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Remembering the pioneers who put ACC basketball on TV, national stage

Bob Holliday, WRALSportsFan contributorMarch 11, 2019
Raycom Sports has been broadcasting ACC basketball for 37 years.
Raycom Sports has been broadcasting ACC basketball for 37 years.

Wake Forest’s incoming Athletic Director John Currie knew exactly what to say to establish himself as an ACC guy. “I grew up on Tobacco Road,” Currie said at his introductory press conference. “Sailing with the Pilot every Wednesday night.”

Those Wednesday night games in the 1960s and ’70s were appointment television. So were the games on Saturday.

I was amazed when I first moved to ACC country in 1967 to discover that games were televised TWICE A WEEK!

Growing up in Kentucky and Wisconsin, radio was the primary medium. One company, TVS, produced Big Ten basketball on Saturday, but that was it.

By contrast, within the ACC footprint – which in that era extended from Clemson and Columbia, S.C., to College Park, Maryland, – folks could see games every Wednesday AND Saturday. Plus, the ACC always staged a conference basketball tournament, the only major conference then that held such a season-ending event. The tournament was always must-see TV, even if it meant missing work or class, and generations of Triangle fans grew up with that rite of spring.

When ESPN signed on in 1980, it found only limited competition across the country.

NBC at that point had been broadcasting college basketball for only a decade or so. The Peacock carried college basketball nationally on Saturday and some Sundays, plus the network aired the NCAA Tournament.

CBS only carried the NIT until taking the plunge into college basketball in a big way in 1982.

Occasionally a syndicator would put together a network of stations to carry one big game across portions of the country. I remember watching the 1968 UCLA-Houston game via syndication from the Astrodome. But in the 60s and 70s, all this paled in comparison to what Castleman DeTolley Chesley produced for the ACC consistently each and every year.

Chesley jumped in before anyone else. Sensing huge interest across the state of North Carolina for Frank McGuire’s undefeated Tar Heels, Chesley put together a five-station network to televise the 1957 NCAA men’s basketball semifinals and finals from Kansas City. Those epic games drew huge audiences and prompted Chesley to push to syndicate ACC games during the regular season in 1958.

(There was pushback from coaches, who feared television would hurt attendance. Au contraire! Television coverage increased interest and actually boosted attendance.)

How big were those games? I remember watching a 1971 telecast called by the late Woody Durham and one-time Clemson basketball coach Bobby Roberts. Toward the end of one tense tussle, Roberts said “Woody, I just don’t know what could be more important than these ACC basketball games. Unbelievable!”

The next week, Durham read live on the air a letter he had received from a Baptist minister, who began “Mr. Durham, I agree these ACC games are great, but I can think of one thing that’s more important.” The remainder of the letter was deeply religious in tone. What that TV moment said to me was that in the ACC, basketball is second only to God.

Chesley was quick to attract sponsors, not just that well-known insurance company in Greensboro (“Sail with the Pilot, at the wheel!”), but also Food Lion. For years Food Lion’s CEO Tom Smith served as talent for his company’s commercials. Smith bore a strong resemblance to a certain basketball coach at the University of Virginia. One Saturday when the Cavaliers visited Cameron Indoor Stadium, the entire Duke student section began chanting as Terry Holland walked in: “Food Lion, Food Lion, Food Lion!” That was evidence the Cameron Crazies watched games on the ACC’s over-the-air TV network like everyone else.

Sales were part of Chesley’s successful formula to be sure.

Managing production costs was another part of the formula. When I began working at UNC-TV as a student in 1969, I was astonished to learn that people and facilities from WUNC-TV, the UNC-TV network’s flagship station in Chapel Hill routinely handled the production of ACC games! John Young, the director of WUNC-TV, at least three key producer-directors and many of the WUNC floor crew – my fellow students – did the work required to put ACC basketball on television. Young directed many of the games himself, using WUNC’s mobile unit. The PDs all played key technical roles inside the mobile unit, which was really more like a bus than a truck like we would see today. My fellow students ran camera, set up lights for the talent and managed audio, not only the microphones of the game announcers, but also capturing natural sound emitted courtside. One exceptionally bright student even developed a parabolic microphone to improve courtside sound – the first of its kind if I remember correctly.

UNC-TV produced live newscasts, in which I took part, everyday at noon and six. As we prepared those newscasts, it was quite common to hear war stories from the producer-directors and floor crew who had taken part in the previous night’s 9 p.m. ACC basketball games, “the Chesleys” as we called them. I remember one rant from a Chesley regular still fuming 18 hours later about having to run cables through underground conduits at the Carolina Coliseum (as it was then known) in Columbia. This added a great deal of time to the set up and tear down of equipment for people who had day jobs in North Carolina they needed to get back to.

I don’t think the folks at home had any idea that the pictures and sound they enjoyed from ACC basketball were largely being done by students. On the flip side, you can imagine what a learning experience it was for the students, many of whom became stars in the field of television production. Several of them are still in the biz now 50 years later.

TV timeouts did not automatically occur in the ’60s and ’70s as they do today. Commercials could air during coach-called time outs, of course, but that still left some commercial inventory that needed outside intervention to make air. Chesley, known to all in the ACC as Chez, had to ASK for time out to be called. The ACC stationed its key basketball operations manager, Skeeter Francis, at the scorer’s table. He was linked to the production truck, but it was up to Francis to signal time out to the officials. And it was totally a judgment call on his part. This could get dicey during tight games. I’ll never forget hearing about one exchange between Chesley, director John Young, and Francis:

Play was soon stopped. Dean Smith once accused Francis of manipulating the timeouts to benefit his alma mater, Wake Forest. But those comments were made after a one-point UNC loss to NC State. Smith later apologized.

Chesley had a great sense for which games most deserved air time. He brought us the fierce North Carolina vs. South Carolina wars of 1969-1971. And they were wars. His cameras were there the day an unknown reserve named Fred Lind led Duke to a triple-overtime upset of North Carolina in 1968.

Chez put the spotlight on Charlie Davis and Wake Forest. “Woody, that was CD from downtown one more time,” Bobby Roberts would intone.

It’s only because of Chesley that we saw coach Vic Bubas’ last game in what was then known as Duke Indoor Stadium (of course the Blue Devils won); or the 1969 ACC Championship when Charlie Scott brought his UNC team from 15 points down in the second half; or the contentious 1970 ACC title game when Norm Sloan’s NC State Wolfpack stunned Frank McGuire’s Gamecocks in overtime; or the ’71 championship, when USC, in its last season as a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference, won the title on a freak basket off a jump ball. Yes, a jump ball.

And of course Chesley produced the greatest game ever played, NC State’s 103-100 overtime thriller against Maryland, where the Wolfpack and Terrapins ran up and down the floor, swapping jump shots and layups – even a few hook shots – at a staggering 60 percent clip. It was a game so intense it left even impartial observers emotionally drained. Many of these fans (to borrow a line from announcer Bill Currie) “had to go to the local watering hole and indulge in spirituous liquors just to get their hearts started.”

Chez hired great announcers to call these big games. Woody Durham was one of the first. Je had worked with Young at WUNC-TV. Chesley also brought in Jim Simpson and Jim Thacker, both of whom became nationally known. Former Wake Forest coach Bones McKinney was the first Chesley analyst I saw, later to be followed by his former star point guard Billy Packer, with Roberts, the former Clemson coach also working some games. Packer ultimately became known as the game’s pre-eminent analyst, not just in ACC territory but later on NBC and CBS as well.

About the time Packer went national, the ACC began sending teams to the Final Four on a regular basis. The ACC won just two NCAA Championships in its first 25 years, but starting with Duke’s trip to the Final Four in 1978, the league put together a remarkable run of NCAA success that continues to this day.

Packer traces the growth of the ACC to the ’70s, when Jim Thacker called play by play and the Thacker-Packer announcing team was part of the lexicon of every true ACC fan.

Packer said after Thacker’s death in 1992, “Thacker and C.D. Chesley had a lot to do with the credibility of the league. Other than the coaches and players,” Packer said, “Chesley and Thacker had as much to do with the growth of the ACC as anyone.”

Chesley, through the force of his personality, kept the rights fees low. They topped out at just $1 million in 1980.

Ultimately, ACC athletic directors wanted more money. In 1981 they sold the rights to Leonard Klompus and Metro Sports for $3 million. A year later the ACC’s schools put the rights up for bid again. Answering the call was Raycom and its partner Jefferson Productions.

That pairing proved to be the “Dream Team” for taking over-the-air coverage of ACC basketball to transcendent levels. On one side of the partnership you had Rick Ray, erstwhile program director at WRAL-TV, along with his wife Dee, entrepreneurial sorts who excelled at lining up local affiliates, selling advertising and managing the network; and on the other side, Jefferson Productions of Charlotte, later Jefferson Pilot Teleproductions after the Jefferson Standard Life Insurance Company of Charlotte and the Pilot Life Insurance Company of Greensboro joined forces in 1987.

JP brought production know-how not previously seen in ACC basketball, with a state-of-the-art production truck plus dozens of specialists in the areas of audio, video, technology and engineering. Television in the ’80s and ’90s needed all of these, as viewers demanded better audio and more interesting camera shots, not to mention more use of video replay. Engineering was important too – equipment failure, weather issues – those things happen, and engineers keep the picture coming.

TV partners Raycom and JP, after various mergers and acquisitions recognized simply as Raycom, have come a long way.

Fast forward about four decades to the 2018 ACC Tournament in Brooklyn. Raycom’s highly polished open paid homage to the past with the “Sail with the Pilot” jingle and a few clips of great moments in ACC history, then morphed into the Imagine Dragons’ “Whatever It Takes.” The inter-connection of ACC hoops action shots and high-level music video production resulted in one of the finest beginnings to a sports broadcast I have ever seen.

Commercial style has evolved as well. From the traditional Tom Smith Food Lion spots of the 80s, we now have the Bojangles commercials of today, produced on the spot when the Raycom crew finds fans having a Bojangles tailgate and rolls tape. No fancy editing or pre-production required.

Raycom and its predecessors have focused, really, exclusively on the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Unlike ESPN, which is also outstanding, but with a different audience and different mission, Raycom’s announcers speak singularly about the game viewers are seeing. There is no talk radio-style discussion of the controversial issues of the day unless they relate to the game we are watching. Games on the over-the-air network are not a platform for promoting UCF competition, SportsCenter or any of ESPN’s charitable causes, important and well-intentioned as they may be.

Also, while ESPN has made enormous strides in hiring play-by-play announcers and especially analysts who know what the ACC is all about – Jay Bilas, Debbie Antonelli, Cory Alexander, Jay Williams – I always see or hear nuggets in a Wes Durham/Dan Bonner broadcast or a Tim Brando/Mike Gminski call that are homegrown and special to the ACC footprint. Durham, Bonner and Gminski have all lived ACC basketball since the 70s. That really can’t be replicated.

Announcers like working for Raycom. Brando, who has called games and done studio work for CBS and Fox, seems to relish the chance to call some ACC regular season and tournament games. Bonner, who through the years has enjoyed stints with ESPN and CBS as well as Raycom, told me that the over-the-air network’s chief operating officer, Jimmy Rayburn, “is the best executive I’ve ever worked for.”

Part of the appeal for an over-the-air network revolves around the affiliates. Raycom, through time, has become the largest regionally syndicated over-the-air network in America, now with more than 100 stations. With the evolution of cable TV and perhaps even internet streaming, we will never see its like again.

WRAL became a Raycom affiliate in 1982. From the station’s standpoint, affiliating with Raycom and ACC basketball has brought prestige, a bit of advertising revenue and some highly rated programming; and notice I said “some” highly rated programming as not all games draw big audiences. But quite a few do.

From the ACC’s perspective, the conference gets an extra bounce from affiliates, especially big stations like WBTV Charlotte, WGHP in the Triad and WRAL. The stations promote upcoming televised games for several days. That gives more visibility to the league. Additionally, stations have sports departments that cover the games. Pregame coverage on local affiliates draws viewers to the Raycom telecasts. And often the games will cycle viewers back around to the late news, which will include postgame coverage.

This symbiotic relationship works best during the ACC Tournament, and this week marks the last time that annual event will be available on over-the-air television. Affiliates carry games all afternoon, then break for news between sessions. WRAL typically sends a half dozen people or more for live reports showcasing events on the court and giving glimpses of the fan experience. The tournament night games follow the news. The games then lead directly to the late news.

Viewers who watch the games and the WRAL coverage may learn more about what transpired at the tournament than some of the folks who watch the games in person.

It was a special thrill for me to report live from the tournament on a station that was carrying the games. I’ll never forget the great Charlotte blizzard of 1993 and the challenges of that day. The snowstorm knocked out power to the coliseum for 28 minutes. Later in the afternoon, UNC’s Derrick Phelps suffered a nasty fall and had to be taken to the hospital for evaluation. The ambulance carrying Phelps ran over WRAL’s cable, putting the evening live reports in jeopardy. Our engineers replaced that cable just in the nick of time.

In 2001, WRAL broadcast live in high definition from the ACC Tournament in Atlanta. To be live in HD from the vast Georgia Dome, which of course is no longer with us, was pretty incredible – a thrill of a lifetime kind of moment.

Many local Raycom affliliates across North Carolina typically do extended news coverage at the tournament. Add all that coverage together and it’s a bonanza for the ACC.

This coverage will continue of course, even as the over-the-air network bows out and the new ACC cable network signs on. But for the longtime Raycom affiliates and some viewers, it won’t be the same.

After WRAL began broadcasting in high definition, I frequently prodded Raycom’s Executive Producer Rob Reichley to upgrade the network signal. Reichley explained that most Raycom affiliates did not broadcast in HD so it didn’t make sense. But as HD became the standard, Raycom invested heavily in the new technology, including a new state-of-the-art production truck. The Raycom picture quality is as good as it gets. Certainly Raycom’s HD replays (as well as ESPN’s) have proven quite helpful to officials in determining whether, for example, the ball left a player’s hand before time expired.

The Raycom pool of commentators remains strong as well. Woody Durham, Jim Simpson and Jim Thacker set the bar high for play-by-play in those early years under C.D. Chesley. Raycom maintained the standard, bringing in Mike Patrick and Brad Nessler among others. Both of those men would become prominent nationally, but their careers began in the ACC.

Today Raycom games are in the capable hands of Tom Werme and Evan Lepler, with Brando doing games when his national schedule permits. And Wes Durham, of course. I do like the symmetry of Wes’ father being one of the first ACC over-the-air announcers. Now Wes will be among the last. I recently saw Wes calling a game on ESPNU. Going forward, we need announcers with Wes’ immense knowledge of ACC history calling ACC games.

The Big Ten, PAC 12 and SEC, already have their own revenue-generating cable channels. The per-institution revenue share in these conferences well exceeds what ACC teams now earn, but the August launch of the new ACC Network should close the gap. I have seen forecasts this new venture may increase per-school distributions in the ACC by $10 million, possibly even $15 million. Ironically, $15 million represents the entire bid Raycom made back in 1982 to become the ACC’s rights holder.

The new ACC Network will be exciting. It will carry some compelling games – all in one place, all on the same channel. ACC contests will continue to run on the ESPN family of networks, but the remainder will fill the afternoon and evening on the ACC Network, produced by ESPN. I’m sure the between-game coverage will be strong, with game analysis, conversations about the stories of the day and player features. Also, Olympic sports will benefit. The new network’s 24/7 hour inventory will offer opportunities for live TV broadcasts of sports like soccer, baseball, field hockey and many more, in addition to the video streaming already taking place.

But the cable channel is still a few months down the road. What should now be front and center for ACC fans is this last hurrah for Raycom.

Did you see the segment the network aired during the ACC Women’s Tournament paying tribute to the late Mike Hogewood?

That was emblematic of the special touches Raycom always seems to apply in giving recognition to people and events that have helped shape the ACC.

They will do this final ACC Men’s Basketball Tournament up right, with a great video open, lots of spine-tingling clips from past games, scenes from the Queen City of Charlotte, and of course, great camera work, use of replay and production values, and announcer commentary. But this is it – the last time to see the ACC Tournament on over-the-air TV after 62 years of an amazing partnership among the ACC, Chesley and Raycom.

Raycom’s COO Jimmy Rayburn says, “That over-the-air legacy will live on, and I hope they miss it. I know I’ll miss it.”

I will too, Jimmy. I will too.

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