45th anniversary of 1st WBTV Carolina Classic is Friday. Event highlighted local small colleges and universities

By Richard Walker

Original logo of WBTV Carolina Classic

What started 45 years ago Friday as a way to promote small college basketball became a pre-Christmas tradition in the Charlotte area in the 1970s and 1980s.

And two local schools – Gardner-Webb and Belmont Abbey – were the winningest teams in the event that gave them and several other local colleges and universities tremendous exposure.

Called the WBTV Carolina Classic since the Charlotte television station was a sponsor and televised the championship game live for the first 10 of its 11 years as an event, it was a idea of a Belmont Abbey College graduate who was a big fan of small college basketball.

“The whole thing came up because I felt a lot of good things were going on in the small colleges and they weren’t getting any attention,” said then-WBTV Channel 3 general manager Jim Babb, a 1959 Belmont Abbey graduate. “So I came up with the concept of doing the Carolina Classic. I talked to the schools when they came in and I don’t think I got any pushback when they came in. We were pleased with it and we tried to make it just like an ACC game. And I think it was pretty well justified because they were pretty doggone good teams.”

When the 11-year event ended, Gardner-Webb had the most wins (24), most titles (six) and most championship game appearances (eight) and Belmont Abbey was second with 15 wins and two titles and tied with Lenoir-Rhyne for second in title-game appearances with four.

Belmont Abbey also hosted eight of the 11 tournaments at the Wheeler Center.

Gardner-Webb was a small college power when the event began after making two appearances in the previous seasons in the NAIA national tournament. The Bulldogs’ head coach at the time was Eddie Holbrook, who always sought to promote his program through hosting tournaments and making annual trips to exotic locations.

For Holbrook, the WBTV Carolina Classic was a perfect fit and continued to promote a program that eventually left small college ranks for NCAA Division I in 2000.

Babb “was just wanting to do something for small college basketball and the promotion of small college basketball,” said Holbrook, now chairman of the American Legion World Series in Shelby. “We were blessed with it. We had remarkable success in it. It was a great opportunity for us. At that time, the opportunity to be on TV was a super big deal. It was very, very rare for small colleges to have any exposure on TV.
“It’s hard for most people now to understand how big that was for a school like Gardner-Webb. It was nothing like today where virtually every game played by a school in the ACC is on TV. Back then, it was very limited to a game or two a week in the ACC so you can imagine how big it was for us to get on TV.”

Belmont Abbey hosted the event from 1975 to 1982 with Winthrop University hosted the final three tournaments from 1983 to 1985.

Gardner-Webb’s Eddie Lee Wilkins defends a shot during the 1983 WBTV Carolina Classic at Belmont Abbey’s Wheeler Center. A future NBA player, Wilkins is the 11-year-old event’s only two-time MVP winner.

In addition to Belmont Abbey and Gardner-Webb, area schools Barber-Scotia, Catawba, Johnson C. Smith, Lenoir-Rhyne, Limestone, Livingstone, Pfeiffer, Wingate and Winthrop were participants during the event’s 11-year run.

The inaugural tournament was played Dec. 18 through Dec. 20 in 1975 with Gardner-Webb defeating Lenoir-Rhyne 88-83 in the championship game that was televised at 3:30 p.m. on WBTV-Channel 3 in Charlotte. The game was broadcast immediately after Fran Tarkenton and the Minnesota Vikings defeated the Buffalo Bills and star running back O.J. Simpson 35-13 in a nationally-televised CBS broadcast from Buffalo.

Helping make the Carolina Classic feel even more special was that the tournament was played in mid-December – and before the old C.D. Chesley/Jefferson Pilot ACC television network had begun broadcasting ACC games in January. Babb said televising the Carolina Classic was a perfect trial run for the network to get ready for its upcoming games.

It also meant then-Channel 3 sports director Jim Thacker and former Wake Forest player and coach Billy Packer, who normally broadcast the ACC games, were often used as Carolina Classic commentators. Both were regional TV stars and Packer would go on to become the top national college TV commentator for NBC and CBS national broadcasts.

Gardner-Webb would win the first four tournament titles, racking up 14 consecutive tournament victories before Belmont Abbey won its first tournament in 1979 by knocking off the Bulldogs in the championship game. Gardner-Webb would later win its fifth and sixth titles in 1982 and 1983 as future NBA standout Eddie Wilkins became the tournament’s only two-time MVP.

Belmont Abbey won its second title in 1984. And Winthrop (1980), Limestone (1981) and Pfeiffer (1985) also won tournament championships.

When the tournament began, it was an eight-team field for four years. Once the field increased to 10 and even 11 teams, twice a team needed to win four games to take the championship – Limestone in 1981 and Gardner-Webb in 1982.

There were 21 times in which a player scored 30 or more points, topped by a record 41 points from Livingstone’s Jonathan Hart in a 109-103 overtime loss to Gardner-Webb in a 1977 quarterfinal game.

Gastonia’s Refore Rollinson had the only other 40-point game; Rollinson scored 40 points for Barber-Scotia in a 129-98 loss to Gardner-Webb in a 1978 quarterfinal game.

Belmont Abbey’s Billy Holmgaard was MVP of the 1979 event that snapped Gardner-Webb’s 14-game tournament winning streak and gave the Crusaders their first WBTV Carolina Classic championship.

And twice in tournament history a player scored 30 or more points in three straight games. Each time – Catawba’s Herman Miles in 1975 and Gardner-Webb’s Lewis Young in 1976 – that player won tournament MVP honors.

Miles’ 103 points in the first tournament was the highest individual tournament total by a player.

Gardner-Webb and Limestone each reached the century mark three times in tournament competition, with Gardner-Webb setting the event record in the 129-98 quarterfinal in 1978 and Limestone setting the finals record in its 101-86 victory over Johnson C. Smith in 1981.

Here’s a list of tournament championship games and tournament MVPs:

1975: Gardner-Webb 88, Lenoir-Rhyne 83
MVP – Herman Miles (Catawba)

1976: Gardner-Webb 96, Lenoir-Rhyne 73
MVP – Lewis Young (Gardner-Webb)

1977: Gardner-Webb 97, Lenoir-Rhyne 86
MVP – Carl Martin (Gardner-Webb)

1978: Gardner-Webb 81, Belmont Abbey 79
MVP – K.C. Graham (Gardner-Webb)

1979: Belmont Abbey 70, Gardner-Webb 52
MVP – Billy Holmgaard (Belmont Abbey)

1980: Winthrop 70, Gardner-Webb 65
MVP – Charles Brunson (Winthrop)

1981: Limestone 101, J.C. Smith 86
MVP – George Murphy (Limestone)

1982: Gardner-Webb 90, Limestone 83
MVP – Eddie Wilkins (Gardner-Webb)

1983: Gardner-Webb 64, Belmont Abbey 63
MVP – Eddie Wilkins (Gardner-Webb)

1984: Belmont Abbey 60, Lenoir-Rhyne 55
MVP – Charlie Hubert (Belmont Abbey)

1985: Pfeiffer 68, Winthrop 66
MVP – Fred McKinnon (Winthrop)