Interview: J. Samuel Walker on the History of ACC Basketball

ACC Basketball: The Story of the Rivalries, Traditions, and Scandals of the First Two Decades of the Atlantic Coast Conference, by J. Samuel WalkerJ. Samuel Walker is a prize-winning historian and author of several books, including 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, and in his latest book, ACC Basketball: The Story of the Rivalries, Traditions, and Scandals of the First Two Decades of the Atlantic Coast Conference, he turns to the history of his favorite sport.

In this interview with UNC Press, he discusses the first two decades of the most dominant and celebrated of basketball conferences: its triumphs, its scandals, and why he is the perfect historian to document its history.

Q: You are an accomplished historian of the nuclear age. What attracted you to sports history, especially ACC basketball?

A: During my working career as a professional historian I published several books on the history of nuclear energy, but I decided that I wanted to do something different when I retired. I considered and rejected several possibilities before I came up with the idea of researching the early history of ACC basketball. I had been an avid follower of the ACC since I began graduate school at the University of Maryland in 1969. Moving from writing on the history of radioactive waste disposal (my last book) to ACC basketball might not seem like a natural progression, but, for me, it was a happy one. Once I discovered that the archives of universities that were members of the ACC between 1953 and 1972 were full of rich material, I couldn’t wait until I retired to get started on the book. And the subject turned out to be so absorbing that I actually finished the manuscript before I retired.

Q: Why did you choose to cover the first two decades of the ACC? What was so appealing about this period in ACC history?

A: My original idea was to do a history of ACC basketball during the 1950s and 1960s—before I arrived at Maryland and instantly became a passionate fan. I had often heard names of legendary coaches, such as Everett Case, Frank McGuire, Bones McKinney, and Vic Bubas, but I knew little about them. I was also vaguely informed about some of the great players of the early ACC, but again, knew little beyond their names. I thought it would be fun to trace the background of the coaches and players who made the ACC into a basketball powerhouse. Once I began the project, I soon decided to extend my coverage into the early 1970s for two basic reasons: 1) by that time, the ACC was widely regarded as the strongest conference, top to bottom, in the country; and 2) the University of South Carolina left the conference in 1971 in a bitter dispute over the ACC’s academic requirements for athletes.

Q: Your book begins by contrasting the general indifference to the outcome of the ACC’s first game, between Maryland and South Carolina in December 1953, with the excited anticipation of a match-up between the same schools in January 1971. How did the ACC generate such enthusiasm in the period between those two games?

A: The two Maryland-South Carolina games seemed to me to be good before-and-after bookends of how the ACC changed in the period I cover in my book. The ACC was established in 1953 with football ambitions at the forefront and basketball as something of an afterthought. There were keen rivalries in basketball among the so-called Big Four schools (North Carolina, North Carolina State, Wake Forest, and Duke), but the development of top-to-bottom excellence in the league was a gradual and uncertain process that evolved over two decades. As the basketball programs throughout the conference improved, games became more meaningful, rivalries became more intense, and fans became more enthusiastic (and often downright obnoxious). Fan misbehavior in the ACC is not something of recent origin. I attended the Maryland-South Carolina game in 1971, and the atmosphere in Cole Field House that evening is still a vivid memory that informed my work on the history of ACC basketball.

Q: What was the biggest challenge facing the ACC when it was established?

A: The ACC was founded in 1953 with two purposes in the minds of the administrators who decided that a new conference was needed. The first motivation was to gain better control over athletics, especially in light of a series of severe problems that were revealed in 1951, including a widespread point shaving scandal in college basketball, cheating among football players at West Point, and violations of academic integrity at William and Mary. Several presidents at Southern Conference schools believed that a new league with a smaller number of members would be more effective in establishing and maintaining academic standards in their athletic programs. The second motivation for founding the ACC was that several college presidents thought that a new league would provide more evenly matched competition and greater prestige for their football teams. They strongly opposed a decision of the Southern Conference to ban participation in bowl games by league members. The initial and continuing challenge for the ACC was to find a proper balance between academic and athletic objectives as it sought to field competitive teams without sacrificing academic integrity.

Q: You mention “scandals” in the title of your book. What basketball scandals did the ACC suffer during its first two decades and which had the greatest impact?

A: In the ACC’s first two decades every conference school except Virginia and Wake Forest was guilty of offenses that led to NCAA reprimands or probation. Some were minor violations that carried no penalties and fell short of being scandalous. Others were much more serious. NC State, for example, was placed on NCAA probation for four years in 1956 for recruiting infractions. The most distressing scandal, and the one that had the greatest impact, came to light in 1961 when players from North Carolina and NC State, along with players at many other schools across the nation, admitted that they had conspired with gamblers to shave points in college basketball games. As a result, William C. Friday, the president of the consolidated University of North Carolina, decided to abolish a highly popular and highly profitable Christmas holiday tournament, the Dixie Classic. The Dixie Classic, held at NC State’s Reynolds Coliseum, pitted the Big Four against outstanding teams from other sections of the country and was a showcase for ACC talent.

Q: In what ways did the ACC reflect social and economic trends in the postwar South? How was the conference affected by the most important social issue of the time—the struggle for civil rights?

A: The ACC benefited from the economic growth and unprecedented prosperity in the South after World War II. Southerners generally had more disposable income than ever and many used it to attend basketball games at ACC schools, or at least to buy television sets that broadcast ACC games. Further, the stronger economic status of Southern states encouraged much-needed improvements in education, including the allocation of greater resources to public universities. One result was that members of the ACC took steps to upgrade their academic programs and prestige. Another result was the ability of several ACC schools to build modern basketball arenas. The racial integration of ACC student bodies and basketball programs occurred at a painfully slow pace. Maryland’s Billy Jones became the first black player to appear in an ACC varsity game in December 1965, and it was not until 1971 that every conference school had at least one African American on its team. The arrival of black players was a key milestone for the ACC. Despite the indignities they endured, they promoted the gradual growth of color blindness among fans who regarded winning games against hated rivals as far more important than observing racial dogma.

Q: Throughout your book, you provide in-depth descriptions of many of the coaches of ACC teams. Please explain their role in the development of ACC basketball and its rise to national prominence.

A: The most important reason for the ACC’s success in basketball between 1953 and 1972 was the excellence of its coaches. I use, and probably overuse, the word “brilliant” to describe them collectively. I call Everett Case “the man who made ACC basketball” because he built a program at NC State, a school without a winning basketball tradition, that forced other Big Four schools to play catch-up. This was especially true at North Carolina, which hired Frank McGuire to try to keep up with its institutional sibling. Within a short time, McGuire led his team to the national championship. Bones McKinney, unrivaled as the most colorful character in ACC basketball history, was an outstanding coach who took Wake Forest to the semifinals of the NCAA tournament in 1962. Vic Bubas, a former assistant to Case, made Duke the team to beat in the ACC during the 1960s. Along with these legendary coaches, I discuss others who are less well known but were highly successful, including Duke’s Hal Bradley, Clemson and later NC State’s Press Maravich, Clemson’s Bobby Roberts, Maryland’s Bud Millikan, and Virginia’s Bill Gibson. I also introduce a younger generation of coaches whose careers began in the 1960s and who guided their schools to new levels of national recognition, namely North Carolina’s Dean Smith, NC State’s Norm Sloan, and Maryland’s Lefty Driesell. For the line-up of coaches featured in my book, “brilliant” is the fitting adjective. Those coaches, sometimes with great difficulty, were instrumental in building and/or sustaining basketball programs that, by the early 1970s, established the reputation of the ACC as the nation’s best balanced and most powerful conference.

Q: How did the first two decades of ACC history contribute to the enormous popularity of college basketball?

A: The popularity of college basketball developed gradually; one telling example is that the semifinals and finals of the NCAA tournament were not carried on live network television until 1968. By that time college basketball was well on its way to consistently attracting sell-out crowds in arenas around the country and the NCAA tournament was taking major steps toward acquiring the status of an iconic event. The ACC was a part of this trend, and it contributed to it in important ways. One way it increased the popularity of college basketball was through the excellence of its programs and the passion of its rivalries. The caliber and the intensity of ACC competition were big drawing cards both during the regular season and the ACC tournament. Most ACC schools did not regularly fill their arenas until the 1960s, after the league became more evenly balanced across the board. The tournament did not completely sell out until 1965, after which tickets became progressively more difficult and more expensive to obtain.

The ACC also spurred fan interest in college basketball through its televised game-of-the-week, which began in 1957 and expanded during the 1960s. Television coverage of college games was still rare at that time, and it did not occur in the ACC without serious reservations on the part of potential sponsors and at least some coaches and administrators. The televising of ACC games eventually extended far beyond the borders of the conference. This was not only of critical importance in convincing recruits to sign with ACC schools but also enlarged, by unknown but presumably significant proportions, the fan base for college basketball among those who watched the broadcasts.

Q: You discuss the controversy over the ACC’s 800 rule, which stipulated that an athlete must score at least an 800 on the SAT to be eligible to participate in intercollegiate sports. Increasing frustration with this rule as a major hindrance to recruiting led South Carolina to abandon the conference in 1971. What impact did this development have on the ACC?

A: The 800 rule was consistent with the ACC’s commitment from the time of its founding to foster academic integrity along with athletic excellence. It was intended to ensure that athletes who enrolled at ACC schools had at least a fair chance to succeed academically and earn their degrees. The 800 rule, despite its low threshold, was not much different than the minimum entrance requirements for all students at most ACC schools. By the end of the 1960s, South Carolina and Clemson complained that the rule made it difficult to compete in football with non-ACC opponents whose entrance standards for athletes were less strict, most notably schools from the Southeastern Conference. Their appeals for abolition of the rule produced sharp controversy and considerable ill-will within the ACC and eventually led South Carolina to withdraw from the league. In a decision that was handed down in 1972, a federal judge concluded that the 800 rule violated the 14th Amendment. The end of the rule was a blow to the ACC’s efforts to balance academic and athletic objectives and opened the way for the admission of athletes who had, at best, only a slight chance of performing adequately in college classrooms. The departure of South Carolina caused little regret among other ACC schools and had no harmful impact on the league. Within a few years, its place in the ACC was filled by Georgia Tech.

Q: You clearly have a personal interest in ACC basketball as your brother is Wally Walker, a former star player at the University of Virginia. How did this influence your approach to writing a scholarly history of early ACC basketball, if at all?

A: When Wally played in the ACC between 1972 and 1976, I was fanatical in supporting Virginia, which was not always easy because his teams were not very good for much of his career. But I have several other ACC connections, and I believe they helped me to write a balanced and nonpartisan, though not uncritical, history. I am committed by professional training and experience to following the evidence wherever it leads and to evaluating that evidence in what I hope is a fair and judicious manner. I am now considering writing a sequel to my book that will cover the next twenty years or so of ACC basketball. If I do that, I will, by necessity, discuss the 1976 ACC tournament, during which Virginia won its only conference championship to date and Wally received the Everett Case Award. A chapter for each of the three days of the tournament seems about right, but my professional judgment might force me to reconsider. Upon reflection, I might conclude that three chapters are not enough.

A conversation with J. Samuel Walker, author of ACC Basketball: The Story of the Rivalries, Traditions, and Scandals of the First Two Decades of the Atlantic Coast Conference (University of North Carolina Press, Fall 2011).