- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 9, 2005

Former Virginia coach Terry Holland was asked what he remembered from the 1987 ACC men’s basketball tournament, the last one played in the Washington area before this year.

“We lost,” he said.

To the same question, North Carolina coach Roy Williams replied, “My hair was black.” His boss back then, Dean Smith, immediately thought of a charging foul that was not called on N.C. State’s Vinny Del Negro down the stretch in the championship game. And Bobby Cremins, the ex-Georgia Tech coach whose hair never has been black, or so it seems, recalled, “There weren’t a lot of places outside the arena where you could walk around. It seemed so isolated.”

It was. The tournament site was Capital Centre, surrounded by parking lots in suburban Landover. Cremins’ team lost by one point in the first round to Holland’s Cavaliers, who then suffered a painful double-overtime loss to North Carolina the next day.

Williams was an assistant to Smith, the legendary Tar Heels coach. Unbeaten during the ACC season, North Carolina lost 68-67 in the final to N.C. State and Del Negro, the tournament MVP. The coach of the Wolfpack was Jim Valvano.

A few things have changed since then.

Capital Centre is gone, replaced by a shopping center. This year’s tournament starts tomorrow at MCI Center in downtown Washington, affording Cremins, who does some television work, ample opportunity to stretch his legs.

Williams, now nearly as silver up top as Cremins, left Chapel Hill in 1988 for the head coaching job at Kansas. He returned to his alma mater two years ago. Valvano died of cancer in 1993. Smith, Cremins and Holland all have since left college coaching for other pursuits, as has Clemson’s Cliff Ellis, Wake Forest’s Bob Staak and Maryland’s Bob Wade. Only Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski holds the same job.

Do the math and you come up with the biggest change of all in the last 18 years. There were eight coaches, eight teams then. The ACC was a cozy enclave extending from Maryland to South Carolina and then Georgia. Florida State made it nine teams in 1991, and the addition of Miami and Virginia Tech this year swelled the total to 11. With a 12th school, Boston College, warmed up and ready to come aboard next year after a final season in the Big East, the map on the new ACC logo stretches from Florida to almost Canada.

When football power Florida State joined the conference, “I thought we’d add two more teams in the next couple of years,” Cremins said. “Then it stopped.”

But not for good. In 2003, another football giant, Miami, agreed to bolt the Big East for the ACC. The maneuver was orchestrated in part by university president Donna Shalala, a former cabinet member in the Clinton administration whose love of a good scrap had earned her the nickname, “Boom Boom.”

“Boom” is also the sound a cannon makes, and the move was a direct hit on the Big East. Following Miami’s lead, Virginia Tech and Boston College also eventually jumped into the waiting arms of the ACC, although Syracuse, not Virginia Tech, originally was targeted. As when any relationship ends badly, things got nasty. Words and lawsuits flew. A $100million suit filed by the remaining Big East teams against the ACC is still pending.

“This will trigger the most disastrous blow to intercollegiate athletics in my lifetime,” Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese said at the time, reflecting the depth of emotion.

“It’s too bad there was so much animosity,” Cremins said. “Too bad it couldn’t have been handled a little better.”

How?

Cremins thought for a moment. “It couldn’t have,” he said.

Probably because it was inevitable. The earning potential of big conferences generated by television, conference football championships and bowl games became too vast to ignore. Expansion not only was desired, some believed it necessary for survival.

“You’ve got to look ahead and see what puts you in the best position as a conference to remain stable and remain a conference with a national identity and a national impact,” ACC commissioner John Swofford said.

ESPN/ABC broadcaster Dick Vitale, a long-time observer (and some might say overzealous supporter) of ACC basketball put it another way. “It’s all about greed, it’s all about dollars,” he said. “It’s all been done for the football scenario.”

In college sports, bigger might not be better, but it certainly pays more bills. Cremins was a big supporter of expansion. So was Dean Smith. CBS and Raycom/Jefferson Pilot commentator Billy Packer, a former Wake Forest player and coach who is as much identified with the conference as any broadcaster, favored it, too.

“You have to have the economic basis created by the football people,” Packer said. “The only way to have a full complement of women’s and nonrevenue sports is to generate the income that’s necessary.”

In football, the ACC next year will split into two divisions, the Atlantic and Coastal, and hold a conference championship game in Jacksonville, Fla., duplicating the formats of the Big 12 and SEC. Cremins knows what that’s like. Though he lives in Hilton Head, S.C., he remains close to the Georgia Tech program (the basketball court is named for him) and spends a lot of time in Atlanta, the site of the SEC football championship.

“The atmosphere is incredible,” Cremins said. “I’ve watched that game. It’s something. It took over the city, with great fanfare. It’s a special game. The ACC could not stand by while other conferences were having a championship game in football and making all this revenue.”

No doubt it’s a coincidence, but the new ACC logo, once a circle, is now oval in shape. Like a football.

Cremins said he asked a booster group in Atlanta on Monday if they liked expansion, and the response was a resounding “yes.” But, he added, “I’d like to speak to a group in North Carolina and see what they think of it.”

Chances are, the support would not be so overwhelming. Expansion critics point to a loss of intimacy, of a close-knit, geographically friendly entity that fostered a unique identity. Duke and North Carolina, successful in basketball (but not football, for the most part), were the only two ACC votes against expansion. Cited, among other things, were the potential effect on scheduling, travel time and traditional rivalries.

“The geographic distance has changed things,” Holland said. “The one thing that made competition so important was that all of our fans rubbed elbows with each other on a daily basis. I doubt that many ACC fans today can name the starting lineup on every team. Even though there’s more information out there. But 20 years ago, even the casual fan could name the starting lineup of every team, as well as the first three subs.”

The main casualty of expansion, all agree, is the “double round-robin” schedule, which ensured that every team play every other team twice. Each team this year played twice against six opponents and just once against four. That left some notable holes, like state rivals and nationally ranked Wake Forest and North Carolina meeting just once.

“Everyone would like the home-and-home,” said Smith, a consultant to North Carolina athletic director Dick Baddour. “But you can’t have that, and the type of [nonconference] schedule you want with 12 teams.”

It gets even more complicated next year and beyond, as evidenced by the recall of future schedules because of major glitches discovered after their release. But even without mistakes, the pitfalls of the unbalanced schedule are obvious. Everyone — coaches, players, fans, the media — has begun taking note not of who plays whom, but who does not play whom. Not that anyone should feel sorry for Duke, but the Blue Devils this season had just one game each against four of the bottom five teams in the league.

“It’s never going to be equitable,” said Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser, whose team beat North Carolina at home and probably benefited from not having a rematch on the road. “There are going to be degrees of inequity. That’s the reality. … That’s the collateral damage of an expansion that was based on a lot of factors. I don’t think it has necessarily lessened the intensity or the quality of play, but it has made it less equitable.”

Swofford, who has been part of the ACC athletic culture for more than 35 years as a football player and administrator, said, “It’s different when you’re small enough to simply play everybody. There’s a certain beauty, a certain simplicity with that kind of scheduling. It’s something we knew we’d be giving up, but we all felt the gains would be much greater than what we’ve lost.”

Two years ago, when expansion first came up, Krzyzewski said he would support 10 teams in the league but definitely not 12. He also said that because of the unbalanced schedule, the true conference champion would be determined in the tournament, not the regular season. Just before the start of this season, when asked about the reality of a 12-team league, Coach K said, “You move on.”

Many like the direction in which the ACC is moving, and not just because Virginia Tech and Miami have proved to be more competitive this year than most expected, and Boston College is one of the better Big East teams. Financial projections for next year’s championship football game have exceeded original estimates, said Swofford, who also noted that the ACC now boasts six of the top 41 academic institutions, according to U.S. News and World Report. That’s more than any other conference aside from the Ivy League.

“Change can be hard for some people,” he said. “That’s understandable. But in actuality, the transition has gone extraordinarily well.”


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