My coach did not spit on anybody's hand

It is too bad that sports reporters and historians at Atlantic Coast Conference headquarters are not reading “ACC Basketball.” This UNC Press book by Sam Walker was published last year and chronicles the game during the conference’s first 20 years.

On the other hand, maybe it is a good thing for my old basketball coach, Lefty Driesell.

How do I know sports reporters and ACC staffers are not reading the new book? It came out in the controversy that developed about UNC Coach Roy Williams taking most of his players off the court 14 seconds before the game ended in Carolina’s recent loss to Florida State.

Williams thought the game was ending early. One story line in the following days was about other times that ACC basketball games ended early.

After checking with an ACC staffer, the Raleigh News & Observer reported, “As best as anyone can tell, UNC’s loss at Florida State would have been just the second ACC game to end before time expired. The first time it happened – and apparently the only time – came in Maryland’s 60-55 home victory against N.C. State on Jan. 7, 1967.”

If the ACC and N&O had read “ACC Basketball,” they would have found, on page 2, Sam Walker’s description of another early game ending when Maryland played South Carolina in Columbia. “On December 16, 1970, South Carolina was cruising to an easy victory when, with 4:52 remaining in the game, two players got into a shoving and elbow-throwing skirmish. Both benches rushed to the aid of their teammates, and a slugfest broke out. As Driesell tried to separate players and stop the melee, he was struck twice by South Carolina forward John Ribock. The fracas continued for about four minutes before police managed to halt the fighting and the referees decided to end the game.”

That story of another early ending is not the “good thing” for Coach Driesell.

When I read and enjoyed “ACC Basketball” I asked UNC Press to send him a copy, thinking he would enjoy some of the stories about him.

I was wrong. Driesell called me the day after he got the book. “I’m going to sue them,” he said. He pointed to a paragraph in the book about the recruitment of basketball star Charlie Scott in 1966. Scott was headed to Davidson, where Driesell was coaching, until Coach Dean Smith persuaded him to go to Carolina. It said that when Smith and Driesell met afterwards, “Smith offered his hand to Driesell and said something along the lines of ‘no hard feelings.’ A fuming Driesell indicated that there were indeed some hard feelings by spitting on Smith’s outstretched palm.”

Driesell was livid. “I would never spit on anybody’s hand. That is terrible.”

He was worried about his friends’ reactions and especially about what “Dean’s family would think.”

Thanks to ECU athletic director, and Driesell’s assistant coach at the time, Terry Holland, the book’s version was corrected. Holland told Walker and UNC Press that “I was standing right beside Coach Driesell and can guarantee that there was no ‘spitting’ involved.”

As a result, the new printing of “ACC Basketball” revises its report to say simply, “Driesell looked down at Smith’s hand and shook his head to indicate that he was not ready to concede defeat.”

So the good thing for Driesell about reporters not reading “ACC Basketball” yet, is that when they do, he can hope they will read the revised version and not see a word about spitting.

“But what about people who read the earlier version?” Driesell asked me.

“All I can do,” I told him, “is write a column that says you didn’t spit in anybody’s hand, and my readers will know the truth.”

The ACC's first 20 years

 Just as the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) is poised to expand again, North Carolina’s basketball victory over South Carolina in Las Vegas last week brought back memories.

They are memories of a time when the ACC was young and South Carolina was part of the small family. Well, sort of.

That “sort of” story is just part of “ACC Basketball: The Story of the Rivalries, Traditions, and Scandals of the First Two Decades of the Atlantic Coast Conference,” a new book by Sam Walker.

During most of those first 20 years, South Carolina, a founding member of the conference, was part of a family that stayed together, even if not altogether happily.

Those first years took the ACC to the top as a basketball conference, a position it still holds.

The book opens with a description of the first ACC conference basketball game. On December 2, 1953, Maryland played South Carolina in Columbia before about 3,000 fans. If you do not remember who won, you are not alone. The next day, the newspapers in Washington and in Columbia gave only short reports that few people noticed. (Maryland won, 53-49.)

Not much attention. Not much respect.

Walker compares that debut game to a meeting between the same two teams in 1971, when 14,000 fans crowded Maryland’s Cole Field House to see Lefty Driesell’s young Maryland team upset Frank McGuire’s second-in-the-nation-ranked South Carolina team in overtime, 31-30. 

McGuire and Driesell turn out to be major characters in a major-character-filled book about sports, higher education, and American cultural change.

Earlier in the 1970-71 season, a game between the two teams in Columbia had to be ended with 4:52 remaining on the clock. A brawl broke out, and one of the South Carolina players struck Driesell twice in the face.

McGuire and Driesell exchanged unpleasant comments in the press, Driesell accusing “McGuire of smiling while ‘they were going wild out there,’” adding “‘if I was Frank McGuire, I would not bring my team to College Park.’”

McGuire responded, “I don’t care what Lefty has to say. There are a million Lefty Driesells in the world.…You won’t see the day I’m afraid of him.”

McGuire might not have been afraid, but he wore a bulletproof vest to the game in College Park.

By 1971, it did not take a McGuire-Driesell rivalry for ACC basketball games to be the lead stories on the sports pages. By then ACC basketball games were big-time sports stories all winter long.

The 1953 and 1971 Maryland-South Carolina games are bookends for more than 300 pages of ACC history.

Coincidentally, two months after the 1971 game, on March 29, 1971, South Carolina’s trustees voted to resign from the ACC. Their reasons had more to do with the conference’s academic standards for football recruits than McGuire’s various feuds with conference officials.

Walker writes about other colorful coaches, like Everett Case, Press Maravich, and Bones McKinney. And he writes about the not-so-colorful one who probably made the greatest positive impact on the ACC during that time, Dean Smith.

Attendance and public attention were not the only differences between the 1953 and 1971 games. In 1953, there were no black players in the ACC. At the game in 1971, Maryland had black players and a black assistant coach. Today, it is hard to believe it could be any other way.

 “How many more ACC basketball books can there be?” my wife asked me. “Think about Civil War books,” I told her, trying to say that there would be plenty more. But this “ACC Basketball” book, written by a prize winning historian and published by a university press (UNC Press) sets it apart and makes it a must-have reference for students of the game and the times.