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.
February 6, 1978
Though the four-corners occasionally comes back to haunt them, the Tar Heels remain its most expert practitioners. During Ford's 3½ 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.
From 1966 through '72, Carolina protected leads in 107 games with the four-corners and won all but two of them. Smith figures the Tar Heels increased their lead while using the delay in 81% of those games. Ford is only the latest of a long line of masterful four-corners operators at Carolina; the offense has been run about as successfully by Yokley, Dick Grubar, Charlie Scott, Eddie Fogler, George Karl, John Kuester and Walter Davis. Ford was not even the chaser at Rocky Mount (N.C.) High. Boo Boo Alston was, and Ford learned how to protect the ball while dribbling by watching Boo Boo.
"People don't realize it, but the four-corners is a minute part of our philosophy," Smith says. "I guess we will always be identified with it, but I'd rather be known for our defense or the 86 points we've averaged over the last decade. We are a running team." Nonetheless, the Tar Heels once did use the delay offense from the opening tap, in the 1966 ACC tournament against Duke, which had beaten them 88-77 and 77-63 during the regular season. This time Carolina came closer—21-20.
The only barrier to using the four-corners for the entire game—provided the delaying team does not fall behind—would seem to be basketball tradition, which tends to disdain such tactics. But, as St. Ambrose's recent successes indicate, even that prejudice may be disappearing. However, if the full-game delay comes in, a lot of paying customers might well go out.
The four-corners is designed to utilize a team's three best ballhandlers outside while hiding its other two players in the baseline corners. The chaser usually works around the top of the key, with the two wings along the sidelines near midcourt. The chaser thus has the middle of the floor open for one-on-one maneuvering against his man. Patience, plus the ability to dribble, pass and make pressure free throws are prerequisites for a successful four-corners. The chaser must also be alert enough to recognize double-teaming and cool enough to pick out the teammate who has been left unguarded. A chaser who performs these tasks proficiently, as Ford does, robs the defense of its best hope against the four-corners, which is to force the chaser to pass, and then put pressure on a lesser ballhandler who is more likely to commit a turnover.
According to a book that Smith has been writing since 1966, the four-corners is intended to produce points, and it regularly provides five sorts of scoring opportunities. One of them is the free throw, because defenders made anxious by the delay game are more likely to foul. Another is the one-on-one drive by the chaser past his man, down the open lane and to the basket for a layup. The remaining three options involve passes from the chaser to a cutting cornerman when the defense double-teams the ball-handler or attempts to cut off his normal passing lanes.
In some ways, the most difficult aspect of the four-corners is deciding when it is the right time to employ it. "That's a seat-of-the-pants decision," says Smith. "I can tell you one thing: when it works—about 90% of the time—you are a genius: when it fails, you're a bum."
Tom Feely, coach at the College of St. Thomas in St. Paul, has a four-corners timetable. If the number of points by which his team is leading coincides with the number of minutes remaining, he holds up four fingers. Thus, if St. Thomas has a six-point lead with six minutes left or a five-point advantage with five to go, Feely delays. But as Neil McCarthy of Weber State has found out, there is no need to wait until the end of the game. McCarthy's Wildcats got into early foul trouble last December during their 71-61 upset of Utah. "Two of our starters drew three personals within the first six minutes," McCarthy says. "We went to the four-corners strictly to survive—to make the game shorter."
McCarthy is typical of the coaches who have adopted the four-corners in the past couple of years. The Wildcats had only been toying with it in practice until they found themselves on the defensive end of a four-corners clinic—a 75-54 loss to North Carolina in the final of last season's Far West Classic. "They were ahead by 10 points with 12 minutes left when Smith called for it," says McCarthy. "We chased Ford the rest of the game, and they kept shooting foul shots and layups. After that we stopped experimenting with it and won 13 of the 14 times we used it in games."
Testimonials have come in from all over the country. Seattle's Bill O'Connor saw a North Carolina game on television and decided to try the four-corners. "We went to it for an entire game against Nevada-Las Vegas, because it was the only way we could spread their defense," O'Connor says. Don Haskins of Texas-El Paso used the four-corners to upset No. 10-ranked Arizona last season. "We didn't have a chance in the world of rebounding with them." he says. "But we didn't stall; we tried to score off layups and jumpers around the key every chance we got. I doubt if we held the ball for more than 30 seconds at any time." Notre Dame's Digger Phelps says, "We have used it with as many as 12 minutes left and scored 30 points with it. We did that last year to end San Francisco's 29-game winning streak."
Obviously the four-corners is hard to beat. The simplest way is to get a lead on a team that likes to use it, and that is exactly what Wake Forest's Tacy did last week. But he has also been successful with other tactics against the Tar Heels; he had two victories over them in 1976-77, even though Carolina used the four-corners. "You have to have talented defensive players, and you've got to practice a lot," he says. "We double-team the ball, rotate our other defensive players to prevent layups and go for the steal. At times we'll play the three outside guys man-to-man and the two cornermen in a zone. Stopping layups and not fouling are musts." As for controlling Ford, Tacy adds, "He is a great ballhandler and always a threat to penetrate all the way to the basket. We pressure him and like to see him give up the ball, so we can play the others."
Running teams can get into trouble by switching to the four-corners, warns Dr. Tom Davis, the coach at Boston College. "Once you change the tempo and slow down, it is difficult to get started if you want to run again. It can have a devastating effect when you go into it and lose. But North Carolina seems to have the talent to do just about anything and win." Penn State's John Bach tried the four-corners two years ago, but has scrapped it. "It can be a disaster if a team can't execute it properly," he says. "It takes superior talent to run it."
And, apparently, it helps if the coach is a skilled gamesman. North Carolina never calls time out before going into the four-corners, and Smith teaches his players to smile at defenders while running it. He claims this instills confidence, but it may also cause opponents to become exasperated more quickly and, therefore, commit more fouls. Visiting coaches at Carolina's Carmichael Auditorium make certain the Tar Heels shoot at the basket away from the Carolina bench in the second half, so Ford cannot get instructions as easily from Smith and his assistants and so the visiting coach can talk to his defense. There has also been psychological warfare in the press. Smith delights in saying that over the years he has seen newspaper quotes from at least one player on every ACC opponent saying, in essence, "I hope Carolina doesn't go to the four-corners."
If the Tar Heels' delay is ever fully stopped, it will most likely be by legislation requiring a 30-second shot clock, like the one used in the women's game and international competition. "The four-corners ain't fun to watch, ain't fun to play against and ain't fun to play," says Iowa State's Nance, the delay's most outspoken critic. "Basketball coaches have an obligation to the fans to at least put on an interesting game. I think it will be around as a delay weapon, but I think defenses are catching up to it. If it does become more popular, I hope they put in a 30-second clock." Louisville's Denny Crum says, "I would like a 30-second clock, but it should be turned off in the last two minutes of the game so a team can protect a lead. I'm not opposed to holding the ball at the end, because it is part of the game to want to take only layups and shoot free throws. But we're in the entertainment business and using a delay for more than that is not entertainment."
Jim Boeheim of Syracuse also would like to have a 30-second clock except in the closing minutes, but he does not think it will ever be approved. "The weaker teams don't want it," he says, "and most everyone believes they have a weaker team. They feel they need to control the ball to have a chance." South Carolina's Frank McGuire says, "Smaller schools would never win with a clock because it would eliminate their way of equalizing talent with strategy. The clock would not be approved because too many smaller schools would vote against it."
Quite simply, the problem has been caused by the fact that North Carolina, traditionally a powerful team, has had extraordinary success with a tactic that can also help the weak. Smith recognizes the dilemma. "I would welcome a 30-second clock," he says, "but it would be selfish of me. It would only make North Carolina stronger, and the imbalance would not be good for basketball. Some teams that have beaten us would not have done so with a clock." Ford concurs. "We use the four-corners to run down the clock," he says, "just like in football. Everyone plays us differently, and the more we run it the tougher it gets. It is a part of the strategy of basketball that I love."
And it's a part of basketball that has become so synonymous with him and his school that the four-corners briefly crept into the lingo of another sport. When the New York Yankees visited Chapel Hill for a baseball exhibition against the Tar Heels last spring, Carolina held a 1-0 lead when Reggie Jackson came to bat. "I guess this is where they go to the four-corners," the slugger said. Up in the stands, a former high school shortstop of some distinction named Phil Ford was wishing they could.