By Al Featherston
March 7, 2006
Baseball fans long have been outraged by the 1947 American League MVP vote.
Boston's Ted Williams won the league's Triple Crown that season, but he lost the MVP vote to New York's Joe DiMaggio. Williams out-hit DiMaggio .343 to .315, out-homered him 32 to 20, and out-RBIed him 114 to 97. Yet DiMaggio won the MVP award, as a Boston sports writer famously left Williams off his ballot.
Of course, what no one even mentions is that DiMaggio also was snubbed by two voters. He won the 1947 MVP vote not because a Boston sportswriter was feuding with Williams, but because a majority of the 16 voters ranked the Yankee center fielder ahead of the Red Sox slugger on their ballots.
Did they really think DiMaggio had a better year than the Triple Crown winner? Was there -- as often is claimed -- a New York bias at work? Or maybe the voters were following a tradition that marked the MVP voting in that era; they liked to honor a player from the championship team.
North Carolina coach Dean Smith always argued that when it came time to pass out individual honors, the players from the best teams should get the rewards. He would lobby hard even for the supporting players on his championship teams, but he rarely complained when one of his stars was beaten out for player of the year or even first-team All-ACC honors by a player from a better team.
Looking at a list of ACC honors over the years, it appears that the former North Carolina coach spread his philosophy to the writers and broadcasters who make the All-ACC selections. The best teams usually (but not always) have received the benefit of the doubt in the voting for All-ACC honors and player of the year awards.
Unfortunately, there also has been a hint of paranoia when it comes to All-ACC voting. Because the four North Carolina schools make up such a large proportion of the league -- and consequently have dominated (44 percent right now) the membership of the media organization that votes on ACC honors -- the suspicion of a Tobacco Road bias always has been there.
Maryland's Gary Williams once famously joked that he felt like College Park was in Alaska when it came to ACC issues. As recently as the last week of February, one Florida-based sportswriter complained on a sports talk radio show that Florida State's Al Thornton was unlikely to get a fair shake in the All-ACC voting because the "North Carolina" writers instead would vote for Wake Forest's Justin Gray.
Has there really been a North Carolina bias in the voting?
Well, based on the raw results, it's possible to make that case. When Duke's J.J. Redick claimed the 2006 ACC player of the year award, he became the 43rd Tobacco Road player in 53 years to claim that honor. UNC's Roy Williams became the 37th Tobacco Road coach to be honored as coach of the year. Going into this season, North Carolina had more first-team All-ACC picks (64) than Maryland (23), Virginia (15), Georgia Tech (14) and Clemson (9) combined!
But it's also true that the four Tobacco Road teams have dominated the league standings in the last half-century. The Big Four has won 43 of 53 player of the year awards? Well, the Big Four won 44 of the first 52 ACC championships. You say North Carolina has had 64 first-team All-ACC picks to Maryland's 23? North Carolina has 15 ACC titles to Maryland's three. Or, since ACC championships are decided after the All-ACC vote, maybe it's more relevant that North Carolina has won or shared 24 ACC regular-season titles, to four for Maryland.
Doesn't North Carolina deserve to have won the majority of the All-ACC honors? Shouldn't Duke, the second-most successful team in league history, have the second-most awards? And shouldn't Clemson, by far the least successful of the league's original members, have the least All-ACC awards, as the Tigers do?
There's one interesting coincidence that illustrates this point. There's been just one season in ACC history when a Big Four school failed to win either the ACC Tournament or the regular-season title. There's also been just one season in ACC history when the Big Four schools failed to place a single player on the All-ACC first team. Both happened in the same season, 1990.
RACISM, TIMING DENIED SCOTT
Of course, the All-ACC voters have made their share of mistakes. If those mistakes tended to favor Big Four players, it might be possible to argue bias.
But a close look at the most controversial choices over the years shows that the great majority of the players who were shafted by the voters were, in fact, Tobacco Road players, and they usually were shafted in favor of players from outside North Carolina.
Go back to the first big controversy in the All-ACC voting -- the selection of South Carolina's John Roche over North Carolina's Charlie Scott as the ACC's 1969 player of the year. There were two problems with the voting in 1969; one was the timing of the vote, the other was racial prejudice.
Take the second issue first. That's what Scott did soon after the award was announced. He spoke up, claiming he was denied the award based on race.
"They put a guy ahead of me because he's white," Scott told the Washington Post. "It's a frustrating thing when you go to the Olympics and you represent your state, your country and your conference. It really makes you think. It makes you wonder."
When reporters ran to Smith with Scott's comments, the coach backed his star up, although at the time, he refused to blame racism for the vote.
"It just shows the lack of basketball knowledge of those writers," Smith said.
Smith revealed his true feelings in his autobiography, written 30 years later.
"It was transparently racist," he wrote. "The real tell-tale sign of what happened was that five voters did not even put Charles on their all-conference team -- despite the fact that he was an Olympian and a first-team All-American. It was a clear insult."
There was undoubtedly a racist aspect to the vote. But there also was a procedural problem. To understand that, you have to go back three more years, to the 1966 ACC player of the year award,
That season, Duke ran away with the ACC regular-season title. At the time, the All-ACC vote was held before the tournament, and Duke All-Americans Jack Marin and Bob Verga were elected to the first team. But the voting for the player of the year award was held after the tournament, and during Duke's title run in Raleigh, it was senior guard Steve Vacendak who sparked the Blue Devils to the ACC championship. He was so impressive that when the player of the year vote came in, Vacendak finished 22 votes ahead of teammate Marin, even though Vacendak was ninth in the earlier All-ACC voting!
Embarrassed by the election of a second-team All-ACC player as the player of the year, writers were pressured to turn in their votes earlier and not base everything on the tournament. It still was possible to wait until moments after the championship game to vote for player of the year, but in practice, most votes were turned in before the tournament.
That hurt Scott and helped Roche. The week most of the writers voted, the South Carolina guard finished his sophomore season by scoring 38 points in a loss to North Carolina and 39 in a victory over Clemson. Scott got little credit for his spectacular ACC Tournament performance, capped by a miraculous 40-point effort to almost single-handedly beat Duke in the final.
"If the votes were taken (after the tournament)," Smith said, "I believe Charles would be player of the year."
In hindsight, was the choice of Roche over Scott justifiable? Roche averaged 23.6 points, shot 47 percent and pulled down 2.6 rebounds for the ACC's second-place team, while Scott averaged 22.3 points, shot 50 percent and pulled down 7.1 rebounds for the ACC's regular-season and tournament champion. Scott made five major All-America teams that season, Roche none.
And if you're going to argue that Roche's slight advantage in scoring average made him the better choice in 1969, then why did the same voters give him the award again in 1970, when Scott outscored Roche 27.1 to 22.3, out-rebounded him 8.6 to 2.5 and even passed out more assists?
VOTING CHANGE COST BURLESON
The next great voting controversy also involved a rule change. The ACC voters decided in the early 1970s to pick their team by position. That decision blew up in 1974, when they were forced to choose between Maryland's Len Elmore and N.C. State's Tommy Burleson as the first-team All-ACC center.
Statistically, it was a tough choice between two of the three best players in the league that year. Burleson averaged 18.1 points and 12.2 rebounds and shot 51.6 percent from the floor. Elmore averaged 14.6 points, 14.7 rebounds and shot 52.5 percent from the floor. Both were exceptional defenders.
Burleson, the first-team All-ACC center in each of the two previous years, believed he should get the edge because he anchored the league's championship team, sacrificing statistically to make N.C. State a winner.
"When I was first with David (Thompson) at the beginning on my junior year, the first game we played, I had 26 shots and David had 25," Burleson said. "Coach (Norm) Sloan called me in and said, Tom, David needs to be taking the most shots on this team. He needs to be our premier player.' I said, You're correct,' so I became more of a defender and playmaker. I averaged over 21 points a game as a sophomore. I could have scored a lot more, but I did what was best for the team."
Burleson put a lot of stock in the fact that in his five matchups with Elmore in the 1973 and 1974 seasons, his team never lost. In addition, in those five games, Elmore never once out-scored him or out-rebounded him. However, a lot of voters were impressed when Burleson missed 16 of 19 shots in State's narrow win at Maryland. They didn't seem to pay much attention to the fact that in two head-to-head matchups in 1974, Elmore's shooting percentage of 25.0 percent (5-of-20) was exactly the same as Burleson's (8-of-32).
The N.C. State senior was infuriated when the voters gave Elmore the edge in their all-star vote.
"I was quite upset," he said many years later. "I felt like I'd dominated play in the ACC for three years. I would have been the first player at State to be All-ACC first team three years in a row. I was pretty perturbed that the media didn't think I was a great player."
He transferred some of that anger to his rival when Elmore told reporters to send Burleson the message, "that I am the center in the ACC."
The 7-4 senior answered his rival on the court in the 1974 ACC championship game. Burleson scored 38 points on 18-of-25 shooting and added 13 rebounds against one of the best big men in college basketball. He made it abundantly clear that the voters chose the wrong center for the All-ACC first team.
In the ensuing years, writers would look for players who were disappointed by the All-ACC voting and try to project them as potential ACC Tournament stars. When Wally Walker led Virginia to an unlikely title in 1976, everybody noted that he had just missed making the All-ACC first team. (Unlike with Burleson's snub, there was little controversy over the vote at the time.) And when UNC claimed the 1979 ACC title, the MVP was senior Dudley Bradley, who was left off both the first and second All-ACC teams.
ODDITIES HELPED MARYLAND, TECH
Looking at the history of the voting with a critical eye, it appears that -- contrary to charges of Tobacco Road bias -- the most fortunate team in the voting has been Maryland.
Not only did Elmore beat out Burleson in that highly questionable 1974 vote, but Maryland's Albert King won the 1980 Case Award as the tournament MVP, even though he missed the game-winning shot in the final seconds against Duke. King and Wake Forest's Dickie Hemric (in the very first tournament in 1954) remain the only two players from losing teams to capture the tournament MVP award outright.
Twice during the Mike Krzyzewski era, a Duke player won national player of the year honors but lost ACC player of the year honors to a player from Alaska er, Maryland. In 2002, Duke guard Jason Williams swept every major national award. Yet the "biased" ACC media gave the league player of the year award to Maryland's Juan Dixon.
Of course, one might argue that the voters merely were rewarding the best player on the best team, since 15-1 Maryland finished two games ahead of 13-3 Duke that season. But how does that fit into the 1986 scenario? Duke's Johnny Dawkins won the Naismith Award as the nation's best player, but Maryland's Len Bias was voted the ACC player of the year.
In that case, Dawkins was the best player on the best team. Bias was the star of a sixth-place team, one that finished 6-8 in ACC play. That's the worst ACC record ever recorded by an ACC player of the year. And Maryland's 8-6 ACC record when Bias won in 1985 has been matched just once, by another non-Big Four player, Georgia Tech's Dennis Scott in 1990.
That's hardly evidence of a North Carolina bias in the voting.
It's true that Maryland's coaches were outraged when Johnny Rhodes finished second in the 1993 rookie of the year vote, but he was beaten out by Martice Moore of Georgia Tech, not by a player from the Big Four. Rhodes might have a valid complaint about the voting, but 1993 wasn't nearly as big an injustice as in 2002, when the voters gave the rookie award to Georgia Tech's Ed Nelson over N.C. State's Julius Hodge. That was yet another case of a deserving Tobacco Road player getting the shaft from the "biased" North Carolina media.
No, the ACC voters don't always get it right. (Joe Forte and Shane Battier as co-players of the year in 2001?) But ignorance, not geographical bias, appears to be behind their greatest mistakes.
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