Biggest jewel in college hoops

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The countdown is on.

By the time you settle back and read this column, it’s exactly one week away from the start of the 54th annual Atlantic Coast Conference men’s basketball tournament. This year’s event is scheduled for March 8-11 at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa, Fla.

It marks the first time the ACC tournament has visited the Sunshine State. I sure hope those folks down there know what they’re getting in to. This is the premier sporting event in all of North America. We don’t have time for any hanging chads; this is ACC basketball….a sport, no a culture, that has been part of history and folklore since 1953, ironically the year I was born.

The ACC hoops tourney is as seeped in tradition as any other slice of American history.

Founded on May 8, 1953 at the Sedgefield Inn near Greensboro, the Atlantic Coast Conference originated with seven charter members – Clemson, Duke, Maryland, North Carolina, North Carolina State, South Carolina and Wake Forest. They all were former members of the old Southern Conference.

On June 14, 1953 the seven charter members met in Raleigh where a set of bylaws was adopted and the name became officially the Atlantic Coast Conference.

On December 4, 1953 conference officials met again at Sedgefield and officially admitted the University of Virginia.

To date, the first, and only, withdrawal of a school from the ACC came on June 30, 1971 when the University of South Carolina tendered its resignation. USC joined the Southeastern Conference and has struggled ever since.

The ACC operated with seven members until April 3, 1978 when Georgia Tech was admitted. The league expanded to nine members on July 1, 1991 with the addition of Florida State. Exactly 13 years later (July 1, 2004) the ACC added two new members with the arrival of the University of Miami and Virginia.

Boston College became the league’s 12th member on July 1, 2005.

Despite its growth, one thing has remained unchanged over the years….according to the ACC bylaws, its annual basketball champion is not the best team during the regular season, but the one winning the tournament title. It’s that reason and that reason alone that separates the ACC from these other wanna-be conferences.

If not for winning the 1983 ACC tournament, NC State University would have been forced to accept a bid to the NIT. Rather, as the ACC champ, the Wolfpack received the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA men’s tournament and, as they say, the rest is history.

Ironically, it was at NC State’s historic Reynolds Coliseum where the first ACC basketball tournament was played. Fittingly, the host team won, as they did over the first three years of the post-season affair.

As a matter of fact, the first 13 ACC basketball tournaments were held at Reynolds. NC State dominated that run, winning five titles and finishing second on another occasion. Duke captured four titles over that 13-year stretch.

History shows that during the first 13 years, only three schools from outside of North Carolina made it to the ACC finals n South Carolina, who lost to eventual national champion North Carolina in 1957; Maryland, who defeated North Carolina in 1958; and Clemson, who fell to Wake Forest in 1962.

I don’t recall the early years of the tournament, but by the time I was old enough to understand what basketball was all about (perhaps around 1960), I was hooked on ACC hoops.

Even though the tournament left the rustic Reynolds in 1967 (for the Greensboro Coliseum), the event did not lose any of its luster. Honestly, I thought it gained in popularity. Heck, I can remember school letting out early on the Friday of the start of the annual tourney. We’d all rush home to catch the games broadcast back then by Jefferson-Pilot. Does anybody remember the old “Sail with the Pilot” commercials or am I just showing my age?

It wasn’t until 1976 that the first ACC tournament was played outside the state of North Carolina. Virginia won the title that year at the Capital Center in Landover, Maryland.

We, the true bloods of the ACC, howled in protest. Somebody was listening as the tourney moved back to Tobacco Road in 1977 where the Tar Holes beat UVA in Greensboro Coliseum. That sparked a run of seven straight ACC titles won by either ‘Carolina, Duke or NC State.

Now the time has come to sink our teeth into tradition with next week’s tournament in Tampa. There, the event tips off at 12 noon on Thursday, March 8 and continues until the championship game at 1 p.m. on Sunday, March 11.

Here’s wishing success to the team of your choice, but I will inject the “ABC” (Anybody But Carolina) scenario. Hopefully, it will be an event where an underdog (much like 11th-seeded Boston College did a year ago, even though they lost to #3 Duke in the finals) comes out of nowhere in an all-out effort to capture the biggest jewel in all of college basketball.