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Sturdy from its mast to its keel

Last week, I couldn’t get that tune out of my head.

“Sail with the Pilot at the wheel…on a ship sturdy from its mast to its keel…he guides through storm and waves…insures you while you save”….

It was the TV commercial theme song for Pilot Life Insurance Company out of Greensboro, proud sponsor of Atlantic Coast Conference basketball.

For a little bit of business history: Pilot Life Insurance was one of the indemnity companies founded in the state at the turn of the 20th century (1903), akin to Durham Life in the Bull City and Jefferson Standard in Charlotte. In 1945, Jefferson Standard bought majority control of Pilot Life, and in 1968 they became Jefferson-Pilot. The rest is a true Carolina success story as Jefferson-Pilot Corporation grew to become a Fortune 500 company.

Now, if I may side-track for a moment – and borrow liberally from author Art Chansky’s book, Light Blue Reign: How a City Slicker, a Quiet Kansan and a Mountain Man Built College Basketball’s Longest-Lasting Dynasty – the first ACC basketball game was televised from Chapel Hill’s Woolen Gym in 1956: North Carolina against Wake Forest. One year later came the broadcast of the NCAA Final Four – the one where in the national title game, UNC beat a Kansas team with a couple of players you might be familiar with: Wilt Chamberlain and a bench-warmer named Dean Smith.

What ties this all together? A New York sports producer named Castleman DeTolley (“C.D.”, for short) Chesley who produced those two Final Four basketball games, and hundreds – many hundreds – more TV games for the next quarter century.

Chesley never played the game. His only association with an ACC school was a year spent playing freshman football at North Carolina. But no one exposed ACC basketball to more people than Chesley, thanks to some great TV acumen, and pioneering efforts as an executive producer in mostly regional broadcasts from Tennessee to the coast to an insatiable audience hungry for college basketball.

What he did in ’57 was be the driving force behind the first sort of ACC network. As luck would have it, both of Carolina’s 1957 Final Four games went into triple overtime. Chesley had to be grinning all the way to the bank as a captivated audience beheld on those little 13-inch Magnavox and RCA Victor black-and-white TV screens an excitement few had ever witnessed in person.

One year later, 1958, came a Saturday afternoon tradition: weekly college basketball games between ACC schools, which back then only stretched from Maryland to South Carolina.

Maybe the crowning moment came in 1974 when he was able to sell the rights to a college game on that great altar of pro football, Super Bowl Sunday: Maryland, with Lefty Driesell, Len Elmore, and Tom McMillan, against NC State, featuring Norm Sloan, David Thompson, and Tommy Burleson. Once again he held sway with a team that would go on to win a national championship as the Wolfpack cut down the final nets in Greensboro just two months later.

It all went wonderfully – and richly – well for Chesley’s product until the early 80’s when Raycom Sports blew him out of the water with a three-year $15 million deal to televise games. Over the next more than 35 years, everyone from ESPN to Fox Sports has stepped up and waved beaucoup greenbacks in the league’s face, and all the schools have been richly rewarded.

Why was I humming the Pilot Life theme? It’s because last Thursday marked the premier of the ACC Network on ESPN. Gone forever are the Saturday afternoon regional games of Wake Forest against Georgia Tech or Duke against Clemson. Now we’ll have the likes of “All ACC”, a studio-based show originating in both Charlotte and Bristol, Connecticut, home of parent provider ESPN, and featuring everything from field hockey to gymnastics.

I haven’t watched much of the ACC Network since it signed on, so my review will have to appear here at a later date.

In the meantime, we’re not sailing with the Pilot anymore. You might say now we’re dancing with the stars.

Gene Motley is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at gene.motley@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7211.