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Carnevale, Who Took UNC to Title Game, Dies at 92

He coached basketball for just two years at Carolina but took a team to the national finals. As a college player and coach he had a 5-0 record against UNC. And he provided a key link in the chain of events that brought the young Dean Smith to Chapel Hill.

Ben Carnevale, a veteran college coach and early professional player who is a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, died March 24 in Williamsburg, Va. He was 92.

While in the U.S. Navy, Carnevale for a time athletics director was of the V-12 pre-flight program in Chapel Hill during World War II. Journalist Tom Wicker ’48 recalled some years ago that Carnevale was one of the room inspectors to whom Navy cadets had to answer.

Carnevale took over as Carolina’s basketball coach in 1944, when the team included John “Hook” Dillon ’48, Jim Jordan ’46 and Bob Paxton ’47. That team finished 22-6 and won the Southern Conference Tournament. The next year, after Horace “Bones” McKinney ’48 joined the team in January, UNC was 30-5 and lost in the Southern final to Wake Forest.

Carolina was invited to the NCAA tournament anyway – having beaten Wake by 23 and 29 points in the regular season – and won two regional games before losing to Oklahoma A&M 43-40 in the title game. A&M was coached by the legendary Hank Iba and featured 7-foot center Bob Kurland.

Carnevale had been a standout player for NYU and a member of its 1934 national championship team. After leaving Carolina, he coached at the Naval Academy for 20 years, winning more than 260 games. He later was athletics director at William & Mary.

He is a past president of the National Association of Basketball Coaches and was a 20-year member of the U.S. Olympic Committee, including four years as its chair, 1964-68.

Carnevale was a close friend of former UNC Coach Frank McGuire from their days as college and professional players in New York. In 1958, McGuire found himself with a problem. Dusty DiStefano, his assistant at Carolina, had a phobia about flying – a liability in his job as a recruiter. McGuire asked Carnevale for advice on hiring a new assistant.

“He said, ‘I have to get a new coach. I need somebody that will be very dedicated and very honest and loyal. I don’t know anybody in the East. Do you know anybody?’ ” Carnevale recalled at a GAA forum on the history of Carolina basketball in 1999. “I said, I don’t know anybody in the Big Ten, but I know Bob Spear out at the Air Force Academy. Bob was my assistant at Navy for four years, and he’s told me that he’s got a very fine assistant out there.”

The assistant was Dean Smith, and McGuire soon hired him.


Related coverage is available online:

  • GAA members can log in and listen to the recollections of Ben Carnevale, Dean Smith and others recorded during a five-session forum on the history of Carolina men’s basketball hosted by the GAA in 1999.

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