Playing what-if may be a more popular American game than any athletic pastime you can name.
My first foray into what-if, or alternative, history was an article by MacKinley Kantor in the Nov. 22, 1960 issue of Look magazine, which I still have stored in a box somewhere. “If the South Had Won the Civil War” described in detail a world that never materialized. More recently Philip Roth, the Pulitzer Prize winner who died last month, wrote “The Plot Against America”. His novel foresaw a pro-Nazi, anti-Semitic U.S. emerging after Charles Lindbergh’s imagined presidential election over Franklin Roosevelt in 1940.
Now a new compilation of stories offered by Mike Pesca, the book “Upon Further Review,” delves into alt history on great what-ifs in sports. Any ACC fan worth her or his cursor, TV remote or unaided memory can quickly come up with a list of crucial what-ifs in the league’s 65-year history. I know I can.
An alt-ACC basketball history can be fashioned entirely by changing recruiting outcomes. Had Art Heyman, the 1963 national player of the year, stuck with his commitment to North Carolina instead of switching to Duke, he’d have been at Chapel Hill to help jumpstart Dean Smith’s troubled early tenure. Conversely, if Duke signed two-time ACC player of the year Larry Miller later in that decade, a close call at the time, the boost to Vic Bubas’ program might have kept the estimable coach plying the sidelines well into the 1970s.
What if Len Rosenbluth earned a scholarship after a 1950s tryout for N.C. State’s Everett Case, instead of joining Frank McGuire and an eventual national championship squad in Chapel Hill? What if a second suitor signed Tim Duncan, an unknown prospect from the U.S. Virgin Islands, and he played for Rick Barnes at Providence rather than Dave Odom at Wake Forest?
The football kicking game likewise lends itself admirably to alternative scenarios, from on-side kicks that backfired to game-clinching field goals that succeeded or failed, including four wide-rights from 1991 through 2003 when the Florida State-Miami rivalry meant something on the national stage.
You can build alternative histories on key, ill-timed hoops injuries – South Carolina’s John Roche in the 1970 ACC tournament semifinals; Virginia’s Othell Wilson in the 1982 semis; UNC’s Kendall Marshall against Creighton in the 2012 NCAAs. Or limit the field of fantasy to tackles and shots made and missed. Or coaching hires, brilliant and boneheaded.
But, rather than wander endlessly through imagination, start with these pivotal junctures in ACC history:
Eye of the beholder
Reversing history, Wake Forest’s Wendell Carr draws a much-disputed charge on UNC’s Rosenbluth in the final minute of the 1957 ACC tournament semifinals. The Tar Heel’s basket is nullified and the Demon Deacons hold on to reach the finals. The loss is UNC’s first of the season; in an era when leagues send a single entrant to the NCAA tournament its dream of a national championship is done.
After the ’57 Heels fall, the ACC sends eight teams to the Final Four in an 11-year span (1962-72) without winning a title. N.C. State breaks through in 1974, 21 years after the conference began. Because it takes so long to produce a champion, the ACC becomes known as a hard-luck league with no signature major sport.
Without the excitement of a UNC title run Castleman D. Chesley’s nascent regional TV network sputters, and ACC basketball loses an edge in exposure compared to other leagues.
Fortune smiles on 'Sunny Jim'
There’s a fierce internal debate over bringing the University of North Carolina’s most successful football alumnus back to Chapel Hill. “There were lots of people that didn’t want him,” William Friday, former president of the UNC system, said of Jim Tatum. “He symbolized big-time college football.”
“Sunny Jim” is hired anyway. Relying on strong defense and a split-T attack, he led Maryland to the 1953 national championship, notched three undefeated regular seasons and engineered three top-10 finishes in the Associated Press poll. Following three mediocre years at Chapel Hill, through the 1958 season Tatum’s career record is 100-35-7.
Then in July 1959 he’s hospitalized with a “rickettsial disease,” probably Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and at age 46 is at death’s door. Tatum miraculously recovers, going on to fulfill the prediction by Duke AD Carl James that he will make the Tar Heels “almost untouchable”.
UNC football flourishes, keeping pace with Smith’s stellar basketball program. The football Heels regularly finish in the AP top-20, stature the ACC otherwise completely lacks in football from 1962 through 1971.
Bias Sidesteps Disaster
A tough, talented, tenacious Terrapin leads the ACC in scoring in both 1985 and 1986. Each season Len Bias, a 6-8 Maryland forward, is voted the league’s player of the year.
Bias is selected second by the Boston Celtics in the ‘86 NBA draft. Determined to justify his instant wealth and higher profile, he quits free-basing cocaine and immediately lifts the Celtics to victory in the ’87 NBA finals and beyond. Bias and fellow ACC alum Michael Jordan emerge as dueling pro stars.
Future Hall of Famer Lefty Driesell extends his tenure at College Park, rejoining the battle for ACC supremacy after a brief competitive lull. Gary Williams, another Hall of Famer, builds a distinguished career at Ohio State. Maryland never wins a national championship, but avoids one of the most punitive probations in NCAA history.
ACC Deck Reshuffled
Less than a year after Penn State joins the Big Ten, the ACC goes fishing for a new member to satisfy its craving for football revenues and relevancy. The prime target is Florida State, which surprisingly turns down an invitation to join the ACC in the fall of 1990 and instead goes to the SEC.
Without FSU, the ACC fails to produce an undisputed football national champ after Maryland in 1953, achieving only Clemson’s cheating-tangled 1981 title and Georgia Tech’s 1990 UPI crown shared with Colorado, the AP pick.
Clemson, a frequent critic of ACC academic standards, follows FSU to the football-oriented SEC. Maryland jumps to the Big East. Later, when expansion fever sweeps college sports, the ACC picks up SEC refugee Vanderbilt and several stragglers long-desirous of membership – East Carolina, Virginia Tech and repentant South Carolina.
The reconstituted ACC, dominated by North Carolina schools, proudly fixes its postseason tournament in Greensboro.