Column: Remembering, and mourning, the real Atlantic Coast Conference

Posted on March 12, 2014 

In 2008, my wife and I went to England as part of a tour, and one of the stops was in Liverpool. Our guide took us down an alley and we assembled outside a building with the sign “Cavern Club” on the front.

So this was the legendary dive where the Beatles played in the early 1960s, before becoming an international sensation.

It looks pretty good after all these years, I remarked to our guide. Well, he said, that’s because it’s not the original. He motioned across the alley, at a brick wall. That’s where it used to be, he said, before they tore it down. The club I was looking at was a replica, built and kept up to cater to Beatles fans, but not the real deal.

Ah, shoot, I said. Quite, he said.

The memory of my Cavern Club disappointment came back as I read stories about this week’s Atlantic Coast Conference tournament and waited for that March feeling to build. It didn’t. Because this isn’t the ACC of my youth.

I came south for college in the fall of 1971 from the suburbs of Boston. I was in the vanguard of a trickle of northerners that would become a gusher.

Small and compact

The ACC was a small, compact conference. South Carolina had just left when I arrived, so the conference consisted of Clemson, Duke, Maryland, North Carolina, North Carolina State, Virginia and Wake Forest.

It reminded me – I know this is going to sound funny – of the National Hockey League that I grew up with. The old NHL of my youth consisted of the Original Six: Montreal, Toronto, Chicago, Detroit, New York and, of course, the Bruins (pronounced “Broons”) of Boston. It was such a small league that teams played each other over and over again, and we knew all the no-good, hooking, slashing so-and-sos on the clubs that would come into the old Boston Garden. It was a league of grievances and vengeance narratives.

The ACC had all that. And so much more.

The NHL’s visiting Canadiens did their fancy-schmancy skating in the dank, smoky arena on Causeway Street, then slunk back across the Quebec border. But in North Carolina, the rival tribes of the ACC lived, worked and despised each other in close quarters.

If you were an N.C. State fan, you knew why you disliked all things Chapel Hill – a dislike reinforced by the neighbor’s Carolina blue flag or a colleague’s snark. UNC fans knew why they didn’t like Duke. Heck, everyone knew why they didn’t like Duke. And Duke students reciprocated by raising organized obnoxiousness to an art form.

On a regular schedule, we would hear intense whining from Maryland that it could never catch a break on Tobacco Road. And nearly 20 years on, people still talked about Rick Barnes of Clemson getting into it with Tar Heel legend Dean Smith.

But the ACC of today, I don’t know it. Boston College? I grew up a 15-minute drive from the campus. The BC games that I remember as a kid involved an intense Jesuit school rivalry with Holy Cross, which was an hour to the west down Route 9. But BC in the Atlantic Coast Conference? Tobacco Road reaching all the way to Beacon Street? That never occurred to me.

Pitt? Where’s that?

Notre Dame? Pitt? Syracuse? Those brands do nothing for me. No reaction. Pitt is where, in Pennsylvania? You may as well ask how I am disposed toward the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League. (I can take them or leave them.)

But it gets worse. In July, the University of Louisville joins the ACC. Hoo boy, get ready to rumble. Talk about rivalry games. There will be literally tens of students camped out in Krzyzewskiville.

I once watched a minor league baseball game in the Louisville stadium. It was pleasant. Beer was overpriced. That exhausts everything I know about the University of Louisville.

Face it. They have torn down the original ACC. It started when the guys at ACC Central in Greensboro made some of us pretend like we cared about Georgia Tech. Which most of us didn’t, but anyway. ...

So they figured, hey, if they’ll go for Georgia Tech, how about Florida State, Miami and Virginia Tech? And some of us pretended that wasn’t a big offense. But that led to where we are today. Worrying whether Coach Boeheim can find a restaurant in Greensboro up to his Syracuse sensibilities.

What was is no more. What we have now is a very fancy, territorially ginormous, TV-rich replica called the Atlantic Coast Conference, but still just a replica of what we had, which was great.

Dan Barkin is senior editor of The News & Observer.

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