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I DIDN'T GO TO COLLEGE IN THE ACC. IT ONLY SEEMS THAT I DID, AND NOT JUST BECAUSE my alma mater is known as the northernmost Southern school. During the late '70s, being in Princeton, N.J., put me within range of a UHF station carrying C.D. Chesley's ACC telecasts. Happy to avoid junior papers and a senior thesis, I'd spend winter nights in a dorm basement lounge, in thrall of a TV tuned to Philadelphia's Channel 17.
From my ACC listening post I discovered a magical world. Maryland had the players: Albert King, Buck Williams, Ernest Graham. North Carolina State had the nicknames: Tiny, Hawkeye, Clyde the Glide. Duke students had the fun, getting under the skin of North Carolina's Mike O'Koren by pointing out in chorus the acne upon it. Describing all this was the verbal tag team of Jim Thacker and Billy Packer. (My first reaction to Packer: What a know-it-all! My second: I wanna know everything he does!) And sometimes commentator Bones McKinney, whose cracker-barrel wisdom included gems like, "Trouble with officials is they don't care who wins."
Coach K hadn't yet ridden into Durham, so this was still Dean Smith's league. Lefty Driesell, Terry Holland, Norm Sloan and two (two!) Bill Fosters ached to beat him, with the sheer turned-up volume of their sport coats if that's what it took. As for the basketball, it was crisp and well choreographed. By graduation big-time college hoops had sneaked into my bloodstream, and I haven't been able to flush it out since.
Turns out I wasn't alone. Baby boomers throughout the Southeast grew up on those broadcasts, which began when Castleman D. Chesley cobbled together a five-station network to carry UNC's 1957 NCAA Final Four games live from Kansas City. After the Tar Heels delivered triple-overtime victories over Michigan State and Kansas, a leaguewide, dozen-affiliate TV network—thought to be the first of its kind—launched the next season. Soon the theme song of lead sponsor Pilot Life Insurance, Sail With the Pilot, became an earworm for a generation of fans.
"Originally there was concern that the broadcasts would affect the gate," says Ken Haines, president of Raycom Sports, the syndicator that has held ACC basketball rights for virtually every season since Chesley left the business after the 1980--81 season. "But [ticket sales] just became bigger. The Chesley broadcasts picked up the casual fan."
What TV deal has had the biggest impact on a college sports brand? You could argue for those truncated '60s and '70s Notre Dame football rebroadcasts, featuring Lindsey ("After an exchange of punts, we move to further action in the third quarter") Nelson—but, well, they were reruns. Or you could nominate the Big East's Big Monday games on ESPN during the '80s, which suddenly allowed Syracuse and its brethren to recruit the West Coast—but, confined to all-sports cable, those games didn't reach much beyond hard-core hoopheads.
If you're an ACC fan today, odds are you were either raised on Chesley or raised by a parent who was. And if you're among the legions who have chanted "ACC!" at some NCAA tournament site, in support of an otherwise despised conference rival that made it deeper into March than the school you love, I think I know the reason: Having all once "sailed with the Pilot," it's hard not to feel you're somehow in the same boat.