Heel turn: Dontrez Styles’ transfer decision could be historic

No player has suited up for Triangle rivals in 75 years

UNC guard Dontrez Styles, center, battles for the ball with NC State’s Jaylon Gibson, left, and Breon Pass during a game in February. Styles, who entered the transfer portal after the season, could become the first men’s basketball player in more than 75 years to jump from the Tar Heels to the Wolfpack. (Gerry Broome / AP Photo)

Dontrez Styles will announce his transfer destination next week, and the former Tar Heels sophomore may make Triangle history.

Styles, a former four-star recruit who played sparingly under coach Hubert Davis, entered the transfer portal following UNC’s season. He immediately heard from more than a dozen potential transfer destinations, but, according to internet recruiting reports, he took only two visits. The second one was to Georgetown, a former Big East power rebuilding under new coach Ed Cooley.

The other? NC State.

The two Tobacco Road rivals don’t generally share much of anything, except animosity, but if Styles switched from Carolina Blue to the Wolfpack Red and White, he would, based on North State Journal research, become the first player to suit up for both schools on the hardwood in more than 75 years.

Of course, moving between schools has become much easier in the post-COVID era, with relaxed transfer rules, NIL money and an extra year of eligibility due to the pandemic combining to wreak havoc with every school’s roster in most sports. So it makes sense that the last two-way I-40 players came during a similar period of upheaval — World War II.

Much like during the pandemic, college seasons were uprooted by the war in Europe and the Pacific in the 1940s, with many players leaving their football and basketball teams to serve. When they returned from battle, transfer rules were loosened, allowing them to switch to a new school to complete their college careers, and many jumped at the chance, including three members of NC State’s basketball team — Bernie Mock, Fred Swartzberg and Horace “Bones” McKinney.

While it’s unheard of now, players frequently jumped from one Tobacco Road basketball team to another after returning from World War II.

McKinney was a star for the Wolfpack, being named first-team All-Southern Conference and All-Southern Conference Tournament in 1942 and setting the school record for most points in a game with 30 against Duke. That record would stand for eight years. He left for the Army following that season and, three years later, returned to the college hardwood as a UNC Tar Heel. He earned second-team All-Southern Conference Tournament in 1946 and went to the Final Four with UNC that season. By that point, Mock had already pulled a similar double, earning second-team All-Tournament honors with the Pack in 1942 and first team with the Heels in 1944, Mock is also believed to be the only player to serve as team captain for both the NC State and UNC basketball teams. Swartzberg was the last purple player (red and blue), finishing up with the Tar Heels in 1948.

While letterman records are spotty in the early 20th century, according to both schools’ lists, no player has ever started with the UNC basketball team and jumped to NC State, something that Styles may be on the verge of doing.

McKinney’s name may be familiar to longtime ACC observers. He went on to coach at yet another Tobacco Road rival, Wake Forest, leading the Deacs to a pair of ACC titles.

Coaches tend to be far more likely to make the switch from one rival to another. While no one has pulled a Rick Pitino, who famously went from Kentucky head coach to the same job at Louisville, plenty of former players and assistants have jumped from one school to another. Bucky Waters, who coached Duke in the 1970s and is still a fixture at Cameron Indoor Stadium, won two ACC titles as a Wolfpack player, and Vic Bubas, who led Duke to their first Final Fours, was a player and longtime assistant with the Pack.

Football had a similar transfer situation in the post-World War II years, and a handful of players jumped from one rival to another on the gridiron as well. In fact, football rosters from that era frequently had a “previous school” column, much like rosters of today.

Tailback Eddie Teague and end Fred Miller both started at NC State, served in the Marines, and finished with UNC. Showing that the “transfer crisis” is nothing new, UNC’s 1943 football roster featured players from NC State, Virginia, SMU, Ole Miss, Alabama, TCU, Virginia Tech, Vanderbilt and Arkansas, and it had more incoming players coming from other colleges than from high school. The 1944 roster included Allan Elger, Bill McClain, John Kerns, Henry Stowers and Thad Ellis, who all started at Duke before entering the service (although not all five received letters from both teams).

So, should Dontrez Styles put on a red hat next week, his Heel turn will be a shock to the program and put him at the top of the UNC fans’ enemies list. And it will take us back nearly three-quarters of a century, when jerseys and allegiances were shed just as freely.