"The tournament is a banquet, and every game is a feast."
—Former N.C. State basketball coach EVERETT CASE, on the ACC tournament
On March 6, 1954, the day North Carolina State defeated Wake Forest 82-80 in overtime to win the first ACC tournament, sportswriter Marvin (Skeeter) Francis sat courtside in Raleigh and chronicled the game for the Durham Morning Herald. When the 51st ACC tournament is contested this week in Greensboro, Francis, now 82, will be at the official scorers' table serving as the TV-timeout coordinator, a role he has filled at the event since retiring as the conference's director of media relations 14 years ago. Francis is believed to be the only person who has attended every ACC tournament game, and for all the differences between the first event and this year's—for starters, there was no need for a TV-timeout coordinator in '54 because the games weren't televised—some things, as they say down South, haven't changed a-tall. "I remember there was excitement because it was so new and different," Francis says of that first tournament. "The winner got to advance to the NCAA tournament, and everybody felt, Well, we've got a shot at it."
At the time the ACC was one of only two conferences that held a postseason tourney (the Southern Conference was the other), and for the next 20 years they were the only conferences that sent their tournament winner, instead of their regular-season champion, to the NCAAs. Today every Division I conference except the Ivy League holds a postseason tournament, and each assigns its automatic NCAA bid to the winner. Yet Francis's courtside seat is still the place to be, for no conference tournament can match the ACC's tradition, passion and consistent excellence. Besides fueling the success of the nation's top college basketball conference, the tournament has been a major boon for the state of North Carolina, which has hosted the event 44 times and had its four schools—Duke, North Carolina, North Carolina State and Wake Forest-win a combined 32 tournament titles.
Given the hoopsmania long associated with Tobacco Road, it's easy to forget that the ACC originated as a football conference and that the basketball coaches vehemently objected to the tournament at the outset. Maryland coach Bud Millikan called the tournament a "$60,000 farce" (citing the gate that was brought in each of the first few years), and North Carolina coach Frank McGuire groused, "The way it is now, these regular-season games mean nothing." In a poll conducted in 1957 by the Charlotte News, seven of the ACC's eight basketball coaches were against having the tournament determine the league champion.
The event survived largely because the lone supporter among the coaches, N.C. State's Everett Case, was also the league's most powerful voice. A former coach at Frankfort ( Ind.) High, Case had seen how the Hoosier State's one-and-done schoolboy postseason tournament kept fans spellbound. That aspect had to be a powerful one, because not only did the ACC put its regular-season champ in jeopardy (the team that finished in first place failed to win the tournament 10 times in the first 27 years of the event), but it also forced its schools to slug it out during a week when almost every other team in the NCAA field was getting some rest. "Everybody knew we were crazy," former North Carolina coach Dean Smith says. "It wasn't fair, but there was so much interest. It's the same principle that makes the NCAA tournament so popular now: Lose once and you're gone."
The same make-or-break dynamic that made the ACC tournament riveting for fans made it wrenching for participants. After South Carolina lost the 1970 ACC final in double overtime to N.C. State in Charlotte, Gamecocks guard Bobby Cremins was so disconsolate that he refused to travel with the team back to Columbia. "It was the worst moment in my life," recalls Cremins, who would return to the tournament as Georgia Tech's coach for 19 years. "When I played, you hadn't done anything until you got through the ACC tournament."
There has been added frustration for Clemson, Georgia Tech, Maryland and Virginia because the ACC tournament has nearly always been held in North Carolina. Says Maryland coach Gary Williams, "If you played it 43 years in Baltimore and Ocean City, I think Maryland would have won it more than twice."
At no other time was that divide played out more dramatically than in the 1974 ACC final in Greensboro, in which No. 1-ranked N.C. State defeated No. 3 Maryland 103-100 in overtime. Not only was that arguably the greatest college game ever—the starting lineups featured five NBA first-round picks combined—but it also factored into the NCAA's decision the following year to expand its tournament to include more than one team from each conference. "I thought [the larger NCAA field] would diminish interest in our tournament, because why would people go?" Smith says.
In fact, the ACC tournament's popularity continued to grow. There is great demand for tickets because they are not sold directly to the public. Rather, they are distributed through the schools, which after allotting a token number to students and faculty, spread the rest among deep-pocketed alumni whose contributions earn them the privilege of purchasing a book of tickets for $260. Over the years fans looking for any way to enhance their quest for tickets have even donated money to rival schools that they believe have less demand for tickets than their own teams. In 1983 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution ranked the ACC tournament as the toughest ticket in sports, ahead of the Masters, the Kentucky Derby and the Final Four. When the ACC played its tournament in the Georgia Dome in 2001, it set three NCAA attendance records for conference tournaments that still stand: single-session (40,083), overall average session (36,505) and tournament total (182,525).
While the NCAA tournament towers over the conference events in importance, the ACC has kept its tourney relevant partly by staying true to its roots. Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech will join the ACC over the next two years, increasing the number of members to 12, yet conference officials have no intention of limiting the size of its field. Whereas the Big East takes only 12 of its 14 teams into the conference tournament and the Pac-10 goes with eight of 10, the ACC will expand into a four-day hoopapalooza with a tripleheader on the first day and a quadrupleheader the next day. "We have to be careful what we do to the tournament, because there's nothing like it," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski says.