How An NC Sports Betting Scandal Ended A College Basketball Tradition 

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NC sports betting

Sixty years after an NC sports betting scandal killed one of the most time-honored traditions in the college basketball-obsessed region, the Tar Heel State is embracing the legal US sports betting boom.

Advertisements for North Carolina sports betting are already active as the state readies for launch day on March 11, a week before the NCAA Tournament starts.

Implications for college athletes have become a heightened concern among the broader landscape of sports betting states as they investigate scandals and move to prohibit betting on players. For some, the memory of college point-shaving scandals, like the one that ended the Dixie Classic in 1961, still burns deeply amid talk of NC sports betting years later.

Remembering the Dixie Classic

The Dixie Classic began in 1949 and quickly became a cherished tradition in the region. NC State coach Everett Case founded the annual showcase.

Every year, a fresh batch of four top schools from around the country would converge on Raleigh between Christmas and New Year’s Day to play 12 games in three days against North Carolina’s “Big Four” of Duke, NC State, UNC and Wake Forest.

In an era before Americans were watching college sports in their living rooms, attending the Dixie Classic was a once-a-year chance to see the nation’s best, like Oscar Robertson and “Jumpin” Johnny Green. It was years before the NCAA Tournament rose to prominence and is credited with helping establish the bitter rivalry between Duke and UNC.

Passing North Carolina basketball tickets down

Bethany Bradsher, author of The Classic, a retelling of the holiday tournament and its demise, recalls reports of patrons writing tickets for the event into their wills.

“It was huge. Because it was the Big Four, you had a guaranteed buy-in from those fanbases, and it helped elevate basketball in the state,” Bradsher said.

“Kids would look for tickets in their stockings. It was a whole event where men would come to the coliseum dressed up in their sports coats and women in their fancy dresses. There was a Dixie Classic queen, Dixie Classic sales around town. It was just the hottest ticket.”

NC sports betting scandal unravels

However, beyond the glory and excitement lurked a sinister network of gamblers seeking to exploit the vulnerabilities of college athletes. That network spanned across the country and eventually made its way to the Dixie Classic, where players, fans, and bettors from around the country converged for some of the biggest games in the sport.

Led by Jack Molinas, an NBA star turned match-fixing mastermind, the Chicago mob-backed network orchestrated a web of point-shaving schemes, ensnaring dozens of student-athletes from across the country.

Young men without financial incentive to play the sport were suddenly offered life-changing money for letting the other team score a few baskets at the end of the game. While typically meaningless for the game outcome, the recent invention of the point spread made those extra points often the difference between millions of dollars or a bullet to the head.

How much money was involved in NC sports betting point shaving?

Some were offered up to $1,000 apiece, the equivalent of $10,000 today according to Bradsher. William Friday, president of the North Carolina schools system at the time recalled in an interview one instance of an angry gambler pulling a gun on an NC State player after a fix went awry.

It was a pivotal game between NC State and Georgia Tech during the 1959 tournament that first raised red flags. Case picked up on irregularities in his team’s behavior. Players who were typically relentless on defense were suddenly offering as much resistance as a turnstile, suspiciously out of character. He would go on to alert university officials.

50 players, 25 schools implicated

District solicitors in North Carolina and New York worked with the FBI to investigate the point-shaving scheme, unraveling a web of gamblers and paid-off players that spanned far beyond Tobacco Road.

As the scope of the scandal became apparent, the NCAA and other governing bodies were forced to confront the reality of corruption within college athletics, which had reared its ugly head just a few years earlier in the infamous CCNY scandal in New York.

More than 50 players from 25 schools were found to have manipulated the outcomes of 54 Dixie Classic games. Most, however, were granted immunity in exchange for testimony against the orchestrators of the scheme.

Prison sentences for point shaving

Six people served prison time, pleading guilty to bribery and conspiracy charges. Molinas, the mastermind behind the point-shaving scheme, spent more than five years behind bars. Years later, the legendary game-fixer would be shot in the back of the head in a suspected mob hit in California.

“None of the athletes served time, but they were all persona non grata on their campus, they all had to leave school,” Bradsher said. “There are sad stories of some of them sneaking into the back of an NC State game just to watch their old team and then sneak back out so they wouldn’t be seen. But nobody was coming to alumni games or homecoming events.”

NC sports betting scandal aftermath

Grappling with the fallout, Friday made the difficult decision to cancel the tournament for good in 1961, a symbolic gesture signaling a new era of accountability and reform. It was a somber moment for fans who had long cherished the Dixie Classic as a symbol of regional pride and sporting excellence.

There are reports of hundreds of college students marching to the president’s home, demanding he restore the tournament. Not only was it a college basketball tradition, it was an annual economic boon to Raleigh.

“It was not a popular decision, but William Friday was really a man of great principle, and saw the tournament as representing this greater issue that needed to be dealt with, so it became a casualty,” Bradsher said.

How NC sports betting changed UNC basketball

The aftermath of the scandal reverberated for years, casting a shadow over college basketball in North Carolina. Friday moved to de-emphasize basketball and cut back NC State’s and UNC’s schedules, recruiting budgets and scholarships.

“There was a ton of criticism, snide remarks and other mean things,” Friday, who died in 2012, said in a 1995 interview with the Raleigh News & Observer. “But the intrusion of gambling discontinued the Dixie Classic. The threats to lives reported to me by law enforcement officers triggered the action. To protect the lives of the athletes, it had to be done. It was one of the true great sports spectacles, but there was no alternative.”

Lasting legacy in North Carolina

Case described it as the darkest day of his coaching career. He would retire just a few years later due to health complications from cancer.

“A lot of people believe his decline was hastened by all this happening,” Bradsher said. “Basketball was his whole life, he didn’t have a family. It was a particularly sad ending for him, but the legacy he left is tremendous. He really deserves so much credit for growing college basketball in the state.”

While North Carolina basketball eventually rebounded, the memory of the Dixie Classic lingered as a cautionary reminder of the harm unregulated gambling could cause college sports.

The state would go on to deal with several more college basketball scandals before racking up 11 national championships, as many as any other state. This year gambling ads will be on TV as the schools, once brought to their knees by the NC sports betting scandal, seek to win the state’s 12th.