100 in 100: Nash County’s Phil Ford, all-time Tar Heel

The Rocky Mount point guard ran coach Dean Smith's four corners offense

Rocky Mount’s Phil Ford, pictured after the Tar Heels won the 1975 ACC Tournament, was the ideal point guard to run coach Dean Smith’s offense and went on to be NBA Rookie of the Year in 1978. (AP Photo)

North State Journal’s 100 in 100 series will showcase the best athlete from each of North Carolina’s 100 counties. From Alamance to Yancey, each county will feature one athlete who stands above the rest. Some will be obvious choices, others controversial, but all of our choices are worthy of being recognized for their accomplishments — from the diamond and gridiron to racing ovals and the squared circle. You can see all the profiles as they’re unveiled here.

Nash County

Phil Ford

It’s said that the point guard is an extension of his coach on the basketball court because of the control each has over the way their team plays. Of all the point guards that have ever played college basketball, few have been more synonymous with their coach than Phil Ford was with Dean Smith at North Carolina.

“Phil Ford was simply born to run the four corners,” UNC’s longtime publicist Rick Brewer told The Washington Post early in the Tar Heel star’s senior season of 1977-78.


Smith didn’t invent the confounding stall offense, which featured players spread out in each of the court’s four corners, leaving the middle open for the point guard to penetrate, score, pass to a cutter or start the process all over again. That honor goes to John McClendon at what is now known as NC Central. But with Smith adopting it, the four corners became a Tar Heel trademark that was Ford’s ticket to the Hall of Fame.

Ford was the first freshman ever to start for a Smith-coached team, a prodigy from Rocky Mount with a distinctive Afro and a game that was honed on a dirt court built by his father in the backyard. He was a fixture in the Tar Heels’ backcourt for all four years of a college career that ended with him becoming the first player in ACC history to record more than 2,000 points and 600 assists.

Phil Ford totaled seven seasons in the NBA with the Kings, Bucks, Nets and Rockets. (AP Photo)

In between, he and his coach represented their country at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, helping the U.S. regain the gold medal it had lost in a controversial decision four years earlier.

The 6-foot-2 playmaker was a three-time consensus All-American who won the Wooden Award as the national Player of the Year in 1978. He led UNC to the national championship game in 1977 despite suffering from a hyperextended elbow for most of the NCAA Tournament. His 2,290 points were a school record until being surpassed by Tyler Hansbrough in 2008, and in honor of the ACC’s golden anniversary, he was named as one of the league’s 50 greatest players of all time.

After being selected second overall in the first round of the 1978 NBA Draft, Ford won the league’s Rookie of the Year award with the Kansas City Kings. In seven professional seasons, he averaged 11.6 points and 6.4 assists per game before becoming a coach at both his alma mater and the NBA.