The News & Observer
The tired old joke about how “it’s college basketball season” in the Triangle the first time a football team trips over its own shoelaces — usually late October, sometimes mid-September — has more miles on it than the Goodyear blimp.
But there’s a reason it keeps popping up, year after year, and did again a few weeks ago when North Carolina indulged in its ritual midseason collapse, losing as a double-digit favorite to Virginia and Georgia Tech.
It won’t die because it’s true. In fact, you could argue that this is one of the places — like Indiana or Kentucky — where it’s always basketball season, no matter what the calendar says.
While the world of college athletics may move at a football pace, around here — and, at one time, within the ACC — basketball still moves the needle. It will again this winter, even if it’s fair to wonder for how long.
Steve Smith wasn’t wrong when he called N.C. State a basketball school. It absolutely could be a football school someday, if the basketball program still isn’t competing for titles and the football team ever wins anything of note, and it is unquestionably a school of many other sports, but basketball, men’s and women’s, has been and almost certainly will be the heart and soul of N.C. State athletics for generations to come.
There may not be a Wolfpack fan over the age of 30 — and who knows about the younger generation, because N.C. State’s national championships and Final Fours are just a fairy tale told around the campfire at this point — who wouldn’t trade the entire football program for an ACC title or one more Final Four run.
It’s what really matters, and it’s been too long.
It hasn’t been as long at Duke or North Carolina, less than two years removed from their long-awaited collision at the Final Four, both hanging a banner in the past decade, but it’s as true at both as it is at N.C. State: Basketball remains the standard.
Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State have never won a national championship in football (and nary an ACC championship since 1989). They have won a collective 13 titles in men’s basketball — 14 if you consider the Helms Foundation a credible arbiter, and if that’s the standard, Duke could claim the 1936 football title. (It does not.)
Mack Brown has now spent the majority of his coaching career trying to prove that football and basketball can coexist in Chapel Hill, at a university where excellence is the rule in everything from baseball to women’s basketball to field hockey to soccer, and more or less has in his second go-round.
The past 15 years have been a test case at Duke, where David Cutcliffe proved football on that campus could be something other than a laughingstock — “Duke football? Hell yes Duke football!” — and Mike Elko managed to resurrect the program in short order, but a big part of his pitch has been to bring the basketball atmosphere outdoors.
In the ACC, that’s not uncommon. In fact, among original ACC schools, it was and is the rule far more than the exception. It’s true at Wake Forest and Virginia, and was true at Maryland, and Syracuse walked in the door feeling that way (although you could argue Syracuse is a lacrosse school above all). No amount of football success (or lack thereof) or success in sports across the spectrum has changed that.
Compare that to the Big 12 or the SEC, where other than a place like Kansas, basketball is always going to be a second option. Ask Billy Donovan. Those conferences are wired for football, full stop. The Big Ten probably has a little more football-basketball balance, but without the ACC’s ultimate on-court success.
None of this may matter to the people who decide what schools go in what conferences, or television networks who care about football and “brands” and what your sports-agnostic uncle will watch if he flips across it on a Saturday afternoon. But basketball has always been the beating heart of the ACC, especially in this area code, and even as that changes elsewhere, even as the overall quality of the league ablates, even as its tournament is diluted and increasingly irrelevant, it will continue to matter as long as these schools are in the league, for however long that is.
Clemson and Florida State or whoever comes next — West Virginia? Tulane? Philadelphia Textile? — may not understand that and may not care, and may complain about the focus on the Big Four at this time of year and think forcing the conference office out of Greensboro (but not outside these borders) is somehow going to “fix” that, but there are still places within what increasingly used to the the ACC where basketball comes first.
As it should be, for however long it lasts.
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