As another college basketball season dawns in the Triangle, it feels like the latter days of a soon-to-be-extinguished era and that Apocalypse may be just around the corner.
Consider the evidence. Summertime scandals—mostly in college football, including that (relatively small) one in Chapel Hill—brought college sports as a whole under a level of suspicion not seen in decades, most notably in "The Shame of College Sports," a widely read essay for The Atlantic by Carolina grad and civil rights historian Taylor Branch. Then there was the unholy rush for television dollars, which took the form of conference expansion led by university presidents who seemed utterly oblivious to the mounting critiques.
And then there was Penn State, a tragedy and scandal of nearly unimaginable proportions that has not only toppled and tarnished a coaching icon but also rightly cast critical attention on the dangers of our obsessions with college sports and our willingness to allow legendary coaches to become universities' most powerful persons.
The credibility of member schools and of the NCAA seems to be at an all-time low. Even the NCAA's newfound support for long-overdue reforms (allowing colleges to award players bigger grants and multi-year scholarships) has done little to quell public skepticism. And the ACC as we know it is about to morph into something else whose shape is still unclear.
Amid all this, it's at some level comforting to know that the local legends are still very much at the top of their game. Just 20 months removed from the most difficult season of Roy Williams' coaching career, North Carolina enters the season as the nearly unanimous No. 1 team nationally. Meanwhile, Mike Krzyzewski's ascension as major college basketball's all-time winningest men's coach put the early-season spotlight on the Duke coach's extraordinary career—and also showed the Blue Devils will again be a formidable outfit.
And over in Raleigh, hope springs eternal in the form of a new coach, Mark Gottfried, who has led his Wolfpack to some psychologically important victories to start the season.
Locally, then, the script feels all too familiar: Carolina taking a turn as the team to beat nationally, Duke regrouping with a new cast but still very much in the hunt, N.C. State trying to claw its way back to conference respect and national prominence. In short, a script similar to many others over the last 20 years, with the prime variation being which shade of blue has the upper hand in a given season.
Indeed, it could be a banner year for old school-style ACC basketball—and one given added visibility because of the NBA lockout. Tobacco Road just might provide the best-quality and most compelling basketball to be found at any level this season. And as long as the lockout persists, college games will be grabbing back newspaper inches and highlight reel minutes usually reserved for the pros.
Beyond that, the iconic programs at Carolina and Duke and the can't-be-hyped-enough rivalry between the two schools might well play a further role—that of propping up the tattered reputation of college athletics as a whole. Many people nationally are questioning just what it is that makes college sports worthwhile, and many fingers will be pointing in our general direction to provide an answer.
It could well be a great season. But it also could be one of the last hurrahs of a fading era. Roy Williams and Coach K probably have another five years left each, possibly a bit longer in Roy's case, but they aren't going to be around forever.
They will be around long enough, however, to help move the ACC into the terra incognita of the mega-conference. Syracuse and Pittsburgh are already on the way, and in time the league will surely have 16 members.
In the new mega-ACC, the Big Four schools will no longer be a driving force, but simply one faction among several. To be sure, it is a faction with outsize influence on the basketball front, but it is also a faction that is not as strong as it might be. N.C. State's basketball struggles, the recent collapse of Wake hoops, the increasingly bitter and poisonous nature of the Carolina-State football rivalry, the Carolina football scandal and the long-term irrelevance of Duke football all are weaknesses. It would be great if the Big Four schools both had a unity of purpose and if all the major programs were successful enough to command respect, but that's not the case right now.
Nonetheless, the 16-team format presents opportunities to actually strengthen the Big Four and restore the primacy of local rivalries. A natural way to organize a geographically diverse 16-team league when there aren't enough games to have symmetrical schedules is to divide into geographic groupings. In a 16-team ACC, going to an 18-game schedule in which each school played three permanent rivals twice a year and everyone else once has an intuitive appeal.
For instance, you might have the Big Four schools in one grouping, Clemson, Georgia Tech, Florida State and Miami in another grouping, as well as two further groupings in the north. Big Four schools, especially Wake, might find it appealing to restore home-and-home rivalries with one another, and the Syracuses, BCs and Pitts might find it a way to have some continuity with the bygone days of the old Big East.
Coach K ridiculed the idea of pods earlier in the fall, saying that the word "makes me vomit." Coach K might not be interested, but I suspect Mark Gottfried would consider winning a pod a pretty formidable achievement, and so might coaches at other programs not in the rarified air of the national top five.
I think Coach K should reconsider his stance. But the more important point is that Krzyzewski as well as Williams both have an obligation and an opportunity to use their golden years to preserve what has been great about Triangle college basketball for the last half century—and that they need to work together to do just that. What has made ACC basketball great is precisely the fierce competition of schools in close proximity who double as hated rivals and blood brothers, as well as the fact that not just Duke and Carolina but also State and Wake have had strong, nationally relevant programs along with great players. The withering of local rivalries that has already come up with expansion, along with the seemingly permanent class divisions between Duke and Carolina on one hand and everyone else on the other, are unhealthy trends that need to be reversed.
So enjoy this season while we can, and if you are a Duke or Carolina partisan, recognize that each remaining year with your legendary coach is one to be cherished. But if you are an (old school) ACC partisan, hope that those legends look beyond their own interests and exercise the leadership needed to assure the Tobacco Road tradition survives and thrives in the new era.
Correction (Nov. 29, 2011): The winningest coach in major NCAA basketball is Pat Summit of the University of Tennessee women's basketball, with 913 wins. Krzyzewski is the winningest men's coach.