The Atlantic Coast Conference celebrates the 60th anniversary of its men’s basketball tournament next week. The tournament is an iconic event in ACC history, but its glory days are an increasingly distant memory. It no longer fills arenas even when tickets are offered to the general public.
As the ACC approaches the end of its sixth decade, the decline of the tournament’s popularity is a symptom of other problems. The most troubling is that conference realignment raises serious questions about whether the ACC will continue to benefit from the traditions that made it great.
The ACC was founded May 7, 1953, for two major reasons: to create a sound balance between academic and athletic programs and to improve the football stature of member schools by providing opportunities to play in bowl games.
The ACC’s original goals produced mixed results. It became a leader in setting minimum academic standards for admitting athletes, but it was less successful in attaining top-tier status in football. Indeed, it was the ACC’s effort to upgrade the prestige of its football programs by adding three Big East schools in 2004 and 2005 that incited the mania for conference realignment.
Basketball, an afterthought when the ACC was established, gradually emerged as the league’s signature sport. By the early 1970s, the conference had gained recognition as college basketball’s best and most competitive league. This exalted position was the result of the excellence and top-to-bottom balance of the ACC’s teams and the intensity of the rivalries that developed over years of fiercely contested games..
With basketball as its primary attraction, the ACC thrived for decades. Despite some embarrassing and highly publicized lapses, it took seriously its commitment to academic integrity.
During the 1960s, the ACC’s requirement that a prospective athlete had to achieve a minimum score (first 750 and later 800) on the Scholastic Aptitude Test to receive a scholarship, for example, prevented Joe Namath from playing football at Maryland and Pete Maravich from playing basketball at N.C. State.
Recent developments create doubts about the ACC’s ability to carry on the traditions that made it successful. Those who value the league’s commitment to exemplary academic performance were particularly disheartened by revelations in 2012 of an “academic scandal” at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. An independent investigation found serious irregularities in courses popular with (though not restricted to) athletes.
This was especially noteworthy at a school that had long taken pride in striking a proper balance between athletics and academics. In light of the ACC’s founding principles, it is disturbing that the academic standing of the newest member of the conference, the University of Louisville, ranks well below its future rivals.
An even more disquieting development that moves the ACC away from its origins is Maryland’s departure for the Big 10. The university’s president, Harry C. “Curley” Byrd, was a leading force in establishing the conference. It is one of the four schools to win a national championship in men’s basketball and the only one to have earned national titles in both football and basketball. Although the impact of Maryland’s decision to leave is unpredictable, it is without doubt a severe blow to ACC traditions.
Realignment in the ACC and other conferences is an ominous trend that is driven largely by television money, and that is why Maryland elected to abandon six decades of tradition to join the Big 10. Of course, tradition in itself does not pay the bills. But the financial impact should not be dismissed.
Attendance at ACC basketball games has fallen considerably since league expansion diluted rivalries and ended across-the-board home-and-home match-ups. The costs could go higher if realignment continues without heed to regional rivalries and cherished traditions (or hatreds) that make college athletics so appealing.
It is doubtful that Maryland fans will pack the Comcast Center to watch their team play Nebraska as they once did to watch a game against any ACC opponent. If the sacrifice of tradition undermines the support of fans who buy tickets, make contributions and purchase the products advertised on television broadcasts, realignment’s financial rewards might provide only diminishing returns for the ACC and for all of college sports.
Samuel Walker is a professional historian and the author of “ACC Basketball: The Story of the Rivalries, Traditions, and Scandals of the First Two Decades of the Atlantic Coast Conference.”