By Dave Glenn and staff, ACC Sports Journal
March 24, 2003 GREENSBORO The ACC chose to honor its athletic legends at a gala in Greensboro on the Wednesday night between the women's and men's postseason tournaments. ESPN announcer Mike Tirico was the master of ceremonies in what was to be an offshoot of the ESPYs. All of it was supposed to celebrate the ACC's 50th anniversary. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a glorious flop, in large part because of a decision made by the committee that organized the event.
The idea of selecting the top 50 athletes all-time in each sport played in the ACC was a noble one, although, in retrospect, an impossible task. But it was done amidst little fanfare, and with very little media attention in all of the sports other than football and men's basketball. In those other sports, the top players were selected by the coaches and a few experts in the field, who were brought aboard for their knowledge of the ACC's early years.
In football and men's basketball, the ACC selected a panel of more than 125 people. In that group were many media members, including numerous ACC Sports Journal contributors. There was care taken to have some old-timers, veterans if you will, who were supposed to add perspective about how good the athletes from the 1950s and '60s really were.
The people on the panel were given a master list of nominees from each school and told to rank them 1-50. By any standard it was a monumental task, and several of the voters acknowledged as much. Former Duke athletic director Tom Butters said it was one of the hardest things he had ever done. The football list was revealed first, at the ACC's annual mid-summer Operation Football, which in 2002 took place in Pinehurst. A number of the Top 50 selections were on hand to be interviewed.
It was then, and only then, that the voters learned the rules had been changed. The list would not be 1-50 after all. This happened because, when the ACC sent instructions to the voters, it told them they should consider the professional careers of the various athletes. As many media people predicted at Pinehurst, before the list was revealed, that totally skewed the situation.
The ACC had made a grievous mistake. By encouraging voters to consider pro careers, it severely limited discussion of how good these people were during their college careers a factor that, in the eyes of many, should have carried by far the most weight. This was an ACC-sponsored list, after all.
Eventually, at the Greensboro gala, the ACC announced the top 10 for men and women.
The women's list, headed by North Carolina soccer star Mia Hamm and UNC track and basketball phenom Marion Jones, was virtually without controversy. Although each has become a superstar in the pros, they were bonafide choices strictly off their college careers. Because women's sports only recently have grown in importance, as Title IX created far more opportunities, the depth of the candidates wasn't remotely as much as with the men. One of the women's top 10 was Duke basketball star Alana Beard, who still has another year of college eligibility remaining.
When the men's list was revealed, it included five basketball players; two football players; one man who played football and basketball; one golfer and one track star. Most of the selections were far more famous for their exploits after they left college, and only a handful would have been legitimately chosen had just their ACC careers been considered.
Asked why the change had been made, one ACC spokesman said it was done because, willfully or otherwise, the voters would have placed pro careers in the mix regardless of the instructions. Maybe so, but that could have been avoided had the committee constantly reminded the voters they were to use only college careers when making their decisions.
By taking this other direction, the ACC virtually predetermined that Michael Jordan would be its No. 1 athlete of all time. Which is what happened, of course, and it received the attendant publicity. Many at the league office considered that a very good thing.
The problem was that Jordan despite his incomparable superstar/legend status not only shouldn't have been No. 1, it would have been possible that he might not have been in the top 10 based strictly on his college career. ACC people understood what a nightmare that might have been, so they made sure it didn't happen.
So how skewed were the final selections?
The lone golfer was Arnold Palmer, a man gala officials felt sure would be in attendance. Palmer played three years at Wake Forest, when it was still located in the town of the same name. He would have finished his eligibility in 1951. But, after his junior year and the death of roommate Buddy Worsham in a car accident, the man who would become Arnie dropped out of school and entered the Coast Guard.
Three years later, he was back at Wake for his senior year, which happened to be the first year of ACC existence. Palmer was a fine college golfer. He won the league tournament. But he didn't come close to being as good in college as numerous players who followed him, including older Wake Forest stars such as Curtis Strange, Jay Haas and Scott Hoch, or younger Georgia Tech greats David Duval, Matt Kuchar and Bryce Molder.
Palmer was chosen because of what he did as a pro, as a man who literally built the sport into the multi-billion business of today. But under no circumstances would he be considered the best all-time ACC golfer.
The same thing happened with the lone track athlete, Renaldo Skeets Nehemiah of Maryland. He came along later than Palmer but spent just one year at College Park. He won because of the world records he established after he left college.
UNC football star Lawrence Taylor was another problem. He had one great year as a Tar Heel, but it was in the NFL that he became the standard by which all linebackers are compared.
In direct contrast, Randy White had a fabulous career at Maryland, where he led the Terps to an undefeated regular season and the Cotton Bowl. He had an equally impressive career in the NFL with Dallas. He would have made the list either way strictly off his college career, or by lumping college and pro together.
Florida State's Charlie Ward was selected almost exclusively because he was the league's first Heisman Trophy winner and also played basketball. He's still in the NBA, but he's been primarily a backup point guard with the Knicks.
But it was in basketball that the ACC really had a problem.
Jordan not only was No. 1, but N.C. State's David Thompson was second. Thompson was spectacular as a pro until he was overtaken by alcohol and drug problems, but he was far better known for what he did with the Wolfpack.
It was Thompson's team that went undefeated in his sophomore year, his first season of eligibility. (The NCAA didn't restore freshman eligibility until 1972-73.) The next year, State lost a season-opening game against UCLA, then gained revenge by upsetting the invincible Bruins in the NCAA semifinals in Greensboro, ending their seven-year run as national champs. Thompson's team then won the 1974 title against Marquette.
One would be hard-pressed to find anybody who would argue that Jordan should be rated ahead of Thompson if voters considered only play in college. But that was only slightly more controversial than the voting that left Duke's Christian Laettner at No. 14 and thus not among the ACC honorees.
This season, The Sporting News selected its top 100 Legends of College Basketball, written by Mike DeCourcy. The premise was simple. Only college careers were to be considered. In his presentation, DeCourcy felt a need to explain the placement on the list of just three players: Laettner, Jordan and Ralph Sampson, all ACC graduates.
DeCourcy had Laettner at No. 9, Jordan at No. 16 and Sampson, a three-time national player of the year, at No. 39. Ranked ahead of Sampson were Phil Ford of UNC (22), Bobby Hurley of Duke (28) and Jason Williams of Duke (37). Slightly below Sampson was Wake Forest's Tim Duncan (45). Ford, Sampson and Duncan all made the ACC's Top 10.
Clearly, none of the Duke trio has become a famous pro. Hurley almost was killed in a car wreck in his rookie year. Williams, a two-time national player of the year in college, has become a reserve with the Chicago Bulls.
But it was Laettner, now in his 11th season in the NBA, who was the most controversial victim of the ACC's voting orders. He remains the only player ever to start in the Final Four for four years. His teams won back-to-back NCAA titles and played for the national championship when he was a sophomore. He became the leading scorer in NCAA Tournament history and an MVP in the Final Four.
Laettner also made more big-time shots than any player in the history of basketball. As a freshman, he was nine-for-10 against Alonzo Mourning of No. 1 seed Georgetown. As a sophomore, he made the last-second shot that eliminated UConn in the East Regional final. His 28 points against defending champ UNLV in his junior year included the winning free throws in one of the biggest upsets ever.
As a senior, Laettner made the most replayed shot ever, the foul line jumper after receiving Grant Hill's 75-foot pass that eliminated Kentucky and won the greatest game ever played. In that game, Laettner made 10 of 10 shots and 10 of 10 free throws, while outraging the Wildcats when he deliberately stepped on the chest of Aminu Timberlake, drawing a technical foul. He was one of the most reviled players ever, but nobody could question the validity of his college career.
Certainly Ford (who was close), Sampson and Duncan could not match Laettner's achievements in college. Sampson was a three-time national player of the year, but his teams never won anything beyond an NIT as a freshman and the ACC regular-season title. In his career, he made precisely one game-winning shot.
While the ACC told its voters what they could consider, it never was made clear to the audience at the gala, or in the official release that accompanied the announcement. It never said: We allowed the voters to consider professional careers because we believe they would have done so anyway because of who Michael Jordan is and what he became. We didn't want the responsibility of having at least two, and perhaps more, basketball players being listed ahead of him.
That's why the ACC should have been more candid about its top 10. It should have said, These winners were judged on their entire careers, not just what they achieved while they were in college.
But the 10 winners forever will be known as the ACC's best from the first 50 years. Unfortunately, it was an inaccurate list, compiled as it was because league officials seemingly didn't think its voters could follow instructions. In reality, it is a Top 10 of people who played in the ACC and mostly became famous later.
The official list was a good one, an impressive one. Nevertheless, it was the wrong one.