Wednesday’s Book Review: J. Samuel Walker’s ACC Basketball: The Story of Rivalries, Traditions, and Scandals of the Fist Two Decades of the Atlantic Coast Conference

ACC Basketball: The Story of Rivalries, Traditions, and Scandals of the First Two Decades of the Atlantic Coast Conference. By J. Samuel Walker. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011.

As a transplanted Midwesterner growing up in South Carolina during the latter 1960s and early 1970s, I came to appreciate the intense collegiate rivalries of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), especially in basketball. I was a diehard fan of the Frank McGuire-led South Carolina Gamecocks and the incomparable playmaking of John Roche. As you might guess I rooted against any of the teams that encountered South Carolina, especially that axis of excellence in basketball surrounding Raleigh, North Carolina, where the perennial class of the ACC resided—the Tar Heels of the University of North Carolina, the Wolfpack from NC State, the Duke Blue Devils, and Wake Forest University’s Demon Deacons—which always seemed to dominate the other four teams in the conference. That was forty years ago, of course, but I remember it like yesterday.

Historian J. Samuel Walker, a friend and colleague of many years, brings it all back to life in this outstanding history of ACC basketball. Formed in 1953, Walker tells most engagingly the story of the first twenty years of the Atlantic Coast Conference’s basketball rivalries. The eight teams making up the old ACC—UNC, NC State, Wake Forest, Duke, Virginia, Maryland, USC, and Clemson—had quite a time of it. Legendary coaches—including not only Frank McGuire who led the 1957 UNC team to the NCAA championship but also Norm Sloan, Dean Smith, Tates Locke, Lefty Driesell, and a host of others—stellar players like Roche, David Thompson, Len Elmore, Tom McMillan, and others; and rising educational institutions make up the core of this wonderful history.

Walker emphasizes three major themes in this book. First, he discusses the never-ending negotiation over the place of academics versus athletics on university campuses. The pressure to win weighs heavily on university officials, sometimes leading to violations of rules concerning student-athletes; the mandate to enhance the educational opportunities of students and the scholarly stature of the university counters that pressure to some degree, but it has long been a difficult balancing act. The universities establishing the ACC did so in no small part because of the desire to enhance academics and fought long to enforce higher standards on their athletes than many other universities in the United States. No small amount of fireworks resulted from this effort. Some ACC basketball coaches, notably Dean Smith at UNC but also others, embraced this emphasis and worked hard to ensure that players met academic standards and graduated. Others were less committed to this objective and scandals ensued and some institutions were seriously penalized. University of South Carolina President Thomas F. Jones had the best quote about these issues when he remarked: “I am always thrilled by the enthusiasm displayed by individuals at…games and would very much like to see some of this tremendous enthusiasm transferred to the classroom” (p. 192). It’s hard not to agree with Jones on that score, even if one is a fan of a particular university’s team.

Second, Walker tells the complex story of the integration of intercollegiate sports in the ACC. Not until the middle part of the 1960s did any African Americans play for any university in the ACC, a less than stellar record in advancing race relations in the United States. The ACC was dominated by schools in the Deep South, and it was not until the University of Maryland’s Billy Jones played on December 1, 1965, that any ACC member took action. That was 18 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color line in major league baseball; the NBA and NFL were integrated, and federal legislation had been passed taking action to prohibit segregation. Instead of embracing the opportunity to recruit superb African American athletes that these other desegregation efforts had presented, the ACC hung back and reluctantly moved to recruit minority players. This is not a positive history, but Walker does a creditable job explaining the major aspects of the story.

Finally, Walker is at his best when describing the rivalries on the basketball court and especially the vigor with which the big four North Carolina schools fought it out every year for the ACC championship and a trip to the NCAA tournament. The UNC, NC State, Wake Forest, and Duke basketball programs had long been excellent, and in the latter 1960s USC, Maryland, and Virginia got much better. Clemson also had some good seasons. The intensity of the rivalries propel the story through the years between 1953 and 1972, the point at which USC leaves the ACC and becomes an independent.

All around, this is a stunning account of ACC basketball during its first score of years. A lot has happened since that time. I hope Sam Walker will write that book next.

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