J. Samuel Walker: Why ACC Basketball Fans Should Care about the Early History of the Conference

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. In this post, he writes about his “voyage of discovery” and why others might find it equally enlightening and entertaining.

ACC Basketball, by J. Samuel WalkerAtlantic Coast Conference basketball has a rich and fascinating history that stretches back to the conference’s founding in 1953. The league has long been distinguished by exceptional top-to-bottom balance, intense rivalries, and, for many years, its method of choosing a champion in a grueling three-day tournament. Year after year, the combination of those qualities produced winters full of highly entertaining games, highly ranked teams, and full-throated (to be honest, sometimes obnoxious) crowds. Nobody anticipated this result when the ACC was established, but basketball emerged gradually as the league’s signature sport.

ACC basketball as we know it was created in the first two decades of the conference’s history. For many fans, the coaches and players who made the ACC such a riveting spectacle are probably shadowy figures, or worse, mere names stripped of life, passion, and achievement. This conclusion draws on my own long experience as a zealous (and perhaps, on rare occasion, obnoxious) fan. When I enrolled in graduate school at the University of Maryland in 1969, I immediately became a close follower of ACC basketball, but I was largely unfamiliar with the history of the league. I heard passing mention of Everett Case, Frank McGuire, Vic Bubas, and Bones McKinney, for example, but I had only a vague sense of their backgrounds, accomplishments, and contributions to the development of the ACC. Likewise, I knew little about many of the outstanding players who dazzled fans in the early years of league competition.

My book on the early history of ACC basketball, therefore, is the product of a delightful voyage of discovery for me. I learned a great deal about the league and the schools (including my own) that were members during the period I cover. I found out much I didn’t know about the ACC’s eminent coaches and talented players, and I had the privilege of meeting and talking with at least some of them. I hope that ACC fans will share my interest in the formative years of conference basketball, and I think they will find the subject appealing for the following reasons:

1. The early years of ACC basketball make for a rollicking good story. It features, among other things:  the always rancorous contention for supremacy among conference powers, which was at first largely limited to the Big Four and later joined by the other ACC schools; the gradual development of top-to-bottom excellence as the have-nots took serious steps to improve; recruiting battles among masters of the trade; the sometimes hilarious antics of coaches, particularly the legendary Bones McKinney; the University of North Carolina’s dramatic march to the national championship in 1957, the only time an ACC school won the NCAA title between 1953 and 1974; and the exploits of a group of extraordinarily skilled players who led the ACC to national prominence.

2. The early years of ACC basketball also provide a window for understanding how schools dealt with the always present and frequently vexing question of how to balance academic and athletic objectives. In general, the goal was to field competitive teams without sacrificing academic integrity, but finding and maintaining the proper balance was never easy. The ACC was the first conference to set minimum academic requirements for offering athletic scholarships, and the fate of this policy was a critical issue during the conference’s first two decades.

3. The early history of the ACC is instructive in understanding the importance of off-the-court issues for the outcome of the more visible competition in the arena. Between 1953 and 1972, ACC administrators had to investigate recruiting violations that resulted in NCAA penalties (NC State, for example, was placed on probation for four years in 1956), respond to a squalid point-shaving scandal, and most importantly, navigate the potential pitfalls that accompanied the racial integration of ACC basketball. The league had no black players until Maryland’s Billy Jones entered his first game in December 1965, and ending racial exclusion on the court was a gradual and sometimes painful process.

The excitement, tension, ill-will, and raucous fans that are a part of the story of early ACC basketball did not always paint a pretty picture. But it was always an intriguing one. The traditions and the commitment to excellence that grew out of the first two decades of ACC basketball laid the foundations for the success on a national stage that the league has enjoyed ever since.

J. Samuel Walker is a prize-winning historian and author of several books, including ACC Basketball: The Story of the Rivalries, Traditions, and Scandals of the First Two Decades of the Atlantic Coast Conference and Prompt and Utter Destruction: Truman and the Use of Atomic Bombs against Japan. He has been a devoted fan of ACC basketball for over 40 years. Read his previous guest post, “Back to the Future in the Atlantic Coast Conference?”