J. Samuel Walker: Back to the Future in the Atlantic Coast Conference?

We welcome a guest post today from J. Samuel Walker, author of the forthcoming ACC Basketball: The Story of the Rivalries, Traditions, and Scandals of the First Two Decades of the Atlantic Coast Conference (November 2011). Since the inception of the Atlantic Coast Conference, intense rivalries, legendary coaches, gifted players, and fervent fans have come to define the league’s basketball history. In the book, Walker traces the traditions and the dramatic changes that occurred both on and off the court during the conference’s rise to a preeminent position in college basketball between 1953 and 1972. In this post, he gives historical context to the recent news of further ACC expansion.–ellen

ACC Basketball, by J. Samuel WalkerThe Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) recently voted to admit two new members, the University of Pittsburgh and Syracuse University, which will bring the number of schools in the league to 14. There is a great deal of speculation that the conference would like to add two more members to make divisions of eight teams each, which is a logical step for scheduling purposes. But a little historical perspective on the history of the ACC should give pause to advocates of expansion.

The ACC was formed in 1953 because seven members of the Southern Conference decided that the league was too large. They broke away to establish the ACC and then invited the University of Virginia to join, in significant part because an eight-member conference made scheduling easier. They also rejected applications for membership from the University of West Virginia and Virginia Tech.

The schools that seceded from the Southern Conference to create the ACC (Maryland, North Carolina, North Carolina State, Duke, Wake Forest, Clemson, and South Carolina) did so for two reasons. The presidents of some schools favored a new conference because they saw it as a way to establish a proper balance between academic and athletic ambitions. They were greatly troubled by a scandal in the football program at the College of William and Mary, a Southern Conference member, in which the coach had violated academic integrity in order to build winning teams.

Other Southern Conference presidents were more concerned that the league, partly in response to the William and Mary embarrassment, had banned participation by its members in bowl games. The two factions, despite their differing priorities, agreed that the founding of a new conference was the best way to accomplish their goals. Thus, the ACC was born out of commitments to academic quality and to athletic eminence, especially in football.

The ACC had mixed success in achieving the original goals for its founding. In 1960, it became the first conference to adopt a minimum Scholastic Aptitude Test score for athletes. It required a combined score of 750, which was later raised to 800. Even after other leagues followed suit, the ACC’s restriction was the most rigorous. The so-called 800 rule generated enormous controversy within the conference and eventually caused South Carolina to withdraw. Until the requirement was struck down in 1972 by a federal judge, it was a generally productive way to ensure that athletes at ACC schools had at least a fair chance to earn their degrees. The ACC’s attempt to improve its stature in football was less successful. The league’s record against Southeastern Conference opponents between 1953 and 1969, for example, was 19 wins, 105 losses. “ACC football,” Bill Cate of the Roanoke Times wrote in 1969, “is one the worst frauds ever perpetrated on the southern sporting public.”

In basketball, by contrast, the ACC by the early 1970s had gained wide recognition as the strongest conference, top to bottom, in the country. Basketball competition was not a consideration in the creation of the conference in 1953. But it gradually developed into the ACC’s premier attraction and national claim to fame.

Comparisons between the situation now and that in 1953 are, of course, imperfect. But the ACC’s commitment to expansion should not blind it to some of the difficulties with the Southern Conference in the early 1950s. The league was too big for every school to play each other each season in football and basketball. The Southern Conference’s basketball tournament, which decided the league title, included only eight of the 17 schools that were members. The expansion of the ACC has already introduced similar problems. Since Miami, Virginia Tech, and Boston College joined the conference in the mid-2000s, home-and-home basketball games against every league opponent have ended. As a result, traditional and exceedingly intense rivalries among long-time ACC members have been diluted.

It appears to be difficult for many ACC fans to work up the same passion toward newer members that they displayed so vividly toward long-reviled foes. This is evident in empty seats at conference arenas during the regular season and especially during the ACC tournament, which fans no longer seem to regard as, in a phrase used by Virginia coach Bill Gibson in 1970, the “greatest basketball show in the country.” And the league appears to be trending toward the pattern of its early years in which a few teams dominated and the others struggled to compete.

Declining balance in the league is also a threat to full-throated and stadium-filling enthusiasm. The ACC should be mindful that a return to the situation that existed at the time of its founding, when football considerations were paramount, threatens to impair the basketball excellence that remains its greatest asset.

J. Samuel Walker is author of ACC Basketball: The Story of the Rivalries, Traditions, and Scandals of the First Two Decades of the Atlantic Coast Conference (November 2011).