In a crucial ACC game last Thursday night, Wake Forest was leading by 10 points with 2:40 remaining when Deacon Coach Carl Tacy flashed what is fast becoming college basketball's most famous—or, according to a lot of fans, most infamous—signal, the dreaded four fingers. Wake spread out into its four-corners delay offense, and suddenly the Tar Heels, whose coach, Dean Smith, devised the four-corners 15 seasons ago, and their All-America Guard Phil Ford, who is the reigning master at running it, found themselves the victims of their own pet late-game tactic. And Carolina proved no more proficient than most teams at stopping it, as Wake Forest eased to a 71-62 victory.
But lest anyone think that the four-corners is still the special property of the ACC, consider this:
On the same night in El Paso, Utah and UTEP were playing one of those last-basket-wins games that are a staple in the WAC. At various times both teams went into the four-corners before the Utes eked out a 57-55 win.
Also on that night—as if to prove you don't have to be big time to play the big guys' game—St. Ambrose College of Davenport, Iowa was winning for the fourth straight time while relying on the four-corners. Coach Ron Bohls, whose tallest starter is 6'6", decided two weeks ago that the best way to improve a 5-9 record was to slow opponents down. Since then the Bees have twice used the four-corners for entire games, and after beating Iowa Wesleyan on Thursday, their record was 9-9.
Though the four-corners occasionally comes back to haunt them, the Tar Heels remain its most expert practitioners. During Ford's 3� seasons, North Carolina has a 55-6 record (8-0 this season) in games when it used the four-corners.
With results like that, it is no wonder that many of the nation's other top teams have become addicted to the four-corners, too. So far in '77-'78, Marquette, St. Bonaventure, Holy Cross, Providence, Florida, Oklahoma State, Creighton, Iowa, Arkansas, Notre Dame, Cincinnati, Weber State and Seattle have been among those who have employed the four-corners often—and effectively. And for the UCLA alumnus who called North Carolina last summer to say he hoped Dean Smith would not become the new Bruin coach "because I'm sick of seeing the four-corners on TV," here is a late bulletin from the Coast: UCLA's Gary Cunningham is using it, too.
Not that everyone has gone ape over the four-corners. "The kindest four-letter word that I can find for it is dull," says Iowa State Coach Lynn Nance. UNLV's head man, Jerry Tarkanian, says, " Las Vegas is a fast city, and people here like a running team. The four-corners would have a bad psychological effect on them." The four-corners has long had a bad physiological effect on a lot of coaches and fans—it makes them sick. As a result there is a growing clamor for the introduction of a pro-type shot clock in college basketball.
Actually, Smith didn't invent an offense so much as he refined a long-existing one. The delay has been around since the clock first became part of basketball, but unlike the freeze, in which the offensive team makes no attempt to score, the delay has rarely been a source of controversy. In fact, Henry Iba gave slowdown, or control, tactics a pretty good name in the '30s, '40s and '50s when his Oklahoma A&M teams patiently worked their way to 13 league titles and two national championships. Most of today's delay offenses, variously called Aggie, Domino or 5-Game, are offsprings of Iba's concepts. The basis for Smith's version—the Ford Corners, as it is now entitled on bumper stickers all over North Carolina—was borrowed from Chuck Noe, who coached at South Carolina. "He called his 3-2 delay the Mongoose," Smith says, "and it was designed to free his two big men for a two-on-two game inside."
Smith began experimenting with the 3-2 delay in 1963 while preparing for a game against Kentucky. And he had the perfect man to direct it in 5'10" play-maker Larry Brown, now coach of the NBA's Denver Nuggets. Brown was running the Mongoose in practice one day when Smith gave a signal to the defense to switch from a zone to a man-to-man. "Larry was supposed to notice the change, go into our new man-to-man delay and try to get easy shots for our big guys," says Smith. "Instead he drove right around his man and went in for a layup. He did the same thing the next time, except this time he hit our center, Billy Cunningham, with a back-door pass for another layup. I thought, 'We've got something here.' " The final score confirmed it: North Carolina 68, Kentucky 66. It was the first of nine times that the Tar Heels would beat the Wildcats while using the four-corners.
Smith did not immediately recognize the broad potential of his delay offense, and the four-corners lay dormant until the 1965-66 season, when he was seeking to utilize the one-on-one talents of All-Americas Larry Miller and Bob Lewis. Miller, Lewis and another guard, John Yokley, alternated in the key role of chaser, the position Ford now plays. The Tar Heels held a 17-12 lead at Ohio State when Smith first flashed the four-fingered sign. The Buckeyes responded with a man-to-man defense but switched to a zone in the second half. Neither was effective as Carolina won, 82-72, and the four-corners became a permanent part of Smith's game plan.