In a conference that considers itself the Cadillac of college-basketball leagues, the University of North Carolina is its deluxe model.
Everything surrounding the Tar Heel program reflects class. The players are spit-polish clean, theire coach sports $200 suits, their fans regularly applaud enemy players for particularly dashing performances. The squad stays in the most elegant hotels (the Watergate, for example, in Washington), ears the best food and never appears in public in anything less than coats and ties.
The school also has become the ACC's showcase team on the court. Over the last 10 years, Carolina has finished no lower than second in the league, while winning 246 games, a figure topped nationally during that span only by Marquette. Carolina is now grouped among those basketball schools that are ranked annually as much on tradition as on team strength.
But sometimes it can be very lonely at the top of the mountain.
I know that the other teams and fans (in the ACC) want to beat us more than anyone else they play," said center Tom LaGrade, who has grown accustomed to the taunts of rival crowds during his four years in Chapel Hill.
"Frankly. I think they are jealous. They are jealous of our success. But I don't think that should create the feelings it does. We aren't cheaters, we aren't dirty on the court, we don't say derogatory things about anyone. But people still hate us."
Oh, how ACC fans hate the Tar Heels. There is something about their manner that seems to bring out the worst in others: the boos, the abusive words, the random ice and paper-wad throwing. And it won't be any different Saturday when Carolina plays in Maryland's Cole Field House (1 p.m., WMAL-TV-7).
"It's been bad everywhere," said one Carolina official, "but the worst I've ever seen the abuse was at Cole last year. They had students right behind our bench and it was incredible, worse than even at Duke."
The intenseness of the Carolina-Maryland rivalry is relatively new, starting with the arrival of Lefty Driesell in College Park. Apart from sports, the schools have little in common. But not so in the state of North Carolina, where rivalries among the so-called Big Four schools cut across educational and alumni lines.
What is particularly galling to Tar Heel foes within the state is that the team has the same characteristics that make the university itself so easy to dislike: both are haughty (Carolina would say dignified) and snobbish (Carolina would say proud).
Ask a North Carolina State alumnus about the University of North Carolina and he'll probably tell you that all Tar Heels look down their noses at the rest of the state's colleges.
Carolina loyalists certainly aren't reluctant to reveal that their school produces the bulk of the state's doctors, lawyers and dentists, or that they graduated from what is considered one of the nation's top educational institutions or that the school is located in one of the most delightful college towns anywhere ("The Southern Part of Heaven").
And it is hardly accidental that the basketball team is not comprised of a bunch of muggers. Although Dean Smith says he would direct his squad the same way "no matter where I was coaching," his Carolina productions are ideally suited to what the school and alumni want.
"Alumni like the way Dean runs the program," said Ernie Williamson, director of the athletic department's fund-raising arm. "He exemplifies exactly what they want to see. They want him to win, sure, but they also want the good, clean-looking class kids who are also good students and also always represent the school correctly."
One of those Carolina fans, Sidney Bowers of Lexington, N.C., talked about what the team means to the school.
"So many of our alumni are businessmen and professional people," he said. "Doctors, lawyers, accountants, things like that. They are prestigious men. The boys on the team know that and they are proud of it and they wouldn't do anything to disgrace the university."
The players haven't, at least, under Smith's tutelage. A Carolina player never speaks ill of an opponent or a referee, even when momentary anger tempts him to do otherwise.
"Sure, sometimes you might want to pop off," said La Grade, "but I'm proud that I've never said anything in public I've regretted later. It would do no good."
Although the Carolina athletes seemed programmed with their look-alike haircuts and "Yes sir, No sir" responses, they don't appear bothered by their lack of verbal freedom. Indeed, it's probably impossible to get a current Tar Heel to say he's unhappy about anything associated with the program.
That is Smith's most impressive achievement. He has created an atmosphere under which happiness flourishes. His players like him, they like each other, they like the school and they like Chapel Hill. Also, they almost all graduate (only three of 92 Smith lettermen haven't), and many either take up residence later in the town or return religiously to soak up its invigorating atmosphere.
"The days I spent at North Carolina were the happiest of my life," said Bullet rookie Mitch Kupchak. "I went there because the players seemed so happy and the coaches were a bit classier than those in the rest of the league.
The players all say the program works because of the type of people Smith recruits. He says he recruits differently than other teams, going for quality instead of quantity and seeking out personalities that will willingly blend into his team-oriented philosophy. As Kupchak put it, "He doesn't recruit any bad actors."
"I'm sure a player knows that, when he comes here, he is expected to blend with the rest of the team," said Smith. "We tell a player if he wants to do it all, we'll let him play five-on-one. The first question he would ask is. 'How do I get the ball in'?"
No one has ever asked that question. Smith says he has none of the "programs. I don't see how anyone can help but admire players who are good students and good athletes, too."
Neither can Phil Ford, that delightful all-America guard who is the personification of Smith's always-hustle philosophy.
"People who run us down don't know what we're doing here," said Ford. "But I know from talking to other players that there are a lot of unhappy players on teams we play. That doesn't seem like a fun way to spend four years in college."
Before anyone can ask Smith why his happy family has not produced a national title or doesn't win every game, he volunteers that his is not "the magic formula that can overcome all obstacles. It's just the way I think basketball should be played and the way players should conduct themselves."
And it's a way to win 25 games a year, which can bring a smile to anybody's face.