Where is America’s most livable city? Forget cost-of-living, quality of education, transportation and economic opportunity. The most livable city is the one with the best sports. For each year of the modern era, starting in 1976, The Sports Notebook has selected one city or part of the country where it was particularly good to be a fan. Below is the recap of how that year unfolded…
The place to be if you were a sports fan in 1982 was New Orleans. Not because the Saints had a big year, or that LSU was dominant. But two head coaches, already on their way legendary status, won their first national championships in 1982. In the springtime, North Carolina’s Dean Smith brought his seventh Final Four team to New Orleans and finally won a national championship. And later in the year, Penn State’s Joe Paterno took home his first crown in the Sugar Bowl, a title that was the first in Penn State football history.
North Carolina was coming off a strong 1981 season that saw them reach the final game before being manhandled in the second half by a tough Indiana team. They were bringing the core four players back from that team, built around forwards James Worthy and Sam Perkins, both with long NBA careers ahead of them. A third forward was Matt Doherty, a respectable shooter and role player and the show was run by Jimmy Black, an intelligent senior point guard. These four appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated as the preseason #1 team. The fifth piece of the puzzle was still undecided, but Smith would insert a freshman guard named Michael Jordan into that spot.
Carolina met preseason expectations throughout the year and the battle between them and Virginia at the top of the ACC was the story that defined the regular season. The Cavs had Ralph Sampson, a 7’4” center in his junior year and the consensus best player in America. Virginia reached the 1981 Final Four and was favored to beat UNC in the semi-finals, but a big 39-point performance from Carolina’s Al Wood sent the top-seeded Cavs to a 78-65 defeat and gave them their own unique grudge to carry into the offseason. The two rivals split two regular season meetings and met again in an anticipated ACC tournament final that had a controversial ending. It wasn’t a bad call or a disputed outcome. North Carolina won 47-45, but their tactic of going to the “Four Corners”, spreading the floor and stalling away much of the last eight minutes. To some of us, it was simply Smith doing what he felt was best to win a basketball game. To others it was a case of someone essentially ruining a great basketball game by all but refusing the play. The game decided a lot more than a tournament title and the #1 seed in the East. It began a five-year process that would end with the implementation of a shot clock and three-point line.
The NCAA Tournament was still at 48 teams, so the top four seeds in each region got a first-round bye and didn’t play until Saturday or Sunday (it was 1985 when the field expanded to 64). North Carolina’s first game was against ninth-seeded James Madison, and the Heels got all they could handle, going to the wire in a 52-50 game. It sent them to Raleigh for the regionals.
Alabama was the opponent in the round of 16, and the Tide were led by a good point guard in Ennis Whatley and a solid power forward in Bobby Lee Hurt. What they lacked was Carolina’s balance throughout the lineup and all five starters scored in double digits, winning 74-69. But an odd coincidence, ‘Bama had lost to Bob Knight’s first national championship team, undefeated Indiana in 1976, by that same score in this same round. North Carolina paired up with third-seeded Villanova for the regional final, as the Wildcats had the foundations of the team that would stun the world in ’85 when they won it all. Ed Pinckney was at center, Gary McClain was at point and Dwayne McClain at small forward, all freshman drawing significant minutes. Burly John Pinone was in the center spot. A well-coached team by Rollie Massimino, Villanova was a good darkhorse team, but UNC played its best game of the tournament to date in a 70-60 win that ticketed them for New Orleans.
NOTHING COULD BE FINER
On the surface it appeared Smith’s team had drawn a break in their national semi-final matchup. Three powerhouses had reached the Final Four. Along with UNC, fellow #1 seed Georgetown was here, as was second-seeded Louisville. The Cardinals had taken advantage of Virginia’s upset loss in the Sweet 16 to UAB—a game played in Birmingham and gone on to reach their second Final Four in three years. By contrast, Houston, the #6 seed in the Midwest and winner of a bracket gutted by upsets, looked like the odd team out in New Orleans. But the Cougars, slated to play UNC in the early afternoon tip (not until 1998 would the first game be pushed back into the late afternoon/early evening), were a burgeoning power. Akeem Olajuown was a dominant center as a freshman and on his way to a stellar NBA career. The same could be said of junior forward Clyde Drexler. Along with solid college players like guard Michael Young, Houston had beaten the #3 seed (Tulsa) and the #2 seed (Missouri) to get here, so though the bracket was gutted, the Cougars had done a substantial portion of the gutting themselves.
North Carolina needed its stars to step up and no one answered the bell better than Perkins, who scored 25 points and grabbed 10 rebounds to key a 68-63 win. It set up a battle with Georgetown who outlasted Louisville 50-46. Though UNC was the #1 team in the nation, the Hoyas were the hot team right now, playing stifling defense. None of their tournament opponents had scored more than 50 points and they were anchored in the middle by freshman center Patrick Ewing, shotblocker extraordinaire. The close friendship of Smith and Georgetown coach John Thompson was a big part of the storyline and it was a superb championship game matchup for CBS in its first year of televising the tournament, a run that has gone on uninterrupted to this day.
The game itself lived up to the hype and was one for the ages. It was tight throughout, neither team ever really in control. A key decision by Thompson was to have Ewing indiscriminately block shots early on and try to intimidate Carolina’s shooters. The Hoya center was called for goaltending five times. In a close game this decision is easy to criticize, especially since UNC was unaffected by it. But a lot of teams might have allowed that to get into their heads. North Carolina wisely just shrugged their shoulders, took the two points and kept playing, but the gambit was a reasonable risk by Thompson and Ewing. In the meantime, Worthy was delivering a dominating performance, scoring 28 points. Georgetown still led 62-61 as the game reached the final half-minute. Coming out of a timeout, Smith set up a play with several options, but suspected who Georgetown would choose to leave uncovered. He gave a word of encouragement to his still mostly unknown freshman—“Knock it in Michael.” Smith had anticipated correctly. Jordan got the ball on the left wing and followed his coach’s instructions. He knocked it down. Carolina had the lead, but Georgetown had plenty of time to get a good shot. Guard Fred Brown brought the ball over midcourt when brain lock kicked in. He threw the ball directly to Worthy, who raced downcourt and was fouled with just a few seconds remaining. He missed the free throws, but it was to no matter. UNC had won 63-62 and Smith had his long-awaited first national championship.
PENN STATE’S PATH
Penn State came into the season with similar expectations. They had closed 1981 with a Fiesta Bowl win over USC and its Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Allen and earning a Top 5 ranking. The defense was tough and led by defensive end Walker Lee Ashley. Offensively the Lions had their usual strong running game, with shifty Curt Warner. But this Penn State team had a real passing game to go with it, as future ABC analyst Todd Blackledge was at quarterback and his top receiver was Kenny Jackson. This potent team opened with three easy wins and set up a big September 25 home game with Nebraska. The game was everything you would want for a pair of national title hopefuls, each with coaches after ring #1 (Nebraska’s Tom Osborne wouldn’t get his long-sought title until 1994). The Cornhuskers appeared to have won when they took a 24-21 lead with 1:18 to go. But an inexcusable special teams blunder handed Penn State a free 15 yards—the Huskers were whistled for unsportsmanlike conduct after the play, when the kick had gone deep into the end zone. Starting on the 35, Blackledge went to work. His biggest completion was a 4th-and-11 conversion to Jackson and they reached the nine-yard line as the clock ticked down. In a play that rankles Nebraska fans to this day, Blackledge hit tight end Mike McCloskey with a pass down to the two-yard line, a catch where McCloskey was clearly out of bounds. With seven seconds left, the quarterback dropped back one more time. The only receiver open was backup tight end Kirk Bowman, nicknamed “Stonehands” and yet to make a catch this season. Bowman caught this one inches from the ground and the Lions had a 27-24 win.
Penn State didn’t control its national championship destiny yet, with Washington being the #1 team. With the Huskies locked into the Rose Bowl, everyone needed help. Paterno had bigger problems after the next week though. His team had to go to Alabama, and trailing 24-21 in the fourth quarter, they came apart late. Blackledge threw an interception to ‘Bama corner Jeremiah Castille—a player who five years later would recover a fumble that sealed a Super Bowl trip for the Denver Broncos—and the turnover triggered 18 straight points from the Tide. Penn State’s 42-21 loss dropped them to #8 in the polls and it looked like national title hopes would have to be deferred yet again. At a softer spot in their schedule, the Lions chipped away, winning four straight and moving back up to #5.
November 13 was a good day for Penn State fans. They won a tough game at Notre Dame 24-14, a game they trailed 14-13 in the fourth quarter, but relied on Warner’s 145 yards, as well as a big catch from the running back that he turned into a 48-yard touchdown play late. The same day, Arizona State—a team who’d beaten Washington and ultimately moved to the top of the polls themselves—lost and there was no way the Rose Bowl, locked into a Big Ten-Pac-10 matchup could settle the national title. The contenders were Georgia, SMU and the winner of the Pitt-Penn State game coming up on the Friday after Thanksgiving. Both teams had name quarterbacks in Blackledge and Dan Marino, but it was the defenses that ruled the day. Penn State won 19-10. In news almost as good, SMU played Arkansas to a 17-17 tie. Penn State was moved up to #2 in the country and its Sugar Bowl date with #1 Georgia would settle the national championship.
AS SWEET AS SUGAR
Georgia’s Heisman Trophy running back Herschel Walker was the dominant player in the country, and for the second straight year, the Lion defense would have a Heisman winner to stop in a bowl game. Offensively they caught the Bulldogs off guard by coming out throwing. After an initial run by Warner, Blackledge rifled four straight completions down the field that set up a Warner touchdown run. Before the stunned Bulldog crowd could even get settled in the score was 20-3 and the game was into the second quarter. Georgia quarterback John Lastinger wasn’t a particularly adept passer, but he did find a way to complete a touchdown drive before the half. At 20-10, it wasn’t over yet.
More nervousness filled Nittany Nation when Lastinger and Walker led another drive that cut the lead to three. Georgia was poised to tie or take the lead when Lastinger threw an interception. Penn State chipped away and moved the ball to midfield. At this point, receiver Greg Garrity ran a straight fly route down the sideline and beat his man. Blackledge got him the ball and the Lions had a huge touchdown to push the lead back to ten. The drama wasn’t over. Return man Kevin Baugh made the one mistake of an otherwise exemplary night when he fumbled a punt, but the Bulldogs couldn’t cash it in. Penn State got a game-clinching first down on a short third-down pass to Garrity. The Lions were home free in a 27-17 win.
There was never any doubt Penn State would win the final vote over SMU, who had beaten Pitt in the Cotton Bowl 7-3, a game played in an icy rain in Dallas. There was irony in this though. Paterno had seen three of his teams go unbeaten, yet uncrowned (1968, 1969, 1970) and now he was ready to claim his first national title at 11-1 over the unbeaten Mustangs. This was justified however. The biggest distinction to make is that while SMU was unbeaten, they weren’t perfect. The tie to Arkansas meant they hadn’t done all they could possibly do to prove their merits. And their schedule was genuinely awful. The Arkansas game, along with Texas and then the Cotton Bowl were their only real tests. If you play a de facto three-game schedule it’s a reasonable requirement that you sweep it. Penn State also had the win over Pitt and the victories over Nebraska and Georgia easily exceeded anything SMU had done. In an ideal world, the teams might have been able to play in post-bowl playoff. But if you had to vote after the New Year’s Day bowl games, Penn State deserved to be #1.
By the end of 1982, Paterno and Smith were cursed no more. They each had the monkey off their back and both had done it in New Orleans.