Conservatives, cheer up. The NCAA basketball tournament gets fully underway on Thursday and there is good news for right-wingers: The University of North Carolina has not been invited to the dance. Usually the belle of the ball, the North Carolina Tar Heels will be missing the NCAA tournament for the first time in 28 years.
In fact, they won't be playing any postseason basketball at all, the first time in 35 years this has happened. North Carolina has weathered one of the worst seasons anyone can remember -- not even winning 10 games -- and the program is now in shambles, a shadow of the powerhouse it has been for decades.
The stroke of the executioner's blade ending this miserable season was officially wielded Sunday when the NCAA Tournament selection committee took a pass on the Heels. Call it regicide of basketball royalty. But in reality UNC's demise owed to a thousand ignominious cuts administered throughout the season by plebeian schools with names like Hampton, Davidson, College of Charleston, and Ohio (no, not Ohio State, UNC actually lost to OHIO) -- the sorts of programs upon which UNC has feasted for decades. Losing to such pipsqueaks and missing the postseason is the ultimate insult for such a gloried program.
You may ask why conservatives should cheer this welcome development. For one thing, it's about time; UNC has ruled the roost longer than FDR. But more than that, Carolina is the quintessential liberal's basketball team, if there is such a thing. Seeing Carolina fall flat on its collective face can only fill a right-thinking person with contentment.
It all goes back to Dean Smith, North Carolina's legendary coach who retired after 36 seasons in 1997. He's the winningest coach in the history of the game. And the best, much as I hate to admit it. Even when his teams clearly weren't as talented as other Atlantic Coast Conference rivals, they would find some way to win. Their victories had the air of inevitability. It was maddening. And this went on for DECADES.
The fact that Dean won wasn't as objectionable as how he won and how he acted. Dean was smug, arrogant, and condescending. He was loathed by his fellow ACC coaches -- a pretty gregarious and affable group -- for his obnoxiousness and pettiness.
And he wore his liberalism on his sleeve. With Jesse Helms and Dean Smith, the state of North Carolina has produced two genuine political icons in recent memory, and they are polar opposites. When he wasn't busy crushing opponents on the hardwood, Dean Smith was protesting the Vietnam War, endorsing a nuclear freeze, denouncing the death penalty, or campaigning for liberal Governor Jim Hunt. And he made it quite clear he wasn't very fond of Jesse.
Consider this tribute published in "The Nation": Dean Smith "embodied virtue and goodness as surely as Jesse Helms represented hate and ignorance. … For decades young Tar Heels fans grew up aware of Dean Smith's unapologetic liberalism. … Smith's political bent and reputation for treating players like extended family made it possible to imagine that by rooting for UNC, you somehow showed support for doing the right thing."
"Doing the right thing." Please. It might be going a bit too far to say that rooting for Carolina is un-American, but it's pretty damn close
It's no wonder this sort of thing has produced in many a healthy revulsion of UNC that carries over into the post-Dean Smith era. And Dean isn't really gone, anyway. He just isn't on the sidelines. Dean Smith will long be synonymous with UNC basketball. The team plays its games in the Dean Smith Center, and he has the strongest hand in its most important decisions. Dean picked both of his successors -- the short-lived but highly successful Bill Guthridge, and the weepy and woeful current coach, former UNC player Matt Doherty.
So it is entirely correct and proper to despise North Carolina with all one's might. But don't make the mistake of thinking that this year's 8-20 record means a stake has been driven through the heart of UNC basketball or that the sun has set on its Evil Empire. Only a fool would bet on that possibility.
Like all inveterate Carolina-haters, I know deep down that they'll be back. I fear their return with the same dread certainty I felt when watching a Dean Smith team down eight points with two minutes left always come back to win.
But for now, we should enjoy this respite from UNC domination, unencumbered of the fear they might win this year's national championship. So sit back this weekend, and savor the delicious fact that liberal sanctimony and smugness have been dealt a cruel blow.
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