“I like calling North Carolina home.”
In the 1970s, that pleasant-sounding jingle could be heard across the airwaves in the Tar Heel State. For my family, it was certainly true. All of us except my Mom were born and raised in the state, and we all spent the 60s living in Greensboro. My brother and his wife have always lived in North Carolina, and my two sisters and their families have lived in Charlotte for the longest time. I’ve not lived there since 1991, but we’re close enough to visit.
So as you can imagine, I was pretty excited when the Democratic Party selected Charlotte last year to host their 2012 National Convention (September 3-5). The Queen City bested St. Louis, Cleveland and Minneapolis to make history. This will be the first time North Carolina has hosted a presidential-nominating convention.
The major networks no longer cover the two conventions like they once did. Nevertheless, with 1,500 media expected to descend on the city, and cable and internet coverage, the convention will be the biggest three-day event in the Tar Heel State since who knows when?
In thinking about a comparable event, my mind was taken back to the NCAA Final Four, which was held in Greensboro in 1974. And therein lies an interesting story, a tale of two cities, two places that have had a rivalry of sorts through the years. That rivalry is worth examining, as one way of appreciating the distance Charlotte has traveled to reach the pinnacle it now so proudly stands on.
With a surging population knocking on the door of the .75M mark, two major league teams, the NASCAR Hall of Fame, a business-friendly community, and a revitalized “Uptown,” Charlotte has become a first-class city. Greensboro, while certainly a fine place to live, has not kept up with the state’s largest and fastest-growing city.
Some might think the Queen City has always been way ahead of the Gate City in terms of cachet and bragging rights. I would argue, however, that is not true, and the difference between the two was once much closer than what one might think.
Founded in 1768, Charlotte certainly got the jump on Greensboro (the two are separated by about 90 miles) by 40 years, and has always been the more populous city. The gap, however, which is now almost triple, was not that wide in the 50s and 60s.
While Greensboro, ranked second in population for the longest time until Raleigh surpassed it in the 80s, did trail Charlotte in population, the city did not in other high-visibility aspects such as sports. Greensboro parlayed its middle of “Tobacco Road” location (UNC, Duke and Wake Forest are a short drive away), and a new Coliseum close to I-40 (opened in 1959) to become Hoops Heaven in the state.
In 1974, it was Greensboro, not Charlotte, who hosted the NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four. With some serious home cooking, N.C. State beat the mighty Bruins of UCLA in OT in the semi-finals, and then took the crown over Marquette. The only other time the state hosted the Final Four was Charlotte in 1994.
The ACC Men’s Tournament has flirted with other locations, but Greensboro has been its proven home. From 1967 to 1988, Greensboro hosted the “toon-a-ment” 14 times, while Charlotte did so just three. Greensboro will also host in 2013-2015.
The ACC tournament no longer means as much as it once did, but up until 1974, only about two-dozen teams made the NCAA tourney, and the only way to do so was to win the conference tournament. If you wanted to drive somewhere in North Carolina, title tilt Sunday was the time to do so. Half the state was watching the game on TV, and almost always at least one Carolina team, if not two, had advanced to the championship game.
Greensboro’s glory days were also marked by their hosting the “Big Four” tournament from its beginning to end - 1971 to 1981. And when the Carolina Cougars of the American Basketball Association (Remember those radical red-white-blue basketballs?) arrived in 1969, Greensboro, Charlotte and Raleigh co-hosted the games. The team, however, was based in Greensboro.
Until Charlotte landed the Hornets in 1988, North Carolina did not have a major league sports team. That’s one reason why having a PGA Men’s tournament in the state was so important. Starting in 1938, the Gate City hosted the “Greater Greensboro Open.” The face of the “GGO” was none other than Slammin’ Sammy Snead who hoisted the trophy a record eight times and gave the tournament a down-home flavor the fans loved.
Charlotte can now boast they host one of the more prestigious tournaments on the men’s tour, but it took them a while to gain that status. When the Queen City lost the Kemper Open in 1979, the GGO was the only PGA Men’s tour stop until Charlotte gained the Wachovia Championship in 2003.
NASCAR-wise, Charlotte is by far the king, a status they cemented when the city landed the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2010. But in the 60s and 70s, Greensboro could always claim “King” Richard Petty, who lived in nearby Randleman.
Oddly enough, the biggest sports rivalry between the two cities in the 60s and 70s played out on the ice. Given the state’s love of basketball, that doesn’t sound right, but recruiters in both cities faced a tough task as the best talent went, and in many ways still does, to Chapel Hill, Durham, Winston-Salem and Raleigh.
The place to be on a Saturday night back then was to see the Checkers versus the Generals (AA minor league). The competition provided two sports in one, hockey and pugilism. In fact, I think my going to those games in the late 60s set the stage in terms of my thinking of the two cities as rivals.
Charlotte tasted hockey glory before Greensboro by landing a minor-league team in 1957, and winning the playoffs in their first year. But consider this. From 1960, the year the Coliseum and the Generals debuted, to 1973, the final year of the East Coast League, both cities were in the league’s Southern Division. During this time, Greensboro’s winning percentage was .581 while Charlotte’s was .540. The Generals finished ahead of the Checkers nine times, while the Checkers bested their rivals five times. The men in green also won the Southern Division seven times while the Checkers did so just twice, at that came later in the early 70s.
My hometown can still hold its head high when it comes to sports. They’ve got a jewel of a downtown ballpark for their Class “A” baseball team, and the city recently recaptured some golf glory and cachet when the PGA Tour returned to storied Sedgefield Country Club, and the tournament became part of the “FedEx Cup” playoffs. The Greensboro Coliseum, the second largest indoor arena in the country with 23,500 seats, will host the second and third round of March Madness this year.
Since the late 70s, however, Charlotte has grown and flourished like no other city in the state (although Raleigh and their Hurricanes would have a little something to say about sports bragging rights). With Hugh McColl, the former Chairman and CEO of Bank of American behind the wheel, the city took off like a dragster in the 80s and 90s. The retired Marine gobbled up banks and financial institutions left and right, leading the way to Charlotte becoming the second largest banking headquarters in the U.S. The city’s population grew from 315,000 in 1980 to 731,000 in 2010, making it the 17th most populous city in the U.S. The Queen City is arguably the hottest player in “New South.”
It’s certainly not been all roses for Charlotte. The financial crisis hit the city hard and not everyone there is thrilled with the coming invasion of Big Blue.
And recently, the euphoria of landing the convention has given way to criticisms. Several weeks ago, the Charlotte Observer’s Mark Washburn fumed when the Director of Media Logistics told reporters her briefing would be off the record. Washburn contrasted that directive with the DNC’s previous announcement the Convention would be “the most open and accessible in history.”
Additionally, grumbling could be heard among everyday party supporters when the DNC committee revealed President Obama’s final day speech would be moved from the arena to “Bank of America Stadium.”
Despite these bumps in the road, civic pride is swelling in this fine Southern city to levels never before seen. Such great feelings, however, have been felt there before. When Charlotte joined the Eastern Hockey League in 1957, the team, helped by an outpouring of support from the fans, promptly won the championship over teams from cities like Philadelphia.
Democrats from across North Carolina will cheer the President in September, but those in Charlotte will be particularly pleased to say they like calling North Carolina home.