Dean Smith, Vic Bubas, Everett Case and Bones McKinney

Did we lose the real man who made ACC basketball great?

There has been a debate through the years over who was the real godfather of ACC basketball, with the top candidates being chosen among four men who coached in the league’s maiden years.

All the State people think it was Everett Case, who was hired to build a basketball program with Indiana recruits because the Wolfpack could never, supposedly, compete with Duke and Carolina on the football field. Case did that, winning the first 3 ACC championships and four of the first six on the hardwood.

But Case was aging out and only inspired UNC to hire Frank McGuire from St. John’s. Not only did the Irishman beat Case in their first matchup, his 1957 Tar Heels won all 32 games and the NCAA title, the ACC’s first, which is still called the greatest sports story ever in North Carolina.

But McGuire’s powerhouse lasted only as long as he did. He resigned under pressure in the summer of 1961 and UNC promoted his assistant coach, Dean Smith, an unknown 30-year-old. Smith needed a few years to recover from an NCAA probation that felled McGuire’s program and start recruiting great players of his own to win championships.

By then, Duke had hired Vic Bubas off Case’s staff at N.C. State, and Bubas won the ACC tournament his first season and led the Blue Devils to 3 more conference titles plus Final Fours in 1963, ’64 and ’66. Then, Bubas retired from coaching at age 41, wanting to quit the grind and maybe do something else in sports.

One theory as to why Bubas stepped down was that Smith had watched him recruit and learned how to do it even better. In Bubas’ last season at Duke, Smith’s Tar Heels won their third straight ACC title and trip to the Final Four. Of course, we all know that Smith went on to a 36-year Hall of Fame career.

Bubas passed away this week at 91, enjoying a long and distinguished life as not only a great coach but a revered administrator. He too is in the Hall of Fame, and had a blue-blood program long before the guy whose name you can’t spell showed up in Durham.

So was it Case, McGuire, Bubas or Smith who is most responsible for this treasure we call ACC Basketball?

Well, each man has a good case for the title of “ACC godfather,” including Case. But since he passed the test of time, overlapped eras and rules changes in the game — and kept winning through it all — I’ll go with that guy Smith, the Dean.