College Sports

ACC anniversary marks a milestone for power conferences

Fans line up to enter Bank of America Stadium for the ACC Championship game between North Carolina and Clemson on December 5, 2015 at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.
Fans line up to enter Bank of America Stadium for the ACC Championship game between North Carolina and Clemson on December 5, 2015 at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. rwillett@newsobserver.com

As secession efforts go, the formation of the Atlantic Coast Conference 64 years ago Monday was accomplished with remarkable cordiality.

The departure of seven Southern Conference members to form a league of larger, football-fancying schools did not precipitate lawsuits, the payment of exit fees, raids on other conferences, or even a waning of decorum. Once the split was formally proposed at the Southern’s annual meeting at Greensboro’s Sedgefield Inn, conference president Max Farrington of George Washington mildly announced to the breakaway members: “I suggest that you fellows who have presented the resolution go outside near the golf course and talk for awhile.” And so representatives of Clemson, Duke, Maryland, North Carolina, N.C. State, South Carolina and Wake Forest adjourned to lounge chairs by the pool and ninth green to await the future they had just forged.

Most newspapermen – who at times drank, swapped stories and insults, and played poker with the coaches and athletic directors they covered – had an inkling change was in the offing before arriving at Greensboro. “We knew it was going to happen unless lightning struck,” insists Irwin Smallwood, who covered the four meetings spread over two days for the Greensboro Daily News.

Smallwood, the only known surviving witness to the ACC’s start, sees at play in the Southern’s dissolution the same forces that continue to shape college sports. “Reflecting on it, my memory is that the culture of the haves and the have-nots had come to really play a role,” says Smallwood, long retired after 42 years as a sports and news reporter and editor. “The more I think about it, the more I realize the have and have-nots culture, that whole concept is what created (today’s) five power conferences, is it not?”

Following World War II, balances had shifted within the 17-member Southern Conference. Football achieved prominence at Duke and Maryland in particular – the 1953 Terps were acclaimed the national champs. The two schools were among those that invested in facilities and everything that went with a nationally competitive football program. Little guys such as The Citadel, Davidson, Furman and VMI did not. “I remember fussing and fuming – you could win the Southern Conference football championship and never play anybody,” Smallwood, 91, says of how coaches sometimes cherry-picked league opponents.

The Southern’s 1953 annual meeting was intended to focus on freshman eligibility and bowl participation, indirectly confronting the internal tensions that fractured the league. Embracing a view that seems forlornly foresighted, some university presidents decried bowl games for interfering with academics and creating pressures that corrupted college sports. In the fall of 1951 such concerns led SC presidents to recommend a ban on league teams appearing in bowls. Clemson and Maryland went to New Year’s Day bowls anyway, claiming they were already committed. Both schools were placed on league probation in 1952 and dropped as football opponents by most Southern Conference members.

The clash of interests led UNC system president Gordon Gray and Duke president A. Hollis Edens to convene chief executives from prospective ACC members in the faculty lounge at Chapel Hill’s Morehead Planetarium on the eve of the ’53 Southern meeting in Greensboro. “They thought that bringing these institutions together, being the schools they were, it would create a group that had very common interests,” William Friday, then Gray’s assistant and later his successor, told me in 2002. Balanced playing schedules in football and basketball, and adopting academic standards surpassing NCAA norms, were key considerations. “Mr. Gray’s ambition then was to do exactly what was done, which was to form the ACC,” Friday said. “The mechanics were done at Sedgefield.”

With few exceptions, the details of the transition were addressed by faculty chairmen and athletic directors. Among those on hand were ADs Frank Howard of Clemson and Maryland’s Jim Tatum, eventual members of the College Football Hall of Fame then serving dual roles as their schools’ football coaches. The days of athletic administrators running multimillion-dollar sports programs fueled by TV income were far in the future. Television itself was in its infancy, limited to broadcasts in black-and-white provided by a handful of over-the-air networks. Variety shows were popular, but “I Love Lucy” reigned.

The advent of TV as a cultural and commercial force wasn’t the only great change reshaping society as the ACC came along. The conference formed a year before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that “separate education facilities are inherently unequal.” The decision signaled a slow end to overt racial segregation in American institutions. Yet a decade would pass before Maryland became the first ACC school to integrate football and later basketball.

No one at the new league’s launch spoke of, or planned for, including athletes who were not white males. “It wasn’t talked about a lot,” Smallwood says of incorporated black athletes. He did recall the “phenomenon” of Jesse Arnelle appearing for Penn State at Reynolds Coliseum in the 1952 NCAA tournament, the first African American to play there. “I think we were pretty slow to break the color line,” Smallwood concedes. Nor were there any black reporters on hand to cover the Southern Conference breakup. No female reporters were present among the press corps, either, notes the 1947 North Carolina grad, an advocate of diverse hiring after moving to management.

Dwight Eisenhower was sworn in as president just months before the ACC’s original schools each paid a $200 “membership fee” to join. (Virginia was added in December 1953.) While rail travel was convenient and widespread – Smallwood was able to catch a round-trip train ride from Greensboro to Charlottesville, Va., to see a Saturday football game – it would be years before the interstate highway system Eisenhower championed began to take shape. Consequently, transportation options, or the lack thereof, affected which schools were invited to sign on with the ACC, according to Smallwood, a member of the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame.

“A great thing that I kept hearing that was never really included in many assessments of what formed the conference, it was purely and simply travel,” he says. “I think that’s all that kept West Virginia out of it, and Virginia Tech. You had to pack a lunch to get to Morgantown, and the same thing with Virginia Tech.”

Tobacco, like rail, was another now-faded giant that played a prominent role at the conference’s inception. Literally. Smoking in private and public was commonplace; descriptions of the talks that birthed the ACC invariably depict meetings taking place in smoke-filled Room 230 at the Sedgefield Inn.

Nowadays public smoking is as uncommon, even on so-called Tobacco Road, as North Carolina train travel. Athletic directors double not as coaches, but as fundraisers. The majority of football and basketball players in big-time programs are African American. The ACC is almost as large as the pre-departure Southern, with 15 schools at last count, five original members. That means balanced ACC schedules are as outdated as phone booths.

And let’s not forget that, even accounting for inflation, the money in major-college sports paid to non-athletes has grown to astronomical proportions: Clemson’s Dabo Sweeney gets about a third more as a bonus if chosen as national football coach of the year than the $37,841.78 the ACC earned from its first, fund-raising basketball tournament.

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