GREENSBORO — There’s nothing better to David Thompson than 1974.
That was the year UCLA’s seven-year reign as the class of college basketball ended at the hands of N.C. State.
It was also the year the ACC vindicated itself in the national picture, winning its first national title in 17 years. And Thompson, the star of N.C. State’s team and arguably the greatest college basketball player of all time, says it remains the highlight of his basketball career.
Around here, 1974 was the year big-time came to Greensboro, and the reality is it probably isn’t coming back.
“We won’t ever see them in a building the size of the Coliseum again,” said Woody Durham, who in 1974 was the sports director at WFMY and was a member of the committee that helped recruit the Final Four.
Forty years ago, the coliseum hosted the same tournament that the Greensboro Coliseum hosts this week — the ACC tournament. It was different then. There were fewer teams — seven vs. 15 — and fewer seats. But after that tournament, the college basketball world descended on Greensboro.
The Greensboro Coliseum hosted the 1974 NCAA Final Four featuring N.C. State, UCLA, Marquette and Kansas. And N.C. State, in front of an enthusiastic home crowd, was the last team standing.
“Close to home and so many fans in there backing us,” Thompson said. “I think even if they weren’t our fans, everyone was rooting against UCLA because they wanted to see somebody different win.”
Wherever future national champions are crowned, they won’t be in Greensboro. The Final Four has outgrown the city, making 1974’s probably the greatest tournament Greensboro will ever host. And it left quite a legacy.
Greensboro has put itself in position for prominent events. It’s in the midst of one now with the 2014 ACC men’s basketball tournament at the Greensboro Coliseum. It’s the conference’s “bell cow event,” as Commissioner John Swofford called it, and the tournament will draw millions of television eyes around the country.
But the 1974 ACC tournament and NCAA tournament helped change the game. N.C. State beat Maryland in the 1974 ACC championship game, with the Wolfpack ranked No. 1 in the nation and Maryland No. 4. When Maryland lost in overtime, 103-100, the Terps also lost their shot at the national title because only one team from each conference could advance to the NCAA tournament.
“I don’t think we really realized we were making such a mark in history that it was going to change the whole mind-set about multiple teams and bigger fields,” said Tommy Burleson, N.C. State’s center on its 1974 team.
The historical significance of the 1974 postseason is interesting, and its games were compelling. For a month in Greensboro, the city was blessed with the greatest ACC game ever played and an equally compelling Final Four.
N.C. State met UCLA in the Final Four, which was a more gripping matchup than the Wolfpack’s national championship game two nights later against Marquette.
“The game was really hyped because both teams had gone undefeated the season before, although N.C. State was ineligible for the tournament,” said Jamaal Wilkes, one of UCLA’s best players on its 1974 roster. “I remember David Thompson fell and hit his head the week before … and there were a lot of questions about what his status was going to be. It was a classic.”
It still is.
State, UCLA deliver
Long before “Tournament Town” was coined, Greensboro hosted the greatest college basketball tournament there is.
Forty years later, the games stand up. But the size of the facilities and the surrounding accommodations do not.
“Well you don’t realize it at the time. It was like, ‘This really is big time,’ ” former Greensboro Mayor Jim Melvin said. “All of a sudden, we were really on the front pages on an awful lot of newspapers and sports programs. That was a great feeling of community pride, and we had a reason to be proud. Those were good days.”
The city of Greensboro approved a $6.25 million bond issue in May 1968 to enlarge the coliseum from 9,000 seats to 15,400. At the time, the coliseum was one of the largest arenas in the country. According to a March 23, 1974, article by Smith Barrier, the former executive sports editor at the Greensboro Daily News, the renovations made the coliseum the second-largest on the Atlantic Coast, behind Madison Square Garden.
Imagine how the top of that list looked — New York City, Greensboro.
That’s big-time company.
And after the tournament, Greensboro’s role as host was commended.
“The reviews were just terrific,” Durham said. “We were thrilled with the way it came down and was played out and the way it finished. It was hard to top that semifinal game between State and UCLA.”
The NCAA’s Final Four hasn’t been in an arena the size of the coliseum since it was played in the Izod Center in East Rutherford, N.J., in 1996. In fact, the NCAA now requires that the semifinals and final take place in stadiums with capacities exceeding 40,000.
The 2014 Final Four will be at AT&T Stadium, a 100,000-seat domed facility in which the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys play in Arlington, Texas.
Still ‘Tournament Town’
The money was nothing to laugh at back then, even though it can’t compare with today’s figures. Barrier wrote in 1974 that the tournament was expected to bring in an estimated $2 million to the city.
Melvin thinks it reached that mark and exceeded it.
“And then some,” he said. “Because what you can’t put on there is the publicity you get because the tournament is broadcast nationally.”
But the growth of the tournament since then and the money in it is nothing short of exponential.
The 2014 NCAA Final Four on April 5 and 7 is estimated to generate $276 million in spending from out-of-state fans and workers, according to an article published by the Dallas Morning News.
Greensboro will remain in play for NCAA regional games and ACC tournaments. The coliseum is still relevant — thanks in large part to a commitment to renovations dating as far back as those that preceded the 1974 tournament.
But the Final Four is out of reach.
“Gosh, you had pictures on the front of Sports Illustrated magazines (of) David Thompson jumping over the top of Bill Walton,” Melvin said. “His arm was about 6 inches higher than Bill Walton’s. You can’t buy that kind of publicity.”