Requiem for the old-school ACC tournament (and classroom TV cart)

Santa Claus, snow days and the big black TV cart.

For so many southeastern school kids stuck in so many classrooms during so many dark, cold winters, those were the three saviors, but not in that order. With all due respect to St. Nick and school closures, there was no more certain signal that spring had arrived than on the second Friday of March, aka Quarterfinal Friday. That’s when your now-favorite teacher rolled that tall, metal multitiered AV cart into the classroom, plugged it in, announced that the first game of the ACC tournament was about to tip off and then soaked in the round of applause that followed.

A 21-inch tube TV, safety-strapped to a top-heavy shelf, its rabbit ears antenna (or coat hanger, tin foil, paper clips, any metal would suffice) pulling in the over-the-air Raycom Sports/Jefferson-Pilot Teleproductions broadcast from the Omni in Atlanta, the Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland or the Greensboro Coliseum. There was that rudimentary graphic opening, the basketball court that flew like a Frisbee, set to a way-overcooked ’80s orchestral and guitar-infused theme song. And the first commercial break — hell, every commercial break — featured the majestic tall ship of Jefferson-Pilot Insurance cutting through the waves as we sang along and dreamed of living long enough to sign up for a policy.

“Sail with the Pilot at the wheel…”

The first time I became enraptured in such unhinged round ball ecstasy was on March 11, 1983. That’s when Mrs. Cone, my English teacher at West Millbrook Middle School in Raleigh, North Carolina, proudly rolled in the cart she had checked out from the library. She yanked the volume/on-off knob and as the TV set warmed up cut us a deal. If we agreed to sit quietly and watch top-seeded North Carolina take on Clemson, then that’s all we would have to do. There would be no discussion of dangling participles or “My Brother Sam Is Dead,” but rather Michael Jordan’s dangling tongue and his teammate Sam Perkins, who was very much alive.

We watched the second half during lunch, with two(!) carts set up in the cafeteria, and the radio broadcast piped in over an AV system typically only used for the morning announcements. That afternoon, no one had to dress out for gym class if they were willing to sit in the bleachers and watch NC State’s one-point victory over Wake Forest. We had no idea that we were witnessing the beginning of Jim Valvano and his Cardiac Pack’s legendary run to the national title. We just knew that we didn’t have to wear our standard-issue burlap-textured short shorts and play dodgeball.

“Joining us now at halftime here in Atlanta, it’s our old friend Dinah Shore. Dinah, don’t you just love shopping at Food Lion?”

For three years at West Millbrook Middle, this was my annual March ACC tournament experience. Now, I can only vaguely recall the details of watching semifinals and title games at home or at a friend’s house. But those first day, at-school AV cart memories are sharper than the picture on a 1985 Zenith Smart System 3 TV.

“Dan Bonner, I believe Mark Price is taking over this game.”

“Marty Brennaman, I think you’re right.”

It continued at Enloe High School, located only a cross country team practice run from the NC State campus. Even the staunchest of the school’s academicians — and there were many — gave in to the temptation of Quarterfinal Friday. Why? Because the Wolfpack’s star guard (and current NBA head coach) Nate McMillan had roamed the halls of Enloe just a few years earlier, and yes, he too kept his eyes on the school’s TV carts every March.

“Hi, everybody, Mike Patrick here, live from the Greensboro Coliseum, where Lenny Bias and Maryland are set to take on Wake Forest and mighty mite Muggsy Bogues…”

If you did find yourself stuck with a Scrooge who’d decided to take a stand against a day of non-learning, then perhaps you slid a transistor radio into your jacket pocket, dropped an earpiece wire through the sleeve, and spent the entire class curiously leaning into your hand. Before Raycom and Jefferson-Pilot changed the college hoops world through TV market saturation, sneaky radio receivers were the only way to go.

My fourth-grade year at Fred Olds Elementary, a classmate was busted when he suddenly slammed his fist into his desk during a math lesson, knocking his radio out of his desk and smashing it into a pile of junk when it hit the tile floor. Mrs. Crowley walked him into the hallway for an interrogation. We could hear the whole thing. When she asked him why he’d pounded the desk, he told her it was because Duke had a chance to upset Maryland but had blown it. She told him that was a perfectly understandable reason and let him return to class, unpunished.

Wes Durham, son of former Jefferson-Pilot and UNC play-by-play man Woody Durham, grew up in Greensboro and as a fifth-grader convinced his principal to tune into his father’s call of the first round North Carolina vs. Wake Forest game on the grounds of civic pride.

“I told her, you know what?” Durham recalls now. “This is our city’s event. You need to play this game over the PA system in our school. And she did.”

This week Durham will be on the microphone for his 21st ACC tournament, the first 18 as the voice of Georgia Tech and the last three with Raycom.

In the 1980s, as technology starting moving faster than Spud Webb on the break, those who really lived out on the edges of life would smuggle a Sony Watchman TV inside of their Trapper Keeper. Even on a two-inch screen flickering from within the darkness of one’s backpack, Georgia Tech head coach Bobby Cremins’ head of gray hair popped in black and white.

“Today’s game is being brought to you by Piedmont Airlines…”

It was always easy to spot the classrooms where a professorial line had been drawn in the hardwood. My friends who were being held against their sports wills could be seen staring longingly out the window of their joyless prison, looking for any sort of score update from those of us who were fortunate enough to be in TV cart-friendly spaces.

I once found myself forced through such a sad looking glass. Mrs. Waner, my sweet but serious literature teacher at Travelers Rest High School, chose to keep us in the hoops dark on Quarterfinal Friday 1989. My family had moved from Raleigh to Greenville, South Carolina, taking us off Tobacco Road and into the shadow of Clemson’s Death Valley. This was certainly not college basketball country, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that even in upstate South Carolina, the ACC tourney was still celebrated.

I was not so pleasantly surprised when my team of the time, top-seeded NC State, was upset by unranked Maryland in the opening Friday game. How was I informed of that result? When I looked out the window of Mrs. Waner’s room I was greeted by a Clemson orange-donned friend, Matt Austin, jumping up and down in the courtyard to get my attention with a hastily-made sign: MARYLAND 71, NC STATE 49. Coach Leach, who was letting his class watch the game right next door, let Austin loose in the courtyard with his sign to taunt me.

I had started my day very angry at Mrs. Waner for not rolling in an AV cart. I ended the class by thanking her for sparing me from the torture being broadcast from Atlanta.

Looking back, I wonder if I should have even been there in the first place. There were always plenty of friends who called in sick for the first round, but magically healed when we met up to watch the weekend games. Then there were those who punted.

“Please send Robert Hogewood and Graham Hunt to the office for early dismissal,” Robert Hogewood recalled on Twitter. This was the message received by his teachers every second Friday of March. Like Wes Durham, he grew up in the North Carolina Triad and his father, Mike Hogewood, was also a staple of Raycom/Jefferson-Pilot telecasts.

So, why bring all this up this week, for this particular edition of the ACC tournament? Why suddenly so nostalgic for the bygone days of my Tobacco Road youth? It’s because this year marks the last time that the tourney games will be brought into homes in the old school, over-the-air antenna “Sail with Pilot” fashion. In August, the ACC Network launches in a conference partnership with ESPN.

Now, don’t shed any tears for the folks at Raycom. They are going to be just fine, an integral part of the new network with payments that shall be worthy of their work and history. But their TV compound this week, assembled in and around the Spectrum Center only a few minutes from their Charlotte headquarters, will be plenty packed with old stories, laughs, and tears as the game clock for Saturday night’s championship clicks its way closer to zero.

Durham refuses to take off his old school Raycom ball cap. Director Billy McCoy is working his 47th consecutive ACC tournament for the company, a streak so long that it predates Raycom or Jefferson-Pilot, starting under C.D. Chesley, the man who birthed ACC broadcasting coverage in 1957. When McCoy reported for work this week, he shocked the crew by shaving off his signature beard.

“My first ACC tournament in 1974 I didn’t have a beard so I decided I didn’t need one for this one, either.”

On Monday morning, I tweeted out a challenge to the school teachers of the Carolinas, saying that they should pay homage to the past by rolling TV carts into their classrooms for one last rabbit-eared ride.

The response was massive. Thousands of people liked or retweeted it. Hundreds responded with their own stories of Quarterfinal Fridays and many copied their former teachers in their response to thank them for checking out an AV cart and pushing aside books for basketballs for one day. I even heard from Coach Leach, the one who’d let my buddy taunt me in ’89.

Truck drivers, TV reporters, corporate CEO’s, even a couple of Washington politicians, they all checked in with TV cart memories. What that overwhelming response told me was that I was not alone, not in my experiences and certainly not in my nostalgia. I also learned that it was a feeling not confined to the Carolinas, or even the ACC. Fans of the old Big East checked in with similar sneaky schoolhouse radio and TV stories. Many Kentucky Wildcats fans claimed that it was their people who’d invented sneaking radios into class decades ago. Over the years, Raycom expanded its portfolio to include the SEC, Big 12, Big Ten, the then Pac-10 and even the long gone Big Eight, Southwest and Metro conferences. So, the Pilot, he got around. Eventually, the company’s March responsibilities boiled back down to the place where it started, on Tobacco Road.

The vanishing of over-the-air regional tournament coverage always had an expiration date, no different than Trapper Keepers, Piedmont Airlines, or the tube TVs strapped atop those big black AV carts. None of that is coming back, just as the ACC is never going back to eight schools. (This is the part where I remind you teachers that the ESPN app will work just fine on your classroom Smartboards.)

But just because we aren’t going back doesn’t mean that we can’t look back. We just can’t become so obsessed with the rear view that we miss what’s right in front of us. If that beautiful tall ship shown on the TV atop that beautiful tall AV cart taught us nothing, it should have taught us this. When the wind is in your sails, you have no choice to chase the new horizon up ahead.

“Sail with the Pilot…Worries are far behind you. There’s really piece of mind, too.”

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