The beauty of history is that it provides context.
It’s been just short of 30 years – or roughly a generation – since N.C. State won anything really worth winning in basketball. The Wolfpack, in 1988-89, finished first in the ACC regular season and was top seed in that season’s tournament in Atlanta.
The celebration was over before it ever had a chance to get started. N.C. State became the first top seed to get jettisoned in the first round, when No. 8 seed Maryland routed the Wolfpack 71-49 in what Coach Jim Valvano infamously dubbed “The Nightmare on Peachtree Street.’’
N.C. State won 10 conference games that season. Maryland won one.
“I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything exactly like that,’’ Valvano said afterward. “We went through an entire game without doing the first thing right.’’
The “mastermind” of one of the conference’s most confounding upsets never coached another ACC game. Bob Wade, the Terps’ head coach, collapsed in the victorious locker room and was rushed to the hospital. His assistants, Dr. Ron Bradley and Jeff Adkins, took over the reins the next day and coached the Terps to an 88-58 drubbing by No. 4 seed North Carolina.
Valvano, himself, coached only one more season. A writer named Peter Golenbock hacked out a sloppy, widely-discredited book called “Personal Fouls,’’ chronicling all the misdeeds in the program, and the Poole Commission launched by the UNC system enlisted the help of the SBI to conduct a six-month investigation.
The result was the resignation of Bruce Poulton as chancellor, the removal of Valvano as director of athletics, a two-year probation by the NCAA and a number of self-imposed penalties that proved crippling.
Valvano was replaced by Les Robinson as head coach after the 1989-90 season.
All these years later there are scores of irate Wolfpack fans who will swear on the No. 44 jersey of David Thompson that the program got royally screwed by both the ACC and the NCAA. They’ll admit that Valvano, as an administrator, was a good basketball coach, but will go to their graves convinced that the course correction set in motion by the university was, in fact, a grievous over-correction that doomed a generation to the frustrations of the past three decades.
They make a good case made even better by how rival North Carolina was able to skate past the abyss of its own academic-fraud scandal of recent years.
Wolfpack fans obviously paid the heaviest price, but the ACC, as a conference, has never quite been the same either. Because those who know ACC basketball history know just how good N.C. State was over the first 35 years of the conference.
Back then, the Big Two – Duke and North Carolina – was actually the Big Three. Coming out of the 1988-89 regular season, Wolfpack fans could have argued, convincingly, in my mind, that their basketball heritage was every bit as rich – if not richer – than that of Duke.
The Blue Devils, at the time, had never won any of their five national championships. N.C. State had won two, in 1974 and 1983. And whereas Duke had won eight ACC titles, the Wolfpack had won 10.
I know this stuff partly because I love history, but also because I was there. I was lucky enough to start my career when the best college basketball team in America played for N.C. State. I’ve seen hundreds – make that thousands – of players come through the league in my time but I’ve never seen another the equal of David Thompson.
To know ACC basketball history is to know how glorious the glory years were at N.C. State. And two men most responsible, Everett Case and Norm Sloan, are two of the coaches I’m paying tribute to in my ACC Coaches Hall of Fame.
For anyone new to My Take on Whatever, I devised a formula (which will be reprinted at the end of this post) to identify the greatest coaches in ACC history. I came up with a list of 15, the final five (Dave Odom, Lefty Driesell, Bones McKinney, Valvano and Bobby Cremins) of which I presented last week.
When my busy retirement schedule allows it, I will present the five who compiled the most points in days to come. Today we will honor the middle five, all of them well-deserved legends.
140 points – Norm Sloan (N.C. State, 1966-67 through 1979-80).
A knock I’ve heard is that if you take away the three years David Thompson was eligible for varsity basketball, then Sloan had a losing record in ACC play. Sure enough, he was 69-73 without King David on the court.
But the Pack was a first-division ACC team under Sloan in 1968, 1969, 1970 and 1972, and pulled off a stunning upset by beating juggernaut South Carolina – which had finished 14-0 in the regular season – for the 1970 ACC Tournament championship. And after Thompson graduated (which superstars actually did back then), the Wolfpack also had winning conference records in 1976 (7-5), 1978 (7-5) and 1980 (9-5).
In Sloan’s best years, the Pack absolutely dominated, running the table with 12-0 regular-season records in 1972-73 and 1973-74 and winning back-to-back ACC titles. Sloan, lest we forget, beat UCLA and then Marquette for the 1974 national championship, and the Pack would have been hard to beat the season before if it had not been on NCAA probation.
140 points – Everett Case (N.C. State, 1946-47 through 1963-64).
Before you start grumbling about the Gray Fox not being ranked higher, be advised that only his accomplishments in ACC play were taken into consideration. Case dominated the Southern Conference before the formation of the ACC, and if he received credit for his six SouCon titles (not to mention the Wolfpack’s appearance in the 1950 Final Four) then I would be writing about Case as one of the first five.
Sure he had the advantage of all four of his ACC championships being won on his home floor of Reynolds Coliseum, which was the site of the first 13 tournaments because of its cavernous (for the time) seating capacity of 12,400. But to be the best in the early years of the ACC, you had to beat the best.
And the best team, season after season, was the N.C. State Wolfpack coached by Everett Case.
142 points – Tony Bennett (2009-10 through present time).
This whole project began when I got to wondering how Bennett, clearly one of the rising stars in the coaching profession, would compare to other great coaches in ACC history.
Obviously quite well.
Yeah, I’m well-aware that Bennett hasn’t quite gotten this NCAA Tournament thing figured out, as we all saw two months ago when his Cavs lost to upstart UMBC to become the first No. 1 seed to ever lose in the first round.
But that didn’t completely erase the luster of an otherwise sparkling season when Virginia, picked by the sportswriters to finish sixth, ran roughshod over the league on the way to a 17-1 regular-season record. For his efforts, Bennett was named ACC Coach of the Year for a third time and National Coach of the Year for a second time.
Bennett, who won’t turn 49 until June 1, appears to have plenty of outstanding seasons ahead of himself and Virginia basketball. So now the question becomes, where will he be ranked when he coaches his last ACC game?
144 points – Terry Holland (1974-75 through 1989-90).
Holland’s ranking as seventh most successful coach by my formula might have been the biggest surprise of this project. What I remembered best about him was his failure to ever win any title other than that of the NIT during the four years he coached Ralph Sampson.
But it’s easy to forget that he won an ACC title in 1976 before Sampson ever arrived, and he reached the Final Four both with Sampson in 1981 and after Sampson in 1984.
The 1976 ACC title surprised not only North Carolina, the No. 1 seed who lost in the championship, but the sixth-seed Cavaliers as well.
“We all had made plans to go to Florida next week for spring vacation,’’ star Wally Walker said. “But we’ll gladly change that.’’
A coach doesn’t coach anywhere for 16 seasons – which is how long Holland coached at Virginia — unless he knows what he’s doing. Holland also made many friends during his time as one of the true gentlemen of the ACC.
200 points – Frank McGuire (North Carolina, 1953-54 through 1960-61; South Carolina, 1964-65 through 1970-71).
Seeings how I don’t remember meeting McGuire, obviously I never did. Knowing what I know about the man, he was bigger than life, and thus not someone anyone could that easily forget.
He would be a legend today if for nothing else than levitating North Carolina to a 32-0 record and a NCAA Championship over Wilt Chamberlain and Kansas in 1957. And if anyone has ever gone out on top it would be McGuire, who won the 1971 ACC title in the last game South Carolina played before departing the conference.
McGuire piled up 153 points at North Carolina, which, as it turns out, would have ranked him the same spot (sixth overall) among my Hall of Fame of ACC Coaches.
Other than the fabled run of 1957, he never did anything worth remembering in the NCAA Tournament.
But he was an unforgettable character of ACC lore who knew people, knew how to recruit and knew how to win. And he also knew enough to such mundane details as Xs and Os to his assistants.
My formula for induction in ACC Coaches Hall of Fame (Cut-off, 100 points).
1 point – ACC wins over .500 (including ACC Tournament).
1 point – NIT win (post 1974).
2 points – NIT win (through 1974).
3 points – ACC Coach of the Year.
4 points – NCAA Tournament win.
5 points – Tie for first in ACC regular season.
5 points – NIT Championship (post 1974).
7 points – first in ACC regular season.
7 points – NIT Championship (through 1974).
7 points – National Coach of the Year.
10 points – ACC Championship (post 1974).
12 points – ACC Championship (through 1974).
15 points – Final four (without winning NCAA Championship).
20 points – National Championship.