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NC State's in-state rivalries once included the Big Four Tournament

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The game program from the final Big Four Tournament in Greenbsoro, held in 1980 and won by Wake Forest.
Tim Peeler

When the Greensboro Coliseum expanded from its original 9,000-seat configuration to 16,000 seats in 1970, it needed a premier event to anchor the cavernous multipurpose arena. A basketball tournament seemed like a good idea.

With memories of the old Dixie Classic, the three-day tournament NC State coach Everett Case started just after the opening of Reynolds Coliseum in 1949 and ended following the gambling scandals of 1960, beginning to fade, there was a regular-season basketball void that needed to be filled in a town that later (in 2006) copyrighted the name “Tournament Town.”

And one of the reasons Greensboro earned that nickname was because of the Big Four Tournament, a two-night, regular-season extravaganza that displayed the state’s four ACC teams in nonconference action.

The games didn’t count in the standings, which made them no less intense, but took some of the pressure off for the fans in the stands. It was an early-season hoops appetizer, not as complicated as the eight-team format of the Dixie Classic.

The event was brilliant in its simplicity: NC State, North Carolina, Duke and Wake Forest played on two consecutive nights at the Greensboro Coliseum. They were randomly paired the first night, with the winners facing each other the next night in the title game, while the losers played each other in the consolation game.

In each of the 11 tournaments, there was a team with two wins, two teams with a 1-1 record and a team with two losses.

Fans loved it. Other than the first season, it was always a sell-out. Athletics directors loved it. Other than 1974, when NC State received an outrageous sum of $125,000 to play a made-for-television game against seven-time defending national champion UCLA in St. Louis, the game was the biggest entry on the basketball ledger sheet, earning each school more than $50,000 a year in income.

That was huge in the 1970s, before there were even whispers of conference television packages.

Predictably, however, the coaches hated it. Why add the extra stress of playing an archrival one more time in an already difficult season?

But there was certainly room in the schedule. The ACC had only seven teams for most of the 1970s and the conference round robin was only 12 games long. A premier event like this filled the state’s biggest coliseum unlike any other early season events could have.

There were some unbelievable games, perhaps none more than the first days of 1974, when No. 5 NC State opened the event against No. 4 North Carolina. It kicked off what certainly has to be regarded as the greatest year that city has ever seen, thanks mostly to the Pack.

The Tar Heels were undefeated and the Wolfpack’s only loss was the 84-66 throttling it took against the Bruins two weeks earlier in St. Louis. The Pack rebounded by winning the Sugar Bowl Tournament in New Orleans then returned to its home state to face the Tar Heels, with the hope of kicking off a run to the NCAA championship, which was slated to be in Greensboro later that year.

The Pack built as much as a nine-point lead in the contest, but Carolina came back to make it interesting in the final two minutes. Wolfpack senior center Tommy Burleson gave the Pack a 76-75 lead with 42 seconds remaining and junior point guard Monte Towe made two quick-trigger free throws with 18 seconds to play.

North Carolina’s Ed Stahl drew his team within one point with a jumper, and the Tar Heels stole the inbounds pass under its own basket. Stahl, however, missed a potential game-winning shot in the final seconds, and the Wolfpack held on for a 78-77 victory over Dean Smith’s Tar Heels, State’s fifth victory in a string of nine in a row over UNC.

Afterwards, Wolfpack coach Norman Sloan said “anybody could have won” and the victory didn’t mean anything, since it didn’t count in the conference standings. Newspaper reports that weekend however blasted the coach for calling the tournament “meaningless.”

State, after trailing early, whipped Wake Forest in the title game, taking its third Big Four title in four years and kicking off the unofficial start to the ACC season. The Pack swept through the league regular season, won the North-South Doubleheader against Georgia Tech and Furman in Charlotte, returned to Greensboro to win the ACC Tournament against Maryland in what is still remembered as the greatest conference game ever played, won two games in the NCAA East Regional at Reynolds Coliseum and then capped off a brilliant campaign by beating UCLA and Marquette in the NCAA semifinals and championship game.

State never won the Big Four title again, though. In 1975, the Demon Deacons and sensational freshman Rod Griffin ended the Wolfpack’s 36-game winning streak on the opening night with the Wolfpack seeing that its fortunes might not be the same without departed center Tommy Burleson on the floor.

The coaches eventually won the argument about playing in such a tough nonconference event. In 1980, just after Georgia Tech entered the ACC and the league schedule expanded to 14 games, they agreed to end the tournament.

“I have ambivalent feelings about the Big Four Tournament,” said first-year coach Jim Valvano before his only experience with it. “I’m very excited because it is the first for me. But I’m a little sad because I’ve been told it’s the last of the Big Four Tournaments.”

Valvano’s team lost to Wake Forest 87-57 in his first Big Four game, but beat fellow first-year coach Mike Krzyzewski in the consolation finals, in the first of Valvano’s 12 wins over the Blue Devils.

In the final Big Four championship game, Wake Forest’s Frank Johnson scored 24 points to lead the Demon Deacons to an 82-71 victory over No. 11 North Carolina. Freshman Sam Perkins had 22 points for the Tar Heels.

The Wolfpack posted a 13-9 overall record in the event and won it three times.

The Big Four certainly generated excitement, and the coaches knew it. When Sloan left for Florida following the 1979-80 season, one of the first things he did was help set up the Florida Four with the Gators, Florida State, Jacksonville and South Florida. It lasted just two seasons.

Tim Peeler is a regular contributor to The Wolfpacker and can be reached at tmpeeler@ncsu.edu.

Big Four Tournament Records
Team Record Tournaments Won

NC State

13-9

3

North Carolina

12-10

2

Wake Forest

10-12

4

Duke

9-13

2

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