Your opinion? Remembering the ACC’s Big Four Tournament

bigfour Imagine pitting the four Tobacco Road programs comprising the heart of the ACC – Duke, North Carolina, North Carolina State and Wake Forest – against each other in a pre-season two-day tourney.  It would be great if it took place in December, during the early season, when teams are typically experimenting with playing rotations  beating up on cream puff opponents.  Not the normal time to be lining up against their most bitter rivals.

Sounds like fun, right? Of course, there’s no way the coaches of those teams would ever agree to it. What good could come from having to prepare for not one, but two brutal games against familiar opponents that wouldn’t even count in the conference standings? A classic no-win situation for the coaches, including a guarantee that one of those coaches would come out of the event with back-to-back losses.

In fact, from 1971 to 1981 this event actually happened annually in Greensboro, NC, and it was aptly named the Big Four Tournament. The “Big Four” has long been the nickname for the four ACC schools in the state of North Carolina. While fans of the other ACC schools might bristle and call the nickname arrogant, it supported by the historical performance of those four schools in context of the ACC. Consider that since the conference was formed in 1953, the four North Carolina member schools were responsible for 16 of the first 17 basketball championships, 27 of the first 30, and have now captured 50 of the 59 titles in ACC hoops history.

In the days of the Big Four Tournament, the ACC still used a true double round robin scheduling format, meaning that ACC teams played every conference foe twice during the regular season. This means that it was quite possible for two of the Big Four teams to play each other four times in one season, including once in the Big Four Tourney and once in the ACC Tourney. Contrasting that with the current ACC scheduling, where conference teams sometimes only play each other once during a season, and it’s easy to understand why ACC fans often look back on the 1970s and 80s as the golden years of college hoops.

In the coming weeks we’ll take a walk down memory lane and look back on those Big Four Tournaments that featured some of the greatest players and teams in ACC history. For now, we’re wondering if any of our readers remember this tournament or even knew it existed.

If the tourney were revived today, it would be a television bonanza, primarily because of the possibility of an additional Duke-UNC matchup.  How did the Blue Devils and Tar Heels fare in the real Big Four Tourney, compared to their cross-state brethren NC State and Wake Forest?

Post a comment below if you have any memories of the Big Four Tournament, or if you think something like it would be a good idea in today’s college basketball world.



  1. I went to those games as a kid. It should be renewed with a charity receiving some of the large profits it would generate.

  2. I remember the last one when Frank Johnson led the Deacs to their fourth Big Four title with a huge performance against the Heels. My sister was a student at Wake then and I didn’t realize how good those teams were compared to the Staak era teams I had to watch when I was there.

  3. That Tourney was a brain child of an NC State Legend. Not many realize the College Basketball frenzy we know today started with NCSU.

  4. The Big Four tournament was similar to the famed Dixie Classic but sans the four outside teams. That actually made it more entertaining. The Greensboro Coliseum would be filled to capacity with fans of the Big Four schools, mostly fat cat contributors to the Rams Club, Iron Dukes, Deacon Club and Wolfpack Club. Not many students would be in attendance but each school’s pep band added to the festivities. Since the games did not count in the conference standings the atmosphere was usually free of partisan ill will. The parties before and after the games were good natured and attended by fans of each school.

    There were many memorable moments but my favorite involved the “coming out party” for Rod Griffin, the highly regarded Wake Forest recruit. In only his ninth game as a Deacon he led his team to victory over NC State in the 1975 semi finals. In so doing the Deacs snapped a 36 game winning streak by State, the defending national champions, as Griffin outplayed the Wolfpack All American, David Thompson. I wish the powers that be could see fit to renew such a fan favorite event.

  5. everyone forgets the deacons won more (4?) titles than the heels, pack, and university of new jersey at durham. great games and great memories.

  6. I went to the tournament in 1979 the year that Dereck Whittenburg, Sidney Lowe and Cozell McQueen were freshmen. What an experience! I even commented to my then husband saying “These guys are going to be really good one day!” Flash forward to the infamous 1983 win over Houston in the NCAA tournament! Those were good years for basketball…it’s just not the same anymore.

    • Good call, Jeff Childress. Thurl joined the DeMatha duo in that excellent recruiting class. That Wolfpack class was also expected to feature Dominique Wilkins, but he had a late change of heart and went to Georgia instead. At the time he said he preferred to be the first Dominique Wilkins rather than be the “next David Thompson” at State. Some folks were cynical of that explanation. It all worked out fine for the Pack in the end (ironically State played UGa in the Final 8 game in 1983, but ‘Nique had left UGa the previous year to go pro early).