Michael Jordan is widely considered as the best basketball player of all time. Phil Ford is generally thought of as the greatest Tar Heel in North Carolina history.
Although an amazing college player, Jordan's greatest moments were in the NBA. Ford, a solid NBA player in his own right, had his greatest moments in college, and his career in Chapel Hill was better according to most observers.
Twenty-three years after his senior year, Ford remains as UNC's all-time leading scorer with 2,290 points and third in assists with 753. He became the first freshman to win the Everett Case award which goes to the MVP of the Atlantic Coast Conference, was a three-time first team All-American, 1978 ACC Player of the year and Association of College Basketball Coaches Player of the Year, 1976 Olympic Gold Medal winner and the NBA's Rookie of the Year in 1978.
Ford also served as an assistant coach at Carolina from 1988-2000, earning six Final Four rings as a coach and one as a player (1977).
When polled Carolina fans vote Ford as not only the most beloved Tar Heels ever but the best as well. Many analysts say he is the greatest point guard in college basketball history and that his running Dean Smith's Four Corners was a match made in heaven.
The following is the transcript from an interview with Ford on WAAV-AM980 in Wilmington, N.C. fellow co-host T.J. Cutini and I interviewed Mr. Ford on out program on Thursday night, Feb. 27.
SW – It is our pleasure to welcome someone many people say is the greatest college point guard ever and the greatest Tar Heel ever, Phil Ford, welcome to the SportsWAAV.
Ford – Well thank you very much. I definitely wouldn't say that, but thank you very much for the compliment.
SW – Who would you put above yourself?
Ford – Well, there have been so many great players to play at North Carolina and so many great point guards that have played not only at the University of North Carolina but throughout the ACC and NCAA. I've always said it is tough to say the best this and the best that. But I guess it's a compliment just to be in the argument.
SW – Well you rank high in everyone's book and have had so many experiences and we'd like to talk about those experiences starting with the Olympics where you won a Gold Medal in 1976 with three other UNC teammates (Walter Davis, Tommy LaGarde and Mitch Kupchak along with head coach Dean Smith and assistant Bill Guthridge)?
Ford – It was a great experience. In 1976 in Montreal, Canada, and a lot of listeners are probably too young to remember but the 1972 Olympics was the year that there was a controversial ending to the gold medal game with the Soviet Union and the United States. And if I remember correctly time was put back on the clock three or four times and Soviet Unions was allowed to inbound the ball maybe two or three times and they finally scored and won the gold medal. So, in 1976, it was the first year that we really weren't returning to the Olympics as the reigning gold medal winners and a lot of people were saying that we weren't old enough or mature enough or experienced enough to play with a lot of the European teams because that was about the time that the European players were starting to come on.
Coach Smith did a great job. Fifty young men gathered over at N.C. State for tryouts and 15 were invited to Chapel Hill to continue tryouts and out of that 15 12 of us went to Montreal. Walter Davis, Mitch Kupchak and Tommy LaGarde along with myself and coach Smith and coach Guthridge were the coaches along with (former Georgetown head coach) John Thompson was an assistant coach. Also from the ACC, Kenny Carr (N.C. State), and Steve Sheppard (Maryland) and Tate Armstrong (Duke) were on that team as well, and a couple of kids from Indiana. Scott May, whose son Sean will be playing at North Carolina this upcoming season, and Quin Buckner along with Phil Hubbard and Adrian Dantley were on that team as well.
SW – Pretty fair club you had there.
Ford – We were. Coach Smith did a really good job of molding a team that hadn't played together. We had a couple of months to put together a team to play against teams that had been playing together literally for years. And the job that coach Smith and coach Guthridge and coach Thompson did was just outstanding.
SW – What did coach Smith do differently preparing you for the Olympics than he would for a regular ACC season?
Ford – The biggest thing that I can remember, there was a big emphasis on winning. At North Carolina there was never a big emphasis on winning. It was more an emphasis of trying our best, playing together, playing hard, playing smart, having fun, being prepared. There was nothing that could ever happen in a basketball game under coach Smith and coach Guthridge that we hadn't talked about or practiced on at one particular time. But during the Olympics coach Smith seemed to really be concerned about winning the gold medal than winning during our college (seasons).
SW – A lot of people seem to wish the college kids would play in the Olympics again and some even root against the U.S. because of that. What do you think about college kids playing instead of pros?
Ford – I do believe that the best basketball is played in the United States still. Other countries have, my gosh, made leaps and bounds as far as their abilities and athleticism and knowing the game. But when we send our pros to the Olympics we are really sending the best basketball players in the world. It's two different games. I know my dad didn't watch a lot of pro basketball. He watched if I was playing or Mitch (Kupchak) or Walter (Davis) or if he knew some of the players that were playing he watched it. But he would watch any college basketball game. But it's two different games. I always said if you really want to watch some kids play and some athleticism and really good players play there's nothing like the NBA. But if you want the pageantry, and fan support and cheerleaders and mascots there is nothing like college basketball.
SW – Lets talk about your Carolina career that was so storied. Fair or unfair so many Carolina players that come in now, especially point guards, are always compared to you, even at other schools in the ACC. Talk about how it was being so good as a freshman and from there on.
Ford – I did win a lot of individual honors at North Carolina but I can't say enough for the players I played with. I played with some very good basketball players and I thin k being a young point guard in the NBA it didn't hurt me to have Mitch Kupchak, Walter Davis, John Kuester, Tommy LaGarde, Mickey Bell, Ed Stahl, those guys that had been through the wars. That helped me tremendously. I remember my first couple of games at North Carolina, I was so scared wanting to play so well. I was so happy to be a Tar Heel it was like a dream come true for me that I was trying so hard that I remember one sports writer wrote, ‘This Ford is an Edsel' because I was stinking up the place so bad.
SW – In 1977 you guys got all the way to the NCAA title game and lost to Marquette. There are a lot of Carolina fans that remember that loss perhaps as much as any loss because of the courage the team showed just tog et there with all of the injuries (LaGarde out in February, Davis and Ford).
Ford – That just shows, I think we Carolina fans got spoiled a little bit with the greatness of coach Smith. I thin k with our struggles this year we are seeing just how great coach Smith was. Matt Doherty is going to be a great college basketball coach. I really support him. He and I have gotten to know each other a lot better than when he first got here.
The things that coach Smith accomplished in this league just didn't happen by themselves. A lot of people say that all of the talent that coach Smith had but we had to be taught. You still have to be taught how to play the game, how to play with other people, how to produce when the game is tight. How are you gonna respond when there are millions of people watching you on television and thousands of people in the stands. Are you gonna remember to do the things worked on in practice. We all had to be taught, but it's just a tremendous what coach Smith and coach Guthridge were able to accomplish for so many years here at North Carolina.
SW – And that '77 team was an example of that overcoming all of the injuries and with all of the stars on the team that someone like John Kuester being the East Regional MVP and got you guys into the Final Four. What was special about that team?
Ford – John and I were roommates for a couple of years and he's one of the type of players I real, really respect. John was a really good basketball player that didn't get a lot of publicity. He was the type of guy that was on the team that he was like the glue. And that's a tough position to be in because, for example. Let's say something like shooting, we (other starters) knew we were going to get 15 or 16 shots a game. Just the flow of the game playing unselfishly, if we moved without the basketball and executed very well that would happen. But on the other hand John would sacrifice what he could do for the good of the team. And if John took four shots a game and didn't hit three of them people would say he couldn't shoot.
So that's a tough position to be in and he took so many big shots and hit so many free throws, he always guarded the toughest guard on the other team. Injuries are part of the game. I have never said that that's the reason we lost. That happens. The injury bug has really affected a lot of teams at North Carolina but it has affected a lot of teams at other schools too. But that was really special that coach Smith even got us to the final game that year.
SW – How about the Four Corners you guys went to. That's probably the most criticized decision he ever made and I guess he explained that with the team worn down with injuries and you guys having the lead he'd shave some time off the clock.
Ford – It's amazing to me that anybody would question the moves that coach Smith would make. It's easier to question those moves Tuesday morning but Monday night, the night of the game, it's not as easy to make those decisions. Whatever coach Smith told us to do we believed that if we did it and executed and it was something we had practiced that we would win. We really thought that. We really believed that if we did what coach Smith told us to do that we would win the game. But I don't think it has anything to do with the Four Corners. I think you have to credit Marquette. They played a tremendous game and had great players. That Butch Lee on that team, boy! He was a great player. They had Bo Ellis, he was a pro player. Jerome Whitehead who was a pro player and coach (Al) McGuire was a great coach. It was a great game but we just couldn't pull it out.
SW – Was that the most bitter loss you experienced as a player?
Ford – That's tough to say. That's like the question sometimes that people ask me what was my happiest moment at North Carolina. It's hard to pick out one thing. That loss was probably the biggest loss and got the most attention but I remember losing a couple of games on the road in our league and those hurt too. I remember a whole lot of losses, every loss hurt to me. But I will say that loss got the most attention. I do still have some nightmares. I remember having a shot in the corner of that game and the ball went down in there but it rolled out and I think that would have put us up one or two but I think about that all the time.
SW – Most people would say the Four Corners was designed to just run time of the clock but it was really designed to also score points.
Ford – I think the further we get away from the Four Corners and the more people think about it they are starting to figure it out. One thing I will say is I got a lot of publicity for the Four Corners but as I've always said, in order for the Four Corners to work you've got to have five really good ballhandlers on the court. You have to have five really good free throw shooters on the court and have five good defensive players on the court. What the Four Corners did was it spread the court.
What we would do is something called ‘tease' where we would take some time off the clock and we would try to get a layup or try to get fouled. I think the other team would kind of think we were stalling and kind of rush their offense a little and they'd come down and hopefully take a bad shot and we had to have good rebounders. We had to rebound the basketball and come down and tease a little more and hopefully get another layup or get another foul and have a kind of snowball effect.
SW – Last night was senior night in Chapel Hill and no matter what the circumstances the fans gave a great reception to the seniors. But when people think of senior night in Chapel Hill, ultimately the memories go back to your senior night in 1978, which is now the standard bearer for senior nights with the outpouring of emotion from you and the fans.
Ford – Those are very emotional games and were extremely emotional games for me, not only my senior game and all four years I was here. It's a happy time but a sad time. I remember Walter Davis, who is my best friend and as a matter of fact I was the best man at his wedding and he was the best man at my wedding, and it was his rookie year with the (Phoenix) Suns and he and I had a bet. I said I wouldn't cry on my senior night and he said I would and he wound up winning. It was very emotional. You look up there and it was my last time in Carmichael and in their situation the last time in the Smith Center as a player at the University of North Carolina and we do have great fans.
I think this year has really shown the true fans and the type of fans that we have and when you think about the type of season we are having we are having and think about the number of fans we are still drawing to our games and it's just phenomenal. It's really special. You start thinking about the great times.
SW – You have always been about team accomplishments but obviously there is one individual honor that the school gave you, that you earned, that's got to make you feel pretty good when you look up in the rafters and see No. 12 hanging up there and retired. What does that mean to you?
Ford – It's a tremendous honor. And as I've said, and I am not just saying this, I don't look at it that way. When I see 12 up there I see Mitch Kupchak, Walter Davis, Tommy LaGarde, John Kuester, Dudley Bradley and Mike O'Koren. I was very fortunate as a point guard to play with some very good players and I happen to play for a coach who really taught me how to play. The guys on the team used to kid me and say, ‘How can you be national player of the year and NBA Rookie of the Year and you've never dunked a basketball?' I just didn't have that athleticism, but I was pretty quick, I will say that.
An athlete isn't just someone who can run fast and jump high but also someone who will do what the coach tells them to do in some tough circumstances. It's someone that can use their head. Someone that can really compete when it is time to compete. So I just happen to play for a coach that really taught me how to play and I played with some extremely talented basketball players.
SW – One thing you were so good at doing was on a fast break or a controlled break was to spot up and nail the long jumper. How many more points would you have scored with the 3-pointer? (laughter)
Ford – Who knows, they may not have gone in. The reason I was able to take those shots is because I knew if I did miss those shots a lot of time – and I didn't take them unless I was open – usually the board was covered. Coach Smith used to always tell me if I didn't shoot that I was being selfish because it is just as selfish to turn down a good shot as it is to take a bad shot.
SW – Where did winning the 1979 NBA Rookie of the Year award rank among your basketball accomplishments?
Ford – That's another tremendous honor. I was fortunate enough to go to a club (Kansas City Kings) that had finished last in their division that year and may have had the worst record in the NBA and we were fortunate to have anew coach names Cotton Fitzsimmons and he was able to blend some talent together and we were fortunate enough to win the division that year. It was a team effort and was a team accomplishment.
SW – People always talk about your college accomplishments but you had a pretty nice NBA career too on some solid teams and had some accomplishments as well.
Ford – Well thank you. It was a lot of fun. I always try to tell our kids, to give them some advice, and the number one thing you have to do as an NBA player is to take care of your body. And that is something I didn't do as I should have done but you have to take care of your body and have to be ready when called upon. I know a couple of guys that it take a little while for it to kick in in that league. So you have to be ready and take care of your body and hopefully be in the right place at the right time. But, it's a tremendous honor to play one second in the NBA. That's something that a lot of young men won't have an opportunity to do and I was very blessed you have had that opportunity.
SW – You've talked about what coach Smith taught you as a player, what about what he taught you working under him as an assistant coach?
Ford – You do have a different relationship with coach Smith once you graduate. It is a very interesting relationship that coach Smith has with all of us. He's not like a dictator but you know who's boss. When you're in college you if there's anything ever that ever happens that coach Smith is always going to be in your corner. And once you graduate you have a different type of relationship with coach Smith. You're treated like a man and he stays in contact with you. He knows all your children's names, your wife's name, he knows where you work and probably knows what time you get up in the morning. But, we're very fortunate to have someone like coach Smith and Coach Guthridge in our lives.
SW – Is there one thing you take with you from your playing career and coaching career with coach Smith that is an every day part of your life?
Ford – I could get on a soap box with that. That's kind of a toughie. There's so many things that he taught us. As far as basketball is concerned, coach Smith was very, very precise. The things we'd work on, the little things. I remember when I first came back on the staff I forgot a lot of the drills we used to do, the simple things like passing drills, pivoting drills, double-teaming drills, kicking the ball out from the low block drills. Just the little things that we'd do that seemed elementary but it's something that's very important in the game of basketball. We even discussed the angle that a pick is set on the court and where the pick should be set on the court. Just different things like the, just being prepared and being objective. Any time a guy shot in practice usually someone was writing the shot down and we would classify it whether it was a drill, a scrimmage, a four-on-four defense.
He was very big on objective data and I think that's very important. As far as life is concerned, one thing I know with coach Smith, he's really very loyal. He really believes in all of us and he's really a friend to all of us. You know, they say if you're lucky you can count your true friends on one hand and luckily by playing at the University of North Carolina I can always count coach Smith and coach Guthridge on that one hand as being my friends.
SW – It seemed like you had a special relationship with Ed Cota. Did you ever have any special relationships with players you coached at Carolina beyond what was normal?
Ford – Well, one thing coach Smith always told me when I first came back on the staff was that you can't have favorites and I always tried not to have favorites but I really got close to King Rice and he and I are still really good friends to this date. I was just out in California visiting he and Rick (Fox) and saw the Lakers play the Wizards play out there and flew to San Francisco and saw the Warriors play the Celtics and got to see Antawn (Jamison) and Joseph (Forte) but back to Ed. I can just tell you one story. I really took it personal in seeing the basketball court.
I think that there's not much going on out there any place on the court that I can't see certain passes or see where a guy's going to come open where I can get him the basketball. But, Ed would really surprise me sometimes. He had a gift for passing the basketball and getting the ball to players in the position where they can do something with it probably more than anybody I've seen associated with the game.
SW – The current team now is obviously the most atypical seasons for Carolina basketball, but in recent weeks there have been some positives. But why do you think it has gotten to this point and do you think this is more a blip on the radar?
Ford – I think it is a blip on the radar and the reason I say that is that I think we have good basketball players but I think they are inexperienced. And when I say inexperienced, I don't look at experience as what grade or what year in school a player is, a junior or senior or sophomore. I look at how much you have really participated on that club and we were depending on a lot of guys this year to help Jason (Capel) and Kris (Lang) that hadn't really played a lot, and when you have that kind of transition. And this is the transition.
A lot of people want to talk about the transition from coach Smith to coach Guthridge and that wasn't really a transition, that was more everybody moving around in offices because most things stayed the same. We ran the same things, we were able to recruit the same way and we were able to do the same type of things and it really wasn't that much of a change. But now, it's really the first change that we've had and I think anytime there's some transition it's going to take some time. And when you have transition along with players that weren't experienced it's going to be tough. Like last year, we had Joseph (Forte), Brendan (Haywood), Kris (Lang), Jason (Capel), Brian Bersticker, those kids had gone to a Final Four. They took their lumps the year before last and we struggled.
I have to admit that I really learned a lot from coach Guthridge that year when we were struggling how he handled that team and wouldn't let that team get down on themselves. It just kicked in at the right time and were able to make a run and beat some great teams to get to the Final Four. But the next year those guys were experienced. They knew what it was like to go to Maryland, to go to Wake Forest, they had been to a Final Four but now, this year you have only a couple of guys who have been through the wars and we were counting on a few players who really weren't experienced.
SW – Is this year also a lesson for Carolina fans that they have taken the winning for so long for granted?
Ford – No. As I said it really shows what types of coaches coach Smith and coach Guthridge were. They were just outstanding coaches that had been doing it a long time. I think people are starting to realize it doesn't come automatically. And I think Matt and his staff work so hard and their going to keep bring good players in and I just admire Matt and his staff so much and I think as you said it is probably just a blip on the radar.
SW - Speaking of coaching, if an opening does come up in the future is that something that you might be interested in?
Ford – I try not to think about that. And please understand what I am saying, and I hope that does not happen. And the reason I say that is because is when I was on the staff at Carolina we lost coach (Dick) Harp. He had been coach Smith's coach at the University of Kansas and when I joined the staff hen was there and a couple of years down the road he retired. I was happy for him because he was retiring but it was also a sad time. When you lose someone on your staff it's just a sad situation. When Randy Wiel accepted a head coaching position and Randy and I were roommates at North Carolina, we were very close, and again, I was happy for him but it was a sad time. And then of course when coach Smith leaves, and Carolina fans are starting to see the type of job that coach Smith did at North Carolina did it was just him. And the way that he did it and that we all have our degrees it was just an unbelievable job.
I hope all of those guys stay together forever. It would be great. They are all young and the longer they are there together the more they get to know each other and I am sure they are going to have great careers at North Carolina. But if the opportunity does happen it would be something that I'd cross that bridge when I get to it. But hopefully that opportunity won't happen and this young staff will stay together here at North Carolina for a long time.
SW – Well Phil we really appreciate you coming on the show and spending some time with us and talking about your many wonderful experiences at North Carolina.
Ford – Thank you for having me on.
Andrew Jones is in his sixth year covering football and basketball for Inside Carolina. He is also in his fourth year as a copy editor and staff writer for the Wilmington Star-News and hosts a nightly radio show on WAAV-AM980 in Wilmington. He has also written for ACCNews and once published The College Game and the former Total Sports. He can be reached via e-mail at: AJWAAV@aol.com.