By Al Featherston
March 7, 2006
What It Was. What It Is. What It May Be.
No one ever loved the ACC Tournament more than Everett Case.
"The tournament is a banquet," the former N.C. State coach proclaimed, "and every game a feast."
The tournament Case loved so much was very different from the ACC Tournament that is being played this year in the Greensboro Coliseum.
The Gray Fox coached in an era when just one team per conference was invited to the NCAA Tournament. In most leagues, the NCAA bid went to the regular-season champion, the team that had proved its superiority over the course of a two-month-long, home-and-home conference season.
But the ACC went its own way, handing its precious NCAA bid to the survivor of a three-day postseason tournament.
"It's like Russian Roulette," former North Carolina coach Frank McGuire complained.
That's no longer the case.
With an unlimited number of NCAA bids available per conference these days, the modern ACC Tournament is merely a weekend bump on the Road to the Final Four. The Sunday afternoon championship game and the ensuing net-cutting celebration -- a tradition brought to the ACC by Case more than a half-century ago -- is overshadowed by the NCAA Selection Show a few hours later. For all but the ACC's bottom-feeders, the tournament offers little more than a chance to polish an NCAA resume and maybe earn a better seed or move off the selection bubble.
North Carolina showed how little the ACC Tournament can mean last season, when the ACC regular-season champs seemingly mailed it in for two games in the MCI Center, bowing out a day before Duke beat Georgia Tech for the league's official championship. The lost weekend had little impact on a glorious season that was capped by another net-cutting ceremony, after the Tar Heels edged Illinois in St. Louis to win the 2005 national title.
Is that evidence that the ACC Tournament has lost all relevance? Or is it merely a sign of the new -- reduced -- place the league's signature event has in the modern world?
"I've been criticized a great deal because people think we've put nothing into it, but we prepared the same way and we won (the conference tournament) a few times when I was at Kansas," UNC coach Roy Williams said. "What I do is act like that's a part of the season.
"It's not just this one little weekend over here and it doesn't mean anything ... or that it means everything. I try to treat it as another opportunity for us to get better. It's another opportunity for us to get some wins. And it's a lot more fun watching that selection show on Sunday afternoon when you've just won a game."
MCGUIRE TERM: RUSSIAN ROULETTE
There was no selection show in the years when Case and McGuire dueled for ACC supremacy. For the league's first 21 seasons, only the tournament champion could represent it in NCAA play. And for the first nine years of the ACC's existence, the tournament was an even greater hindrance to postseason success.
In those days, the newly crowned ACC champion, worn out by its three-day ordeal in Raleigh, would have to play an early NCAA game on the Monday or Tuesday night after Saturday's league title game. Such games usually were played in New York or Philadelphia, against a top team from the East.
Is it any wonder McGuire hated the tournament with such passion?
His hatred grew over the years, as time after time he found the ACC Tournament blocking his destiny. His undefeated national champions of 1957 came within a controversial foul call of losing to Wake Forest in the ACC Tournament semifinals, a loss that would have erased the triple-overtime miracle versus Wilt Chamberlain and Kansas from college basketball history. McGuire's 1970 South Carolina powerhouse -- 25-2 and unbeaten in ACC play -- was knocked out of NCAA consideration when star John Roche was injured in the ACC Tournament semifinals and the Gamecocks lost a double-overtime heartbreaker to N.C. State in the final.
McGuire's distaste for the ACC Tournament was so strong that (according to a 1961 Sports Illustrated article) he urged UNC athletic director Chuck Erickson to pull the Tar Heels out of the ACC, promising to earn an NCAA bid every year as an independent.
Erickson resisted McGuire's blandishments, but South Carolina left the league soon after the Gamecocks' crushing tournament loss in 1970. The official story is that football coach Paul Dietzel was the driving force for the school's departure, but the timing -- and McGuire's well-known bitterness about the tournament -- suggest that the basketball coach might have had a hand in the move as well.
Of course, McGuire was not alone in his dislike for the winner-take-all ACC Tournament. The old Charlotte News conducted a poll of ACC coaches in 1960 that showed seven of eight league coaches opposed to the tournament.
Outside the league, there was plenty of skepticism, too. In the early 1970s, UCLA coach John Wooden told the Greensboro Daily News, "The ACC hasn't helped itself in the postseason tournament play. The schools have been engrossed in building up their own conference from within and self-publicizing themselves. It hasn't made them the best in the competition that counts -- the NCAA."
It's amazing that the Wizard of Westwood could come so close to the truth and yet not truly see it. Of course the ACC was "engrossed in building up their own conference from within and self-publicizing themselves." That effort turned out to be far more important than some short-term success in the NCAA Tournament.
Over the course of years, the ACC Tournament engendered a passion for college basketball that was missing from the Pac-8, where Wooden enjoyed so much NCAA success.
"There's not a greater conference tournament in the country," Miami coach Frank Haith said. "I can remember growing up in North Carolina and on Fridays, when I was in school, teachers would bring their TVs. And at noon, that TV was on and you were watching the ACC Tournament. That's how big it is."
At least one current ACC player also was touched by the tournament mystique.
"I went to a lot of ACC Tournaments when I was growing up," North Carolina guard Wes Miller said. "For me as a kid, it was a great weekend because you got to see all these teams, all these great players compete in the same arena over the course of a couple of days. The games I saw in the ACC Tournament inspired me to play college basketball. That's where I got my passion for college basketball and wanting to compete at this level."
Is it a coincidence that the Pac-10 (the successor to Wooden's league) is now the weakest of the six major conferences, while in the modern era, the ACC has proved to be college basketball's most successful league? Was the ACC right to exchange a little short-term NCAA success to build up the league from within?
RULES CHANGES MAKE DIFFERENCE
During that one-bid era, most outsiders -- and even many ACC coaches -- thought the league should change its rules to fall in line with the rest of the college basketball world.
Instead, starting in the late 1960s, ACC executives began to press for another solution. They urged the NCAA to change its rules to allow more than one team per conference to play in the NCAA Tournament.
At first, there was considerable resistance from the NCAA Men's Basketball Committee, led by former UNC coach Ben Carnevale and UCLA athletic director J.D. Morgan. As the athletic director at Navy and NYU, Carnevale protected the interests of the Eastern independents, who benefited from the one-team-per-conference rule.
Carnevale's term on the committee ended in 1970. When N.C. State athletic director Willis Casey took Morgan's spot after the 1974 season, the timing was perfect.
N.C. State and Maryland, clearly two of the top three teams in the nation, had just waged perhaps the greatest game ever played in the ACC Tournament final, for the right to represent the league in the NCAA Tournament. The idiocy of preventing that great Maryland team (which lost to the Wolfpack 103-100 in overtime) from competing in the NCAA Tournament strengthened Casey's hand. He and Davidson athletic director Dr. Tom Scott (another former UNC coach) pushed through a rule change that allowed two teams per conference to play in the NCAA Tournament.
Five years later, Casey was chairman of the committee and was joined by Sun Belt commissioner Vic Bubas, the former Duke coach and another Case disciple. They were able to change the rules again, allowing an unlimited number of teams per conference to enter NCAA play.
Thus, the modern NCAA Tournament was born, to a large degree the result of the ACC's stubborn refusal to give up its postseason tournament.
SOME UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES
The change in the NCAA selection process created a profound change in the college sports landscape. Dozens of independents (mostly in the East) banded together into conferences -- that's how the Big East, the Atlantic-10 and Conference USA were born -- and instituted lucrative postseason conference tournaments.
None was as lucrative as the ACC Tournament, which traded on his history and tradition to maintain its status as a money-making machine. Not only were the tickets to the event all sold, but TV revenues -- tiny in the early 1970s -- soared to unimaginable levels in the 1990s and into the new century. More than the direct benefits, the tournament generated considerable income for individual schools, which were able to essentially blackmail donors into giving large sums for the right to purchase tournament tickets.
But the NCAA's changes also have had an unexpected impact on the ACC Tournament. They made the three-day event even more unpredictable than in the past.
In the 21 years of Russian Roulette, the league's regular-season champion won 15 of 21 tournament titles, or a healthy 71.4 percent. In the 31 years since the regular-season champion basically was guaranteed an NCAA bid, just nine top-seeded teams have won the tournament, or less than 30 percent.
Clearly, it's a new world.
Part of the new world involves a change in priorities. Legendary UNC coach Dean Smith, so often ahead of the curve, noticed it first. He saw in the early 1980s that NCAA success was beginning to overshadow both the regular season and the ACC Tournament.
For years, Smith had focused on the ACC Tournament: "We built long-term strategies for the ACC Tournament," he wrote in his autobiography. "We held things back that we didn't want to show our ACC opponents. We pointed all year for the (ACC) tournament."
That changed in the early 1980s, when the ACC Tournament was no longer the stepping stone to the NCAA playoffs. Smith decided that his team didn't need the mental strain that intense three-day weekend required. It's not that he stopped trying to win the ACC Tournament; he merely stopped putting any special emphasis on those games.
Then a funny thing happened. From 1983-87, UNC was the ACC's dominant regular-season team, recording perfect 14-0 seasons in 1984 and 1987, but the Tar Heels failed to win an ACC Tournament in that span. More importantly, they were less successful in NCAA play than they had been before their de-emphasis on ACC Tournament competition.
Smith admitted that he changed his mind again late in the decade and began to re-emphasize the importance of the ACC Tournament. It took a while for results to show up.
His 1988 team lost a bitter battle to Duke in the final, but the Tar Heels came back the next year to win an even more hotly contested championship game with the Blue Devils in 1989. Two years later, UNC's 1991 ACC Tournament rout of Duke proved to be a springboard to Carolina's return to the Final Four (for the first time since 1982). That triumph was spoiled only because rival Duke bounced back from its ACC Tournament humiliation to claim the first of coach Mike Krzyzewski's three national titles.
Since that season, there has been a clear disconnect between ACC Tournament success and NCAA success. Yes, Duke turned ACC title game triumphs into national titles in 1992 and 2001, but UNC in 1993 and 2005 and Maryland in 2002 cut down the NCAA nets after losing in the ACC Tournament. Even Duke's best NCAA run since the 2001 title came in 2004, the one year in this century when the Devils didn't win the ACC Tournament.
MONEY MATTERS: HAPPY, MESSY?
The ACC Tournament is a very big money-maker these days.
While the exact television revenue is impossible to calculate (since it is part of the overall TV package), the tournament represents the crown jewel of the most lucrative TV package any college conference ever has signed. The deal, with Charlotte-based Raycom Sports and Jefferson-Pilot Sports (which sells many games to ABC/ESPN, CBS and Fox and broadcasts others itself), is worth more than $30 million per year, through the 2010-11 season.
In addition, it goes without saying that every ticket for this year's four-day event has been sold. Indeed, there hasn't been a public sale of tickets since 1966.
Instead, tickets are controlled by the fund-raising arms (Terrapin Club, Rams Club, Iron Dukes, etc.) of each ACC university. Only the biggest donors gain the option of purchasing. Last year, when the ACC Tournament was held at the 20,301-seat MCI Center in Washington, D.C., brokers charged as much as $4,500 for a single four-day booklet with a face value of $325. A pair of booklets sold on eBay for $7,100.
Beyond the broadcast rights, the ACC Tournament itself ranks as one of the league's top sources of revenue. During the 2001-02 fiscal year, for example, the ACC brought in approximately $98 million in shared income. The ACC Tournament was the fifth-leading contributor (at $5.3 million) to that impressive total, behind the basketball TV package (then $28 million), the football TV package ($21.1 million), bowl games ($20.4 million) and the NCAA Tournament ($12.8 million).
The record for (non-TV) ACC Tournament revenue came in March 2001, when the league made $7.5 million. That was possible because the event was held in Atlanta at the Georgia Dome, which seats more than 40,000 for basketball. The largest non-dome in the conference's geographic footprint is the Greensboro Coliseum, which has a capacity of 23,745.
In terms of economic impact, the host cities certainly get to share the ACC Tournament wealth. In 2004, for example, Greensboro officials estimated that the event contributed more than $15 million to the local economy.
Meanwhile, there are rumblings that the ACC's rapid expansion from nine to 12 teams will begin to pinch the individual fund-raising efforts at various schools. There will be fewer tickets per school, as the newcomers get their full allotments.
As it stands, Miami and Virginia Tech received two-thirds allotments this year, while Boston College received a one-third allotment. Next year, Miami and Virginia Tech will get full allotments and BC a two-thirds share. In 2008, all 12 teams will get equal shares.
The result: ACC Tournament ticket allotments often will fall (from 2,430 per school, the number for the 2004 event in Greensboro) to fewer than 1,800 per school in years when the tournament is held in places other than oversized domes. The league's upcoming postseason showcases are set as follows: the St. Pete Times Forum (20,500) in Tampa in 2007, the new arena in Charlotte (20,200) in 2008, the Georgia Dome (40,083) in Atlanta in 2009, and then back in Greensboro (23,745) in 2010.
Not long ago, Wake Forest supporters who contributed $1,500 or more annually were eligible to purchase ACC Tournament tickets. Last year, only donors at the $3,000 level had that right. At Duke, only boosters who contributed $10,000 or more annually could apply. At Virginia, the annual number was $5,500 last year (for two booklets), with $20,000 the yearly amount needed to purchase six booklets.
It's too early to tell whether the new division of tickets merely will raise the amount schools can extort for their smaller allotments, or if the fewer tickets will end up reducing the fund-raising total.
FUTURE HOLDS PROMISE, QUESTIONS
So, beyond the finances, what place does the ACC Tournament have in the modern, post-expansion world? Several aspects deserve some examination.
NCAA Eligibility: As always, the ACC Tournament offers a bad or unfortunate team the chance to salvage an NCAA bid with a four-day title run.
"It gives you another shot," Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg said. "It's a great thing that everybody gets a chance to play in it. I use the example of way back, that Virginia team with (Marc) Iavaroni and those guys (the six-place Virginia team that won the ACC Tournament in 1976). Everyone has a shot."
It's unlikely that Wake Forest, Clemson or one of the Techs will win four straight games and earn an automatic bid in 2006. But the tournament often offers a chance for an NCAA bubble team to polish up its resume with a couple of victories. N.C. State probably did that last season, beating Florida State and Wake Forest in the MCI Center to earn its way into the national field.
The new expansion-driven tournament format may prove a boon to any borderline teams. By playing an extra game on Thursday, a team such as Florida State or Miami could win two games before having to play a top opponent in Saturday's semifinals.
Greenberg suggested that the eight teams that play on Thursday might be poised to give the four teams with byes a tough battle in Friday's quarterfinals.
"When you get the bye, that first game is tough, because the other team's got one under their belt," he said. "They see a bigger basket. They're not playing not to lose; they're playing to win. That first game out of the chute is always the toughest."
Competitiveness: Duke has played in the final of eight straight ACC Tournaments, twice as many as the next-longest such streak in league history. The Blue Devils have won six of the last seven championships, and the one loss came in overtime in the final.
Has Duke's dominance of the ACC Tournament taken some of the luster off an event that once was renowned for its unpredictability and its balance?
"I can't really say whether their dominance has been good or bad," Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt said. "The TV ratings are always pretty good. The attendance is still good. It's not like it's killed interest. From a competitive standpoint, I don't think you go into a tournament thinking about the previous one. You only think about the one you're involved in right now."
Duke's dominance in recent years has created one amazing statistical fluke. Going into this year's tournament, just two active coaches have winning records in ACC Tournament play. Krzyzewski is 39-15 (with nine titles) and N.C. State's Herb Sendek is 13-9 (no titles, but three appearances in the championship game). Gary Williams, the only other active coach with an ACC Tournament title, is 14-14 after last season's first-round loss to Clemson.
NCAA Bounce: It used to be an article of faith that winning the ACC Tournament was a necessary stepping stone to NCAA success. That theory crumbled in the early 1990s, as a number of ACC Tournament flame-outs bounced back to win titles or Final Four berths.
An alternate theory evolved, suggesting that teams are better off losing early in the ACC Tournament.
"It does take a lot of emotional, physical and mental energy to play on consecutive days, and if you are fortunate enough to play three or four (games), it is just an amazing investment and it does take a lot out of you," Sendek said. "The challenge is to refuel yourself for a game only a few days later."
North Carolina's NCAA success last season, after a flame-out in the ACC semifinals, would tend to support that theory. But the evidence is not that clear-cut.
In 1981, Virginia entered the ACC Tournament as the regular-season champs, and the Cavaliers made it clear that the ACC Tournament in Landover, Md., was an unnecessary distraction from their real goal of winning the NCAA Tournament. The powerful Cavs -- Ralph Sampson, Jeff Lamp, Lee Raker, Jeff Jones, etc. -- lost in the ACC semifinals to Maryland and happily got out of town, while Maryland and UNC waged a furious battle in the championship game.
What happened next?
Well, Virginia did reach the Final Four ... but so did North Carolina, which used the ACC title game to catapult itself through the West Regional and into a semifinal matchup with the Cavs, which the Tar Heels won.
Two years later, something similar happened, when N.C. State expended all kinds of emotional and physical energy in beating UNC's Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins, then Sampson and Virginia in the 1983 ACC Tournament. When State met Virginia again in the West Regional final, the Wolfpack won again, sending Jim Valvano's Cardiac Pack to its date with destiny in Albuquerque.
At least one current North Carolina player believes that the 2005 national champions benefited from their poor performance in the ACC Tournament.
"I would never say our team didn't go into a game seriously last year," Wes Miller said. "But we were coming off a huge win over Duke. I think we were maybe a little overconfident going into the ACC Tournament. Clemson almost got us. We didn't play well at all that game. And we certainly didn't play well against Georgia Tech.
"It was a good wake-up call for that team."
Duke will enter this year's ACC Tournament in much the same position that UNC occupied a year ago. The Blue Devils are all but guaranteed a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and they are almost certain to return to Greensboro for their first- and second-round games, no matter what happens at the ACC Tournament.
Will the tournament catapult the Blue Devils to another national title, or will three tough games in Greensboro drain Krzyzewski's favored team of emotion and leave the Devils with tired legs? Will the conference tournament launch another ACC team to an unlikely NCAA run, or will it kill the chances of the league's bubble teams?
Most of all, will somebody end Duke's growing dominance of the league's premier event?
All of those questions remain to be answered. Only one thing is certain: For the time being, at least, the tournament retains its allure for the fans and remains the driving force behind the public passion for the ACC.
"You watch some of these other tournaments and see some of the early round games, and there won't be hardly anybody at the game," Haith said. "Traditionally, at the ACC, every game will be a sellout, there will be people there. The fans are basketball fans, and they'll come watch other teams play."
That's one aspect of the modern ACC Tournament that Everett Case would have appreciated, too.
Al Featherston, formerly of the Durham (N.C.) Herald-Sun, has covered ACC basketball for 36 years. He is a regular contributor to the ACC Sports Journal and the author of the recent release "Tobacco Road: Duke, Carolina, N.C. State, Wake Forest, and the History of the Most Intense Backyard Rivalries in Sports," which is available in bookstores and at Amazon.com.
ACC Sports Journal editor David Glenn also contributed to this report.