by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

the nation’s “big five” college sports conferences, none has transformed as much over the years as the ACC. Since its inception in 1953, the league is barely recognizable from its original form. The biggest change in the composition of the membership has occurred over the past decade, when the conference has almost doubled in size from nine schools, as late as 2004, to its current membership of 16 (which includes Notre Dame’s full participation in all non-football sports, and its partial alignment on the gridiron).

Concurrently, the ACC has accumulated a lot more football tradition, and not only if we wish to include the storied history of the Fighting Irish. Recent additions Pitt and Syracuse also have plenty of noteworthy gridiron history. As does Boston College, though most of the Eagles’ glory days have occurred in rather-recent memory (if 30+ years qualifies as “rather recent”) and within the “modern-era” of TGS publishing.

But we believe one of the more-overlooked stories in ACC lore involves first school that actually left the fold. And, 44 years later, there are still those who wonder how sports history in the region might have changed had South Carolina not decided to depart the league in 1971.

At its inception, the ACC was a tidy regional alliance spawned mostly by a defection from the old version of the Southern Conference (a league that still exists today), which banned its members from participating in bowl games. With the postseason football ban as a motivator, seven schools (Duke, North Carolina, NC State, Wake Forest, Maryland, Clemson, and South Carolina) withdrew from the SoCon on May 8, 1953, and created the ACC, making the second conference formed by schools collectively withdrawing from the SoCon after the SEC had formed after doing the same in 1932. By December of 1953, Virginia was added to the ACC member list.

Though the conference spanned four mid-Atlantic states, the power base of the league always remained with the North Carolina-based institutions. Indeed, the “Tobacco Road” schools would always possess the most influence and effectively dictate conference policies, which did not exactly endear the North Carolina entries to conference members in other states.

By the late '60s, not surprisingly, there was division forming within the ranks. Those fissures were mostly related to academic restrictions placed upon the league schools, guidelines again rammed through conference committees by the North Carolina schools. At its core was an arbitrary minimum requirement for all ACC recruits, specifically an SAT score of 800 or better. While admirable, it also caused plenty of consternation at several league outposts, who knew that the NCAA guidelines of the day required only a 650 SAT minimum. The latter requirement, adhered to by the nearby SEC and many other leagues, often put ACC members (some more than others) at a disadvantage on the recruiting trail.

Those restrictions hit hardest at the outlying schools such as South Carolina, Clemson, and Maryland, who would routinely recruit head-to-head with members of the SEC and other leagues, more so than the North Carolina schools, which for the most part would recruit within state boundaries. South Carolina, in particular, would become increasingly incensed, losing several big-time football recruits to the likes of nearby Georgia and Tennessee, specifically because of the enhanced SAT requirements. Clemson, and to a lesser degree Maryland, were also disenchanted by the SAT restrictions.

South Carolina, however, was operating in a slightly different sphere in that era, largely because of two strong-willed sorts who were controlling the athletic program. None were more influential than football head coach and AD Paul Dietzel (right), who had a willing accomplice in the direction of the Gamecock athletic department with influential basketball coach Frank McGuire. Both were major figures in the era and their desires, and concerns, for their respective teams would both intersect and forge a major policy decision that would shake the core of the ACC and the future of South Carolina sports for decades to come.

Dietzel had arrived at Columbia in 1966 after a somewhat disappointing four-year stretch at Army that would unfortunately coincide with the early stages of the Vietnam War, which would subsequently hamper the service academy teams (West Point and Annapolis in particular) for the duration of the conflict. Dietzel had arrived at West Point amid much fanfare after a decorated run at LSU that included a national title in 1958, a Heisman winner (Billy Cannon) in 1959, and several bowl games and All-American players. Even with Army still a factor on the national football scene in the early ‘60s, it had ceded the gridiron limelight to schools such as LSU, so the arrival of Dietzel was thought to be a coup at West Point.  Eventually, however, the same wanderlust that prompted Dietzel to leave Baton Rouge at the height of his success would also trigger his departure from Army to South Carolina four years later.

At the outset, Dietzel had his problems with a Gamecock program that had deteriorated under predecessor Marvin Bass, who failed to record a winning record in five seasons as head coach. In fact, Dietzel’s first Gamecock team finished 1-9 in 1966, but by 1969 had climbed up the ACC table and would win the league title for the first (and only) time in league history with a team paced by scrappy jr. QB Tommy Suggs and a rugged sr. FB, "Cowboy" Warren Muir, who ran for a team-best 969 yards.  The Cocks would finish a perfect 6-0 in league play and earn an invitation to the Atlanta Peach Bowl, which made its debut the year before and in those days was played at Georgia Tech’s Grant Field. It was only the second-ever bowl invitation for SC, which had lost to Wake Forest in the 1946 Gator Bowl in its only previous postseason appearance.

The weather on the December 30 night at Atlanta came up atrocious, however, as buckets of rain turned the field into a quagmire for the game vs. West Virginia. In his final game before departing to Texas Tech (and to be replaced in Morgantown by none other than Bobby Bowden), Mountaineer HC Jim Carlen pulled a neat trick and installed the Wishbone offense specifically for the game and the awful conditions. Keeping the ball on the ground, WVU was able to chew up 365 rushing yards, 208 of those on a whopping 35 carries by little-used FB Eddie Williams, who had toted the pigskin only 53 times the entire regular season. The rainy conditions would wreak havoc with Dietzel’s offense and QB Suggs, who managed 126 passing yards but could not grip the ball properly. A last-minute TD dive by FB Jim Braxton would seal the Mountaineers’ 14-3 win.

Dietzel, however, was hardly discouraged. Rather, he was emboldened by the possibilities of football at South Carolina, which he and many believed to be on the upswing and a possible dominant run in the ACC.

Only Dietzel was not particularly happy with the recruiting restrictions placed upon his football team by the ACC. Meanwhile, McGuire had also assembled a hoops powerhouse, luring several players from his old stomping grounds in New York. McGuire, who had earlier coached at St. John’s and for one season (1961-62) in the NBA with the Philadelphia Warriors when Wilt Chamberlain would set some never-to-be-touched individual marks, including his epic 100-point game vs. the Knicks at Hershey, PA (reviewed on these pages in the 2013-14 publishing season), also had great success at North Carolina, coaching the Tar Heels to the 1957 national title when beating Wilt’s Kansas team in an unforgettable 3-OT thriller.

Yet while at Chapel Hill,  McGuire would also draw the ire of influential Duke AD Eddie Cameron, who was not about to put aside his old animosity when McGuire returned to the ACC as South Carolina’s coach in 1964.

Cameron, a driving force in the formation of the ACC, was also the chairman of the conference’s basketball tourney, in those days the only such event in major college hoops and one that would prove a thorn in the side of McGuire, who realized his Gamecocks were forever condemned to be outsiders with the coterie of Tobacco Road decision-makers, who would always decide to hold the ACC Tourney somewhere in North Carolina, bouncing the event between Raleigh, Greensboro, and Charlotte. Remember, in those days, there were no at-large invitations to the NCAA Tourney, as the lone ACC rep would be determined by the conference tourney.

McGuire’s feud with Duke intensified in the mid ‘60s when top recruit Mike Grosso, a 6'9 post threat from New Jersey and rated by some as the second-best recruit in the nation behind Lew Alcindor, was denied eligibility after enrolling at South Carolina due to academic issues raised by Duke and McGuire’s old enemy Eddie Cameron. Grosso would transfer to Louisville and become a force on some strong Cardinals teams before a brief career in the pros. But McGuire’s relationship with ACC administrators was strained thereafter, resulting in constant bickering with league officials.

McGuire would finally reach his own breaking point in the 1969-70 season when his team would rank among the nation’s best. The Gamecocks, led by one of McGuire’s New Yorkers, G John Roche, roared through ACC regular-season play a perfect 14-0 while ascending to number three in the polls. These Gamecocks were being mentioned as one of the best teams in league history, and certainly a threat for national honors along with Kentucky and UCLA, the 1-2 teams in the rankings entering March.

As usual, however, the conference tourney would be held in North Carolina, at Charlotte, and the nervous Gamecocks had avoided a major upset when escaping Clemson's stalling tactics to squeeze out a 34-33 win in the quarterfinals before dispatching Wake Forest 79-63 in the semis, although Roche suffered an injured ankle vs. the Demon Deacons and was hampered in the finale.

As it had done in an underdog role in past ACC Tourneys, Norm Sloan's NC State would slow the pace to a crawl in the title game, and thanks to late free throws by Richard Anheuser, pulled a 42-39 overtime shocker that sent the Gamecocks into a deep depression, because they would also be denied participation in the NIT because of an odd Draconian NCAA rule that didn't allow schools to participate in the NIT if hosting an NCAA Regional event, which that season included Columbia. One of SC's star players, and another New Yorker, Bobby Cremins (you've heard of him, right?), was so crestfallen that he literally disappeared for a couple of weeks thereafter, hiding out somewhere in the Smoky Mountains before confronting society again.

McGuire was simultaneously deflated and incensed, believing that the silly conference tourney in hostile territory had denied his best SC team a shot in the Big Dance. Meanwhile, Dietzel was getting more agitated at ACC regulations on the football side that would deny entrance to an in-state star from Sumter, the electric RB-WR Freddie Solomon, who would instead matriculate at the University of Tampa.

Solomon would prove one of the last straws for Dietzel, who had decided that the ACC was no longer a proper fit for the Gamecocks. He had a supporter in McGuire, who was also fed up after years of feuds on the hoops side.

With anger at the ACC bubbling, and not always under the surface, for several years, the powerful AD Dietzel would suggest a move to independent status. “We can become the Notre Dame of the South!,” exclaimed the AD/football coach, and South Carolina’s days in the ACC would soon come to an end.

Not, however, before McGuire would deliver a Gamecock parting gift to the ACC. In his first 14 tries at the ACC Tourney, McGuire’s North and South Carolina teams had won the event just once, with his 1957 Tar Heel NCAA champs. At least until what would be his last South Carolina team to compete in the league in 1971. For that '71 ACC Tourney at Greensboro, the Cocks would once again advance to the final, this time vs. Dean Smith’s North Carolina. In a taut game, the Tar Heels would hold the lead for most of the second half before missing 8 of 11 free throws in the final five minutes. UNC would nonetheless still cling to a 51-50 lead with just 6 seconds to play and a jump ball at its own end of the court, with 6'10 Heel C Lee Dedmon tipping vs. Cock G Kevin Joyce, 7 inches shorter. Dedmon controlled the tip alright, but knocked it backwards toward UNC's own bucket, where a surprised SC C Tom Owens picked up the ball and laid it in for a 52-51 win!

(It still stands as the state's only win in the conference tourney, though now much more the fault of Clemson, which has been competing as the Palmetto's State's only ACC representative for 40-plus years since the Gamecocks left the fold.)

That was it for South Carolina and the ACC. Dietzel, with McGuire’s hearty endorsement, had decided to ditch the league and for the Gamecocks to go it alone as an independent. On June 30, 1971, the move became official, and South Carolina had departed the ACC.

At the time, there was suspicion that Clemson and Maryland might follow the same path, though neither would abandon the league (until, in the Terps’ case, they would jump to the Big Ten in 2014). Shortly after the Gamecocks bolted from the ACC, the Tigers would cause internal conflicts of their own when two of their recruits would sue the school and conference due to the higher SAT minimums and projected 1.6 frosh GPA guidelines, and a federal judge would soon wipe out the ACC’s more-stringent requirements.

No matter, Duke, Virginia, and Wake Forest would continue to adhere to the older policy for the next decade and mostly suffer on the gridiron as a result, while Clemson, North Carolina, NC State, and Maryland would begin to recruit more borderline academic types who helped significantly on the gridiron and created a wide gap between the haves and have-nots of ACC football into the '80s.

As for South Carolina? The irony of the ACC soon relaxing its entrance requirements shortly after the Gamecock departure from the league was not lost upon regional observers, though there were other factors at work in the exit of SC, which figured it would always be an outsider in the ACC, never to be allowed into the "inner circle” of the Tobacco Road schools that would dictate league policy.

The adventure as an independent, however, was hardly a success for the Gamecocks. Dietzel’s football slates were still dotted with ACC foes for the next few seasons and it would be several years before the program would begin scheduling outside of its region. After the 1974 campaign, and failing to return to a bowl since the '69 season, Dietzel would resign from SC, and focus solely upon administrative duties thereafter, first as commissioner of the Ohio Valley Conference, then as AD at Indiana, LSU, and finally Samford before retiring in 1987.

(Interestingly, Dietzel would be replaced as football coach by the same Jim Carlen who coached the 1969 West Virginia win over Dietzel's Gamecocks in the Peach Bowl.)

There were a few highlights during the "indie" football years, such as star RB George Rogers winning the Heisman Trophy in 1980 for a Carlen team that would reach the Gator Bowl.  The program also rallied for a brief period in the mid '80s under HC Joe Morrison, reaching as high as number two in the polls in 1984, but would not win a bowl game until the 1994 season under HC Brad Scott.

As for McGuire, his teams never again approached their prowess of the early ‘70s and last couple of seasons in the ACC. The Gamecocks achieved modest success as an independent for the remainder of the ‘70s, qualifying for a handful of Big Dances in the years immediately following the departure from the ACC, but declining gradually thereafter.  SC would not again be a serious national contender on the hoops side for the  duration of the McGuire era, which concluded after the 1979-80 season.

The itch to get back into a league had some roadblocks, not the least of which was the school's unique administrative policy of the '70s wherein each sport had its own AD (and thus, for a time, insulating McGuire, who was facing a growing chorus of critics but retained authoritarian control of the basketball program), discouraging potential suitors. Eventually, the Gamecocks joined other independent entries in the formation of the basketball Metro Conference in 1983, but too many bridges had been burned with the ACC to reconsider a move back into that league.

Meanwhile, football remained independent for another nine years.  By 1992, however, the Gamecocks, along with Arkansas, would join the SEC, and begin another chapter that continues to this day.

In retrospect, it is fair to speculate what might have happened to the Gamecocks had they remained in the ACC. Regional insiders have never quite agreed about what would have transpired on the football side, especially since other schools in the loop would ascend on the gridiron in the ‘70s. But consensus around the mid-Atlantic is that the real victim of the move to independent status was McGuire’s basketball program, which save for a brief rally under Eddie Fogler in the late ‘90s has not been a national factor in the four-plus decades since.

All idle speculation, however, and only a historical footnote for modern-day South Carolina fans and the present-day ESPN generation that only knows of the Gamecocks as an SEC entry. For oldtime South Carolina supporters, however, there will always remain a “what if” had Dietzel and McGuire not decided to chart a different, non-ACC course for the Gamecock program.

Sports history in the region might have been written differently.

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