By Neil Beldock
“When I got to North Carolina there was little or no interest in college basketball there. Everybody was a football fan.” Frank McGuire reflecting on his arrival at the University of North Carolina in 1953.
North Carolina is a college basketball hot-bed equal to, if not greater than any college basketball area in the nation. But it wasn’t always like that.
When Frank McGuire left St. John’s University in New York, where he won 103 games while losing just 35 games, and headed south to coach basketball at the University of North Carolina, basketball was little more that an after-thought in Chapel Hill.
Early in his first season at North Carolina, McGuire sat silently on the bench watching as his team was getting badly beaten. His Assistant Coach asked McGuire “what are we going to do?”. McGuire’s answer was simple and to the point:
“Get better players.”
And McGuire knew exactly where to go to get better players; New York City.
Thus was born what would become known as the “Underground Railroad” transporting some of the best basketball talent in the New York City area south to North Carolina. And Frank McGuire was the architect of this “Underground Railroad”.
Explained McGuire in why he would focus on recruiting basketball players from the New York City area: “I believe we know more about basketball in New York. Even the players are better”.
And it didn’t take long for McGuire’s strategy to pay huge dividends.
In 1956-57, with a starting five comprised of New York City area talent, North Carolina went undefeated, winning all 32 of it’s games which included beating the Wilt Chamberlain led Kansas Jayhawks to win the NCAA Championship.
That championship squad was led by Lennie Rosenbluth from the Bronx and Stauton Military Academy, Pete Brennan from Brooklyn and St. Augustine High School, Tommy Kearns from Bergenfield, New Jersey and St. Ann’s High School in New York City, Joe Quigg from Brooklyn and St. Francis Prep and Bob Cunningham from the Bronx and All Hallows High School.
The 1956-57 University of North Carolina basketball roster included 13 players of which 10 players were from the New York Metropolitan area.
The “Underground Railroad” from the greater New York City area to North Carolina was up and running, delivering results, and beginning to turn Chapel Hill and the entire state of North Carolina into a basketball hot-bed.
McGuire would remain at North Carolina through the 1960-61 season, compiling a record of 164-58, most of those wins coming on the backs of the numerous players he recruited from the New York City area including names such as Doug Moe (Brooklyn, NY), Donnie Walsh (Bronx, NY) and Larry Brown (Long Beach, NY).
Upon leaving North Carolina, McGuire handed the reins of the program to an assistant coach by the name of Dean Smith. Smith would do nothing to halt the underground railroad from benefiting his rein as it had for McGuire.
Over the next 10-15 years Smith would continue to bring players to North Carolina from the New York City area, players such as Peppy Callahan (Smithtown, NY), Bryan McSweeny (Hewlett, NY), Billy Cunningham (Brooklyn, NY), Charlie Scott (NYC, NY), Eddie Fogler (Flushing, NY) Jim Delany (So. Orange, NJ), Bill Chamberlain (NYC, NY) and Mitch Kupchak (Brentwood, NY).
In 1963 the “Underground Railroad” was about to add a second stop.
When McGuire left North Carolina after the 1960-61 season he became the General Manager and Coach of the Philadelphia Warriors of the NBA, a gig which would last just one year before he returned to college basketball as the head coach of the University of South Carolina.
His “Underground Railroad” was back in business, only now heading a little further south.
McGuire, just as he had done at North Carolina, would turn the University of South Carolina into a national power by bringing elite talent from the New York City area to Columbia, South Carolina.
He recruited players such as John Roche (LaSalle Academy, NYC), Tom Riker (St. Dominic HS, Oyster Bay NY), Kevin Joyce (Archbishop Molloy HS, Queens NY), Brian Winters (Archbishop Molloy HS, Queens NY), Bobby Cremins (All Hallows HS, Bronx NY), Tom Owens (All Hallows HS, Bronx NY), Bob Carver (Archbishop Molloy HS, Queens NY), Mike Dunleavy (Nazareth HS, Brooklyn NY), and Jack Gilloon (West NY, New Jersey).
McGuire would coach South Carolina through the 1979-80 season. Over his 16 years coaching South Carolina he compiled a record of 283 wins against 142 losses, with many of those wins once again coming on the backs of the numerous players he brought south via the “Underground Railroad”.
A bit of historic perspective is needed to understand how and why New York City talent started heading south. It starts with the point shaving scandals which rocked New York City collegiate basketball in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s.
As the popularity of college basketball was exploding in New York City through the 1930’s and 1940’s, with games being played in front of sell-out crowds in Madison Square Garden, the best local high school players would matriculate to local schools such as St. John’s, LIU, NYU, Manhattan College and CCNY (CCNY would win both the NIT and NCAA championships in 1949-50).
When the point shaving scandals were uncovered at schools such as Manhattan College, LIU, NYU and CCNY, the consequences were that these schools either discontinued or greatly de-emphasized their basketball programs.
By 1953 only St. John’s remained as an elite level college basketball program in New York City.
Though I haven’t seen it mentioned or written anywhere, this might have been the primary reason Frank McGuire decided to leave St. John’s and New York City for points south, ultimately leading to the mass migration of the best high school players from the New York City area south as well.
McGuire probably knew that the elite basketball talent emerging from New York City high schools would need options other than New York City in order to play high-level college basketball now that there remained almost no alternative locally other than St. John’s.
Thus, McGuire headed south with the idea of being able to provide an alternative to the problem of where to play for the many elite New York City high school basketball players. His “Underground Railroad” would provide the solution.
With the success of the “Underground Railroad” evident to all of the other southern schools, they too saw the value in developing their own underground railroads.
Schools such as Duke, Davidson, Tennessee and Maryland set out to build their programs with a similar blueprint; Recruit elite New York City talent and you will have a winning program. It worked in Chapel Hill. It worked in Columbia. It stood to reason that it could work anywhere in the South.
Through the 1960’s and 1970’s, elite New York area players were heading south in record number.
Through the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s, in addition to the players previously mentioned herein, elite level players such as Art Heyman (Duke/Oceanside N.Y), Jim Spanarkle (Duke/Jersey City, N.J.), Mike Gminski (Duke/Monroe, Ct.), Kenny Smith (North Carolina/Queens N.Y.), Sam Perkins (North Carolina/Latham, N.Y.), Jimmy Black (North Carolina/Bronx, N.Y.), Matt Doherty (North Carolina/East Meadow, N.Y.), Mike O’Koren (North Carolina/Jersey City, N.J.), Mike Maloy (Davidson/Long Island City, N.Y.), James “Fly” Williams (Austin Peay/Brooklyn, N.Y.), Albert King (Maryland/Brooklyn, N.Y.), Len Elmore (Maryland/New York City), Ernie Grunfeld (Tennessee/Queens, N.Y.), and Bernard King (Tennessee/Brooklyn, N.Y.), as well as many others all headed south from the greater New York City area to play their collegiate basketball.
And the migration of elite New York City basketball talent heading south even showed itself in the woman’s game as Nancy Lieberman (Far Rockaway, Queens N.Y- Far Rockaway High School 1973-76), the most dominate woman’s player of her day, headed south to Old Dominion Universtiy in Norfolk, Virginia where she guided the team to the NIT Championship in 1978 and then consecutive National Championships in 1979 and 1980.
The migration of elite New York City area high school basketball players to southern schools would continue unabated until the advent and success of the Big East Conference in the early 1980’s.
For the first time since the early 1950’s, a new alternative presented itself as New York City area players could now choose to attend schools located primarily in the northeast, knowing they would play their conference tournament at Madison Square Garden.
Many players still headed south, but what had been started by Frank McGuire in 1953, creating an underground railroad from New York to the south, started to diminish.
But, there is no doubt and no questioning that when Frank McGuire started his “Underground Railroad”, basketball became a major attraction south of the Mason-Dixon line where before his impact, basketball was but an after-thought.
And more importantly, his genius provided opportunities for numerous New York City area high school students who’s options to play major college basketball were dwindling as a result of the 1950’s point shaving scandals.
Frank McGuire truly was an architect in constructing the “Underground Railroad” and a savior for and of elite New York City area high school basketball players.