Life in the Shadow of the ACC
by Jim Alderson, 6/22/04

The Atlantic Coast Conference was founded on Friday, May 8, 1953. Seven schools met at the Sedgefield Country Club in Greensboro, North Carolina and announced they were leaving the Southern Conference for the new venture. They were Maryland, North Carolina, NC State, Duke, Wake Forest, South Carolina and Clemson. Virginia Tech, also a member of the Southern, desired to become the eighth founding member but was denied due to animosity from other schools, mainly Clemson, over Tech’s opposition to Southern Conference schools playing in bowl games. Tech changed their views on bowl games, obviously. It took the ACC fifty years to change theirs on Virginia Tech.

The Hoos were added as the 8th ACC member in December of 1953. Tech continued to compete in the Southern Conference. As strange as it might seem for the ACC, a league that has become synonymous with top-notch college basketball, the conference was founded due to football considerations. At its inception, all seven AD’s were either current or former football coaches. It also seems a bit unusual, but most changes in the league’s membership over the years have been due to football. In its early years, the ACC was a football powerhouse. The league had some terrific coaches who produced great teams. The very first year of ACC football, 1953, Jim Tatum led Maryland to the national championship, curiously enough after the Terps lost to Oklahoma 7-0 in the Orange Bowl; the poll voters still awarded them the top spot. Maryland returned to the Orange in 1955, again losing to Oklahoma.

Clemson was coached by the legendary Frank Howard. He took his Tigers to the Orange Bowl in 1956 and the Sugar two years later. Things were a lot different football-wise at Duke that first decade of ACC play. Bill Murray had a powerhouse and the Blue Devils played in the Orange Bowl in 1954 and 1957 and the Cotton in 1960.

Virginia Tech was coached in the ‘50s by Frank Moseley. He had been brought in to resurrect a Tech program that had fallen on very hard times in the years following World War II. Moseley built a pretty good program, going undefeated in 1954 with an 8-0-1 mark, although Tech elected not to go to a bowl [see if that ever happens again] and he was named Southern Conference Coach of the Year in 1956. For all of Moseley’s winning, however, Tech operated in the shadow of the football-driven ACC. It was to continue that way for quite a while.

There were changes afoot in the ACC that was causing the league to lose a bit of its football focus. Everett Case had arrived at NC State in 1946. The former Indiana high school coaching legend quickly established a powerhouse at State. He oversaw the completion of Reynolds Coliseum, which was begun before World War II but had sat idle during the war years. Reynolds became a basketball showplace and Case used it to lure top recruits and build very strong teams. The Wolfpack won the last six Southern Conference championships before they left for the ACC, and Case won four more in the early years of the ACC. His success created a scramble among other ACC schools to catch up, particularly among the Wolfpack’s in-state rivals. Hal Bradley had an ACC championship at Duke in 1959 while Wake Forest had strong teams in the ‘50s, first under Murray Gleason then the colorful Bones McKinney.

It was at North Carolina, however, where ACC basketball really took root. Weary of losing to Case’s NC State teams, UNC in 1952 brought in Frank McGuire from St. John’s. He created what was called the New York Pipeline, recruiting players from New York City for the Tar Heels. McGuire won a national championship in 1957 and college basketball was off and running in that state, taking the rest of the ACC along with it.

Tech achieved some basketball success in the ‘50s, primarily under coach Chuck Noe, who closed the decade by leading Tech to the Southern Conference regular season championship in 1959-60. In both major sports, however, the ACC had established itself as the dominant conference, and Virginia Tech was not a part of it.

Virginia Tech in the early ‘60s embarked on a major athletics facilities upgrade, building Cassell Coliseum and Lane Stadium. At the time, Tech’s facilities were equal to any ACC member’s. Tech, completing the transformation from small military college to a comprehensive land-grant university, had also outgrown the Southern Conference and withdrew in June of 1965, becoming an independent. There was success along the way. Jerry Claiborne took over as football coach in 1961, replacing Moseley, who devoted himself to the position of athletic director. Claiborne had a good run at Tech, winning a Southern Conference championship in 1963 and producing Liberty Bowl teams in 1966 and 1968. Howie Shannon also had some pretty good Tech basketball teams, taking the Hokies to the NCAA final eight in 1967, only a ten-point blown lead to Dayton from making the Final Four. There were things happening in the ACC, however, that did not bode well for Tech.

The ‘60s saw ACC basketball emerge as a dominant player. The Duke teams of Vic Bubas dominated ACC basketball during the early and mid-‘60s, producing Final Four squads in 1963, 64 and 1966. Dean Smith replaced Frank McGuire at Carolina in 1961 and by 1967 had started the run that was to garner him the most wins in college basketball history. Carolina went to the Final Four in 1967, 68 and 1969. The ACC had also discovered television.

Television producer C. D. Chesley struck ratings pay dirt by televising the 1957 national championship game between UNC and Kansas back to North Carolina. The next year he convinced the ACC to begin televising weekly conference games to a regional ACC network. It was the first conference network of its kind. Through the ‘60s, the televised games fueled a passion for basketball in the region [raise your hand if you are old enough to remember the famous ‘Sail With the Pilot’ television commercials]. Virginia Tech could not compete with this kind of television exposure, and it took a toll, one that has continued

While the ACC was experiencing unparallel basketball success in the ‘60s, by the end of that decade football considerations nearly led to the breakup of the conference. The ACC membership had passed in 1968 a requirement that all conference athletes have an SAT score of at least 800. While ACC basketball was on a trajectory pointing straight up, conference football had declined during the ‘60s from its top-shelf status in the ‘50s. There were a lot of ACC champions during the ‘60s sporting records of 6-4 and 7-3. The league had gone from three top ten teams the previous decade to none.

The league’s southern tier at the time consisted of Clemson and South Carolina; like the current southern tier of Florida State, Georgia Tech and Clemson, they were most concerned about football and competing with the nearby SEC. They felt that the SAT requirement would not bode well for their future. South Carolina in 1966 had also hired football coach Paul Dietzel. Dietzel had won a national championship at LSU in 1958 before leaving in a huff in 1962 for Army. He came to Columbia promising the Gamecocks football glory. Dietzel felt glory could not be achieved with the ACC’s SAT requirement, and convinced the South Carolina administration to leave the conference in 1971. Clemson came very close to doing the same before finally deciding to remain. It was a decision South Carolina came to regret and caused Clemson to breathe a sigh of relief.

It was thought that the departure of South Carolina would finally open the door to ACC membership for Tech. It didn’t happen. The conference chose to operate as a seven-team league for six seasons before finally getting around to voting on whether to admit Tech in 1977. Tech received only two votes, those of Clemson and the Hoos. The ACC decided to take the television market route and added Georgia Tech and its Atlanta market. Virginia Tech replaced Georgia Tech in the Metro Conference for all sports but football, ending twelve years of independence.

The ‘70s were a gray period for Tech football. Claiborne’s success had run its course and Tech had limited success with Charley Coffey and Jimmy Sharpe. In 1978, Tech hired Bill Dooley, who had built North Carolina into the ACC’s best football program, in large part by focusing on Tidewater recruiting. In basketball, Tech had the remarkable run to the NIT title in 1973 under Don Devoe, but Tech basketball had definitely taken a backseat to the ACC. North Carolina went to the final Four in 1972 and 1977 and Duke in 1978. The dominant program had become NC State under Norm Sloan. The Wolfpack went 27-0 in 1973 but was ineligible for the NCAA Tournament due to probation. The next year State won it all, ending UCLA’s national championship run. Maryland never made the Final Four in that decade, but Lefty Drisell built the Terps into a solid top ten program. Carl Tacy had good teams at Wake Forest and even the Hoos won the ACC championship in 1976 as Terry Holland began the process of transforming them from ACC bottom-feeder into a quality program.

The Metro Conference was good for Tech basketball. Charley Moir’s team won its first Metro tournament in 1979 and was competitive through most of the ‘80s. The Metro supplied Tech with television exposure that, while not the equal to that of the ACC, was much better than what the school had previously had. Tech had a good program, especially during the Dell Curry years, with national rankings in the teens and a couple of NCAA appearances. It still paled in comparison to what went on in the ACC. Dean Smith won his first national championship at North Carolina in 1982 and the Tar Heels went to the Final Four in 1981. NC State was national champion in 1983. Mike Krzyzewski began his great Duke run with a Final Four appearance in 1986, then five straight beginning in 1988 that culminated in back-to-back national championships in 1991-92. Terry Holland recruited Ralph Sampson away from Tech in 1979, largely because they played in the ACC and Tech did not. The Hoos went to the Final Four in 1981 and again the year after Sampson left in 1984. They have dominated Tech in basketball ever since. Nowhere has the disadvantage of not being an ACC member been more pronounced than the respective basketball histories of Tech and the Hoos for the last 25 years.

In football, Dooley had a good run at Tech, going to three bowl games in 1980, 1984 and 1986. As was the case in basketball, however, Tech football was becoming a bit player in the increasing shadow cast as ACC football enjoyed a renaissance. Clemson won the national championship in 1981 under Danny Ford and had strong teams throughout the decade. Bobby Ross built Maryland into a power before leaving for Georgia Tech in 1986, where he split a national championship with Washington in 1990. George Welsh arrived in Hooville in 1982 and transformed the Hoos from ACC laughingstock to football power, sharing the 1989 ACC championship with Duke, of all people, who experienced brief success under Steve Spurrier. Dick Crum, Dooley’s successor at North Carolina, rode Dooley’s momentum to five bowls in the ‘80s before the program fell apart. Dick Sheridan took over at NC State in 1986 and took the Wolfpack to six bowls in seven years, including State’s 1986 Peach Bowl loss to Virginia Tech. ACC football was improving, but there was another event that changed the face of college football.

In 1984 Georgia and Oklahoma won a lawsuit against the NCAA over control of the television rights to college football. Those rights reverted to the individual conferences, and leagues quickly moved to secure their own television deals. The ACC, with its long basketball television experience quickly moved to set up its own regional package. ESPN, which had made its mark televising college basketball, quickly jumped into football and inked deals with the conferences. Once again, Tech, as a football independent, was up against an ACC television package it could not match.

The late ‘80s were a very difficult time for Tech athletics, as both football and basketball landed on NCAA probation and Tech athletics experienced severe financial pressures. Frank Beamer was hired as football coach and for years struggled to build a program in the shadow of the often-televised and nationally-ranked Hoo program. There was good news on the horizon, however.

The 1984 NCAA television lawsuit had created a climate where conferences began to dominate television, as they made the network deals. Football independents, except for one, were forced to join leagues in order to guarantee access to the television exposure that was becoming vital to recruiting. Penn State went to the Big 10, South Carolina and SWC member Arkansas joined the SEC, Florida State went to the ACC and the Big East Football Conference was created with Miami as the cornerstone. It was the last that provided Tech with its great opportunity, as Tech was invited to become the eighth and last member of the BEFC.

This affiliation provided Tech with opportunities and possibilities of which Tech fans could only dream of before. Frank Beamer seized the moment and built a powerhouse at Tech that has now stretched to eleven straight bowl games, punctuated by an appearance in the 1999 Sugar Bowl for the MNC. In doing so, Tech gradually eclipsed all ACC programs except Florida State. It was not the best of times for ACC football. FSU dominated the league during the ‘90s; despite its success in the ‘80s, not a single ACC program emerged to challenge the Seminoles for conference supremacy.

In basketball it was a completely different story. Tech’s Metro affiliation ended badly, and Tech was passed over in 1994 for full inclusion in the Big East. The Hokies were forced to settle for the A-10, where lack of interest caused the bottom to drop out of Tech basketball. Tech was finally granted full Big East membership in 1999 under onerous financial conditions, but the damage had been done. In the meantime, the ACC was enjoying unprecedented success. Duke won its titles in 1991-92 and went to the Final Four in 1994 and 1999. Dean Smith added a second NCAA title in 1993 and took North Carolina to the Final Four four other times. Georgia Tech reached the final Four in 1990. Wake Forest under Dave Odom and with Tim Duncan became a top ten program. Gary Williams rebuilt Maryland. The ACC was experiencing great basketball prosperity, but as had often happened dating back to when and why the league was formed, there were football problems.

Television interest in college football had exploded since the 1984 lawsuit, to the point where conference financial packages for football had become much greater than those for basketball. This was not good news for the two most basketball-centric leagues, the ACC and the Big East. The BE had developed a rivalry between Tech and Miami that had strong national appeal. No such game existed in the ACC. Florida State’s total dominance of ACC football had led to a situation of very low ratings for televised league games. Negotiations for a new conference television package were right around the corner and ACC Commissioner John Swofford was told that additional football juice was needed or the league would have to deal with reduced football television monies. I assume that most everyone reading is aware of the process that was involved in adding that football juice, and that it will culminate in Virginia Tech officially joining the ACC on July 1.

It has taken fifty years, but the desire of Virginia Tech to become a member of the ACC has been realized. It has been a long and bumpy journey, but we have made it. Virginia Tech will no longer attempt to operate athletic programs in the shadow of a larger and more prosperous conference. Tech will no longer compete in a conference on the periphery of regional interest. There will be no more independence, split conference memberships, or being treated as a second-class citizen. Tech is finally where it should have been all along, in the same league as its academic and athletic peers. We are home.

I will refrain from claiming that Virginia Tech will never again change athletic conferences. ‘Never’ covers a very long time, indeed, and I am one of those many Hokies who have uttered the words, “Virginia Tech will never get into the ACC.” It turns out I was wrong about that. I will say that the odds of Tech ever again being forced into the conference free agent market are fairly long. The journey has ended and the moment has arrived. Virginia Tech is in the ACC.

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