DEAN E. SMITH CENTER/CHAPEL HILL—I spent some time yesterday morning reading about Len Bias, the most (in)famous player in the history of Maryland basketball. I was thinking about Lefty Driesell, and Buck Williams, and Albert King, and Walt "The Wizard" Williams, and if you don't know who those people are you're helping to prove a point, massing here and illustrated thus:
After UNC beat Maryland, 75-63, in one of the more boring games I've attended in quite some time (over early, in retrospect, after the Tar Heels raced out to an early 19-3 lead and then milked it for 35 minutes), Carolina head coach Roy Williams gave his five minutes to the media, looking quite ready to get out of there as quickly as possible, i.e. he was folding up and pocketing his stat sheet even as he was giving his final answer to a question, which if I recall was about his latest dizzy spell. Jokes were made about his spins, Roy was in fine fettle—why wouldn't he be, after his left-for-dead team won its fourth straight game?—and just seconds after he departed, in came Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon.
Turgeon happens to be one of Williams' former assistants at Kansas, and Maryland was playing its last game in Chapel Hill as a (charter!) member of the Atlantic Coast Conference. So there was plenty to ask him about beyond the game itself.
But college sports, big-time as they have grown, are really still very provincial, to the point of something close to myopia. As Turgeon came to the podium, nearly the entire press contingent stampeded out of the media room to go into the UNC clubhouse and interview the Tar Heels' players. Turgeon quipped, "Where you guys going?"
This got neither the laughter it was intended to get nor the decision to (come to think of it) stay and listen to him, on the part of the Tar Heel media mob.
I stayed behind. I was curious to hear what Turgeon might have on his mind, generally more piqued as I am by the experienced thoughts of grownup head coaches than by the musings of 19-year-olds, even gifted athletic ones. Maryland's departure from the ACC is historic, far more so (I think) than the arrival of Syracuse, Pitt, Notre Dame and the other schools that will inevitably join in the current musical chairs that is college athletics.
But Turgeon didn't have much on his mind, either. There wasn't all that much to say about the game, and it was pretty clear that while some of us had Len Bias on our minds, most of Terrapin Station has moved on without much reflection on the meaning, if there is one, of leaving the conference it helped inaugurate decades ago. Turgeon is a pretty new coach in this program, and his attachment to the ACC is relatively short and vestigial. Why should he care, really, about Maryland's emigration from the ACC to the Big Ten? Even Terrell Stoglin and Alex Len, big deals two years ago, are already fading into oblivion (Len, a lottery pick, now backs up former Duke center Miles Plumlee in Phoenix), to say nothing of the great Greivis Vasquez. College sports are in a constant state of renewal and its accompanying forgetfulness, as not only the stars move on but the undergrads who cheered them on. When Turgeon asked, "Where you guys going?" with a sort of casual, jocular leer, we could have asked Maryland the same question, in the same way.
It's remarkable not that Maryland is leaving, but that the ACC retained seven of its eight bedrock schools as long as it did. With the NCAA struggling to hold itself together, why should its constituent leagues do any differently? Last night's game was appropriately uneventful in light of the non-event that is Maryland going midwestward-ho. Certainly the electric, instant-classic Syracuse-Duke game in the Carrier Dome over the weekend made it quite clear that great rivalries can arise ex nihilo out of sheer competitive excellence. They don't require decades of ballast. Let Maryland move on, let the Big East move in. These are homogenizing, homewrecking times.
There are many, many reminders that college athletics walk a very uncomfortable line between grownups and kids, pros and amateurs. The handful of reporters who stayed behind to listen to Turgeon talk last night were mostly students from (presumably) the University of Maryland's campus newspaper—it's not just "student-athletes" getting some sort of sports education here, it's student-reporters (and student-cheerleaders, student-interns and so on). A whole set of auxiliary industries are dragged along on the underside of this listing, unwieldy NCAA ship.
One of the cub reporters asked Turgeon a question: Why, given how frequently the referees were blowing their whistles last night (the teams combined to shoot 57 free throws) didn't the Terrapins put greater emphasis on driving the ball to the basket against North Carolina in order to draw fouls and get to the free throw line more often? Turgeon fixed the kid with a withering glare and replied, "We were going to the basket. We were driving. You might want to watch the film."
Seconds later, Turgeon's few media minutes ended, and the mildly (dis?)abused kid reporter and his small cohort got up to leave, as did Turgeon. When the little cloud of junior journalists before me dispersed, Turgeon was already gone—like Maryland itself, vanished from the ACC in an unceremonious puff of amateur indifference. Where you guys going?
As for UNC, where are you guys going? And, in the interest of rehabilitating Bob Dylan, whose reputation took quite a hit over Super Bowl weekend (pace those who would scold him; it's the ad that's bad, not Dylan for doing it), and in the interest of age-appropriate address: Where have you been, my blue-clad sons?
In the Carolina clubhouse, the darling young ones looked happy and calm again, two or three weeks (and four wins) removed from the pall of their 0-3 start in conference play. Star sophomore guard Marcus Paige had a sensational second half last night, shouldering virtually the Tar Heels' entire load himself—his extraordinary, twisting reverse layup was no. 8 among ESPN's Top Ten plays of the day—and Carolina probably would have lost the game, by a wide margin, without him. In the clubhouse, he sat in his customary spot in the corner by the computer printers, forthcoming and bright and polite as a valedictorian. The talented, thoughtful, endearing Paige answered a clatter of questions for what seemed like half an hour before a UNC Sports Department elder cleared out the gaggle of reporters: "Marcus has an early class tomorrow." (So maybe the NCAA could consider instituting, you know, a rule that releases him from having to talk to the media at all?) Meanwhile, freshman center Kennedy Meeks regarded his audience of reporters with the fixed, mischievous, waggish smile of an amused kid who is perpetually expecting someone to say or do something funny at any moment—and if not, he'll say or do it himself.
How young they all are! You can tell even before you talk to them. In the corridor between the media room and the clubhouse, Roy Williams, just minutes removed from his professional obligations to the media, was holding up what appeared to be ear buds or some other cord accessory. He flagged down an aide: "Hey Clint! I think this is Isaiah's or Jackson's," Williams said, referring to UNC forwards Isaiah Hicks and Jackson Simmons. Williams was waving the cord above his head, like a beset but patient foster parent who isn't sure which of his kids left his iPod cord lying around and now is left to move through life vulnerably unsoundtracked, woebegone. What did you hear, my blue-clad sons?
The answers are simple: Where the Tar Heels have been is trawling the second division of the ACC, in which they themselves are denizens, downing downmarket teams like Boston College and Georgia Tech and Maryland on their way to four straight wins, a winning ACC record (5-4, 15-7 overall), and replenished respectability in a weak, diluted conference. Where they are going is into a harder rain: on the road to Notre Dame, which is not onerous but certainly not easy—the Irish beat Duke, after all—and only a prelude to really tough games against Pittsburgh and Duke. We'll know more about how good Carolina truly is after those three outcomes. Not as good as four straight wins make them look, that's for sure.
Put it this way, and in terms of fire, not water: When I walked out of the Dean Dome after last night's game, a dormitory up on the hill above the arena was in a riot of flashing walkway lights and blaring alarms—a fire drill was in progress. These last four games have really just been a warning, a walk-through for the real trial by fire to come. I vividly recall a fire marshal visiting a building I once worked in, in New York City, long ago. He used deft, seasoned, knowing, effortless comedy to warn us of the lethal dangers of smoke and fire. I'll never forget the way he showed us how to test a door for heat before opening it onto what could be fatal fire: you backhand it, push it away from you. With his practiced, captivating, Noo Yawk routine, he could get through to everyone—everyone except young guys like me, he said. "Young guys," he smiled, "think they don't burn."