepted money to shave points, resulting in the cancellation of the Dixie Classic after 1960. His health deteriorated, and Case died in 1966. He left a portion of his estate to certain of his players who exhibited qualities that he valued, including effort, sportsmanship and teamwork.
College football and minor league baseball continue to have passionate fans in the state, as do NASCAR, golf, tennis and even soccer events. But not even the most partisan fans of those sports would argue that they equal college basketball in popularity in North Carolina. Triangle schools have won seven national championships since 1957. Coaching legends like Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Valvano, and modern-era Big Four All-Americas like David Thompson, Michael Jordan, Grant Hill and Tim Duncan--These, and all the other great ACC players, owe an enormous debt to the man they called "the Old Gray Fox," the man most responsible for turning college basketball into North Carolina's sporting passion.
Jim L. Sumner, a native North Carolinian, is curator of sports and recreation for the North Carolina Museum of History and author of A History of Sports in North Carolina, among other books.