HELLER: Stability is why ACC basketball became a power

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

As anyone who has ever ridden with me with tell you, geography isn’t my thing. When the Beltway opened in 1964, this native Washingtonian was astonished that you could get from Maryland to Virginia without going through D.C. After the Baltimore Colts returned to the NFL as a Western Conference team in 1953, I was confused for weeks. And don’t get me started about the Atlanta Braves being in the NL West.

So what to make of it now that Maryland, barring possible legal challenges, is bewilderingly ensconced in a pregnant Big Ten that includes 14 schools? As the crow or chartered jets fly, it’s approximately 700 miles from College Park to suburban Chicago, where the Big Fourteen is headquartered. Does any of this seem sensible?

Of course it does, if you’re a bean counter like university president Wallace Loh or athletic director Kevin Anderson. Does anyone doubt that big-time college sports is, more than ever, all about money? So what if Maryland was a charter member of the ACC, which opened for business in 1953? As George Allen once said, the future is now.

Apparently tradition and time-honored rivalries don’t mean squat nowadays. Who cares if Maryland only plays Duke in men’s basketball every five or 10 years? Who cares if the Terrapins are taking on Purdue rather than, say, Clemson in football? Just put the Terps and Boilermakers on the Big Fourteen cable network and watch the TV dollars roll in. On second thought, hand me a boilermaker.

This sort of idiocy is prevalent throughout college sports, of course. No matter what your college, if you can name all its conference rivals, you belong on “Jeopardy.” Or maybe in Mensa International.

Way, way back covering the Terrapins for The Washington Star was a pretty nifty job. Football was OK, especially after first Jerry Claiborne and then Bobby Ross upgraded a long-dormant program in the 1970s and ‘80s. But men’s basketball was what really mattered up and down the ACC.

In decades of sports writing, I’ve never watched anything else that exciting. The first road game I saw was at Wake Forest, where the drums and pulse-pounding chant started an hour before tip-off and never stopped: “GO DEACS! GO DEACS! GO DEACS!”

Back then, coaches came and stayed. Frank McGuire lured so many stars from Noo Yawk that North Carolina became a hoops hotbed. Meanwhile, Everett Case was establishing N.C. State as a national power, and a bit later Vic Bubas did the same at Duke. Meanwhile, Bones McKinney, the former Washington Capitols star, was turning out more than a few strong teams at Wake.

Maryland joined the party in earnest when it hired Lefty Driesell from little Davidson in 1969. This resulted in the best ACC coaching rivalry of all time: super intense Lefty against UNC’s super cool Dean Smith. Lefty was considered the better recruiter (see Tom McMillen, Len Elmore, Albert King, et al) and Dean the better bench coach. It would be presumptuous to say they hated each other, but it’s a pretty good bet that no Christmas cards traveled between them.

If you were with Maryland sports on any level, you made so many trips each year down Tobacco Road that Raleigh-Durham International Airport was your second home. UNC was in Chapel Hill), Duke in Durham and N.C. State in Raleigh, all close enough to practically spit on one another, and Wake Forest a hop or two away in Greensboro. No wonder outsiders thought members in the Tar Heel State ran things in the ACC. As longtime Maryland alum and coach Gary Williams famously put it, “We might as well be in Siberia.”

The problem for Maryland traditionalists now is that with Williams and football boss Ralph Friedgen gone, none of the athletic honchos in Terptown went to school there or in original ACC country. Loh graduated from Grinnell (Iowa) College, Anderson from San Francisco State, basketball coach Mark Turgeon from Kansas and embattled football coach Randy Edsall from Syracuse. Loyalty toward your school and a respect for its jock history certainly has a place in college sports. It just isn’t College Park.

So long, ACC — it’s been good to know ya. Perhaps Maryland eventually will enjoy similarly rewarding combat in the Big Fourteen, say against Michigan in football and Indiana in basketball. But, literally, that’s a long way off.

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