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.