"The tournament is a banquet, and every game is a feast."
--Former N.C. State basketball coach EVERETT CASE, on the ACC
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
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
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.
Indeed, 51 years after the first ACC tournament, every game is
still a feast for those fans lucky enough to get a seat.
This is the 34th in SI's 50th anniversary series on the 50
states. Next week: Minnesota.
Tickets to the tournament are so hard to come by that some ACC
fans even donate money to rival schools in hopes of tapping into
For more about sports in North Carolina and the other 49 states,
go to si.com/50.