ACC Memoirs: The Early Years

March 1, 2010

by Bill Hensley

I was around when the Atlantic Coast Conference was formed in 1953, which makes me an old timer and allows me to talk about the many changes I have seen over a fifty-sever year span. With longevity comes nostalgia. Let me start at the beginning, otherwise known as "the dark ages." In the summer of '53, I received a call from James H. Weaver, the athletics director at Wake Forest. He told me that the school, along with Carolina, Duke and State, were pulling out of the Southern Conference for a new conference that would be called the Atlantic Coast Conference. Weaver informed me that each school had to have a Sports Information Director and wanted to know if I would like to work for my alma mater. After some discussion, I agreed to take the job. I had graduated three years earlier and was working for the Asheville Citizen as a sportswriter. When I returned to the old campus, few things had changed, and the school enrollment was still around 1,800. The athletic department had 14 employee, and staff meetings were held around a large table. The Deacons played only five sports--football, basketball, baseball, golf and tennis--all for men. The total athletic budget was around $300,000. The coaches for golf and tennis were assistant football or basketball coaches, or a faculty member, who knew something about the sport. The Athletics Director had one assistant, football had three and basketball one. Don't ask how many they have today. When we traveled it was by bus or vans. The longest hauls were to Clemson and Maryland. On the rare occasion when we played a game farther away, we went by airplane. Except for football, teams often stayed in spartan accommodations, often at the host team's gym. Luxury it was not. Fast forward to today. Wake Forest has an athletic staff of around 165, plays about a dozen sports for men and a like number for women, and has an athletic budget of about $40 million. What hasn't changed is that the school is still the smallest in the conference with around 5,000 students. After my first year, Weaver left to become the first commissioner of the ACC. He established an office in Greensboro and for several years, he and his secretary/assistant Nancy Thompson ran the show. Now the conference has 31 full-time employees, four part-timers and four interns. In 1955, I took the same job at N. C. State because of a substantial pay increase. State had a larger athletic staff because the Wolfpack participated in more sports, including track, swimming and wrestling. The famed Everett Case, who was credited with bringing big time basketball to the area, made $13,500 annually and football coach Earle Edwards made about the same. Today each of those coaches would be making in excess of a million dollars, have commercial endorsements of that much or more, enjoy team travel by chartered airplane, stay in luxury hotels, and have staffs with several assistants and aides. What's more they would have use of an automobile, a country club membership, performance bonuses, and perks we never dreamed of. Since the ACC expanded to 12 teams, the competition boundaries range from Boston in the north to Miami in the south, causing schools in between to fly most teams, including minor sports, to those destinations. Obviously travel budgets have soared. In the "old days," the conference was like a big family. We were fierce competitors, but we were also friends and socialized often. Two of my close friends were Jake Wade of Carolina and Ted Mann of Duke, the veteran publicists who had served as my mentor. Our teams fought each other to the bitter end, but it didn't affect our friendship. If the media wanted a personal interview with a coach, a call was made to me or the coach and an interview was arranged, and it was no big deal. Unfortunately, that is not the case now, so I'm told. When State played basketball at Clemson, Tiger coach Press Maravich always invited Case, assistant coach Vic Bubas and me over to his house for coffee and dessert. On one memorable occasion, he took us down to his basement to watch his young son dribble a basketball. The youngster was eight or ten at the time and was a ball handling whiz. After we applauded his exceptional skills, Maravich put a blindfold and gloves on the kid so couldn't see or feel the ball. It didn't matter because the talented lad was just as good. Ten years or so later I took pride in seeing Pete Maravich lead the nation in scoring. In 1957, the conference invited each school's athletic director, football coach and publicity director and their wives to attend the Orange Bowl. We were given $200. to cover expenses. About a dozen of us rode the train from Raleigh to Miami, stayed at a beach hotel for three days, attended bowl parties, and watched Colorado edge Clemson 27-21 in an exciting game. As I recall, football and basketball tickets cost around $3 or $4. The first ACC basketball tournament, which was not a sell out, offered all-games packages for $9 and $6. It would be several years before tournament tickets were a coveted item. The event's big competition was the renowned Dixie Classic in Raleigh which always had packed houses, and featured the Big Four teams of State, Duke, Carolina and Wake. Watching football and basketball games on television? That was a rare privilege because TV was in its infancy. Basketball arenas were small, too, certainly not the large, spacious facilities of today. Wake Forest, Clemson, South Carolina, Virginia and North Carolina played in on-campus gyms that seated only a few thousand fans. Locker rooms and shower facilities were modest and media interview rooms were non-existent. Duke played in Cameron Indoor, where it still plays, and State was at home in Reynolds Coliseum, a 12,4000-seat facility which was the largest in the area. In the "cracker box" gyms, players were reluctant to take the ball out of bounds because spectators would pull the hair on their legs. At that time, the media wrote game stories on portable typewriters, handed the copy to a Western Union operator, and it was wired to the newspapers. Computers, cell phones and other modern communications technology were yet to come. But we had our share of super stars such as Arnold Palmer, Roman Gabriel, Sonny Jurgensen, Dick Hemric, Lenny Rosenbluth, Dave Sime and a host of others. We weren't without our legends. The ACC has come a long way since its beginning and is now a huge multi-million dollar business with lucrative revenue sources that include TV rights, bowl games, sponsorships, tournament participation and a variety of other major projects. That's a huge switch from a hand-to-mouth existence at the outset. Growth and change are inevitable, and its fun to compare. I just hope the conference crowd is enjoying life as much as we did when we were pioneers.

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