Tuesday, March 7, 2017

He Made ACC Basketball A Weekly Appointment

Note: This story was originally published on March 8, 2003, in the Greensboro News and Record as a kickoff to the 50th Atlantic Coast Conference men's basketball championship. If you grew up in the 1970s, you knew the name C.D. Chesley and you could hum the Jefferson Pilot's "Sail with the Pilot" jingle. You probably also had Holly Farms chicken for dinner. You can thank Chesley's pioneering vision for producing live syndicated programming for the Mid-Atlantic region's love of basketball. And schools can thank him for the millions of dollars they receive each year in television rights.

When Chesley stopped producing games in 1979, the ACC received about $1 million for television rights to broadcast basketball games. When this story was written, it received about $28 million for basketball only.

Last summer, the ACC signed a 20-year deal with ESPN that includes the launch of the ACC Network in 2019. There's no real way to predict what the monetary worth of that contract is, but last year each of the ACC's 15 schools received approximately $20 million in television rights fees.

Landmark Communications, © 2003

In a peaceful spot near the foot of Grandfather Mountain sits a small cemetery where a former college football player rests, with hardly a clue that his life's work did as much as anyone to feed the passion of Atlantic Coast Conference basketball.

Castleman DeTolley ``C.D.' Chesley never played the game. His only association with an ACC school was the one year he spent playing freshman football at North Carolina, before he transferred to the University of Pennsylvania, where he became the football team's captain and a showman in the school's traveling comedy troupe.

But no one exposed ACC basketball to more people than Chesley, thanks to his pioneering efforts as an executive producer in mostly regional broadcasts to an insatiable audience.

Castleman D. Chesley
(Photo by Hugh Morton)
Until his contract with the league ended, somewhat bitterly, in 1981, Chesley spent 24 years helping viewers ``Sail with the Pilot' as the league and Jefferson Pilot insurance established a foothold with millions of devoted followers.

Perhaps more importantly, Chesley's broadcasts reached scores of the nation's best basketball recruits, who were excited about the notion of playing their games on television, long before the 24-hour cable networks made college basketball as ubiquitous as Carolina pines.

"There is no doubt that the reason the ACC kept getting the best talent, year after year, was because of all those games on television,' said former ACC Commissioner Gene Corrigan. ``If you think kids like being on television now, you can imagine what it was like back then, when there was only one or two games on a week?"

Chesley began his television career producing regional football games, and he kept his hand in that for years with Sunday morning replays of Notre Dame games with Lindsay Nelson and Paul Hornung as the announcers. But in 1956, when the NCAA took over the broadcasting rights for all games, Cheley had to find something other than live football broadcasts to put on the air.

He happened to have many contacts in the South, thanks to his previous job as an assistant athletics director at Penn, influential administrators such as Duke's Eddie Cameron and North Carolina's Chuck Erickson.

In 1957, Chesley was enthralled by Frank McGuire's unbeaten UNC basketball team, and when the Tar Heels made it to the Final Four in Kansas City, Missouri, he hastily put together a five-station network in North Carolina to air the games. That was a huge stroke of fortune for Chesley and the ACC: Both Tar Heels games went into triple overtime and a captivated audience discovered that the excitement that they rarely saw in person translated perfectly onto their 8-inch Magnavox screens.

Some say the religion of ACC basketball was born on the night North Carolina beat Kansas and Wilt Chamberlain for the league's first NCAA Championship in basketball.

In 1958, Chesley began producing a weekly Saturday telecast of games between ACC teams, and the entire region had a new weekly appointment on their mental PDAs.

Initially, coaches were against televising games, figuring it would cut into attendance. What they didn't count on was the fact that watching the games at home made many more fans yearn to attend.

Chesley also produced other televised events, besides Notre Dame replays and ACC basketball. He helped organize the first Liberty Bowl, when it was played in Philadelphia. Local fans might remember that he broadcast regional coverage of the Greater Greensboro Open and the Miss North Carolina Pageant, when it was held in Greensboro.

But it was Chesley's broadcast of ACC basketball games that had a lasting impact. He started small, but in 1973 he went national with a patchwork network that broadcast the N.C. State-Maryland game on Super Bowl Sunday, the game that made David Thompson a national star.

"His place in the history of ACC basketball is phenomenal," said UNC broadcaster Woody Durham, who worked for Chesley as a student in the early 1960s, when games were produced out of an old, converted Trailways bus. "Getting the sport out there in front of the public... We all knew how exciting ACC basketball was, but here was a guy who came along and let the public see it."

Unwittingly, Chesley also helped lure some of the nation's best talent to the ACC stage.

"His idea of taking the league and exposing it, in the quality way that he did, it really put the ACC in a special category," said broadcaster Billy Packer, who got his first job in television from Chesley by accident because Dan Daniels didn't show up for a game. "He had a great deal to do with that, because of his exposure, the ability of the league to recruit beyond its natural territories, way beyond any other conference."

Chesley's broadcasts weren't flashy, but they were well-done. He had a corps of knowledgeable analysts, from Daniels to Charlie Harville to Jim Simpson to the incomparable pairing of Packer and Jim Thacker.

By the 1970s, Chesley was doing two league games per week and ACC officials were ready to expand that schedule. Chesley didn't really want to, figuring more games would dilute his product.

By the early '80s, several other production companies were clamoring to buy the rights to televise ACC basketball, and willing to pay more than the $1 million a year the league got from Chesley.

Chesley's final year of producing games was 1981, when Lenny Klompus' MetroSports of Rockville, Md., spent $3 million for the television rights for one season. The next season, RayCom Sports of Charlotte paid $15 million for the rights for three years and began syndicating multiple games per week, a forerunner to the deals the league has since had with the major networks, ESPN and Fox Sports Net.

Chesley died in April 1983, from the effects of Alzheimer's disease, just weeks after N.C. State won the ACC's second consecutive national championship. He would likely find it hard to imagine that the league is now paid more than $28 million per year in TV rights fees and he would likely be distressed that nearly every game played by the league's nine schools is on television somewhere.

But such is his creation.

"He put ACC basketball on the map, about 10 years ahead of everyone else," said Hugh Morton, Chesley's longtime friend. "And they are still trying to catch up."

Saturday, February 25, 2017

When NC State Canceled its Senior Day Game

College students were throwing rocks at an elected official, shouting him down when he tried to talk, cursing as a heavily armed police escort whisked him away into the cold, dark night.

In their eyes, the arrogant official had overstepped his bounds and unjustly broke up their mostly peaceful assembly.

Another modern protest of campus snowflakes? Nope. It was the birth of ACC basketball passion.

The ironic thing, of course, was this was a Southern Conference game, scheduled between two old rivals, NC State and North Carolina, in a regular-season finale 70 years ago today.

The two teams were uncommonly good. The season before North Carolina played for the NCAA championship. NC State had already assured itself of its first ever Southern Conference regular-season title, but the Red Terrors were eager to bury the White Phantoms (the nicknames of choice for the two schools at the time) in preparation for the following week's Southern Conference tournament in Durham.

So early that evening, 4,000 students, most of them World War II veterans attending school on the GI Bill, began to assemble at Thompson Gym, just as they had a few weeks earlier when Duke came to town. For the earlier game, nearly 5,000 spectators crammed into the 3,200-seat gym, filing in through the doors, climbing a ladder and entering through second-floor windows and sneaking in through the downstairs basement where the university pool was located.

If anything, there were fewer students at this game than that.

“At 7:30 p.m. every inch of space was occupied with students and ‘visitors’ standing in the aisles, hanging from the rafters, railings and anything else that might lend a reasonable amount of support for the next two hours,” reported NC State’s student newspaper.

The difference, however, was the arrival of Raleigh city fire chief W.R. Butts, who was determined to take hold of the overcrowding at State College’s final home basketball game of the season. He arrived with 10 firemen and 10 policemen.

At game time, public address announcer C.A. Dillon, a senior in mechanical engineering, attempted to announce the winner of the team player of the year award and honor the team’s only senior, Leo Katkaveck. The crowd was too rowdy for him to talk and he eventually gave up on the trophy presentation.

Butts stepped onto the gym floor and announced that if the aisles and entryways were not cleared within 15 minutes, the game would be forfeited to Carolina, citing a state law of the time that stated all spectators at a public event must occupy a regulation seat. Students and fans squeezed together, sitting two to a seat, until all the aisles were cleared and there was no one—except for the 10 firemen—on the baselines of the basketball court.

However, if those firemen had been posted by the front doors, they may have prevented students from removing the pins and taking those doors off the hinges, allowing hundreds of other spectators to stream in, unhindered.

He made another announcement, and dimmed the four lights that shone on the court to get the crowd’s attention. Eventually, he ordered the entire gymnasium cleared and the game canceled.

Butts actually had reason to be concerned. The night before in West Lafayette, Indiana, in an overcrowded game between Purdue and Wisconsin ended in tragedy when wooden bleachers collapsed during halftime, killing three students and sending hundreds more to local hospitals. It was only three months after the Winecoff Hotel disaster, the deadliest hotel fire in U.S. history, in which 119 people died when the “fireproof” 15-story building burned in downtown Atlanta. It was less than a year after hotel fires in Chicago and Iowa killed a combined 80 guests.

The problem was that the fire chief took his stand at the final game, not earlier games that drew bigger crowds of the predominantly married student population. Earlier games against New York University and Duke were packed with fans, who were all used to watching games in cramped quarters.

There were three reasons so many fans showed up for the game. First, no students attended the Red Terrors’ previous home game against Davidson because they gave up their seats to the local Raleigh community, with all receipts (a total of more than $3,150) given to the effort to complete NC State’s Memorial Tower in honor of the students and alumni who died in World War I.

Secondly, a large contingent of North Carolina fans came over to see its team avenge and earlier loss in Woollen Gym, in which the Terrors took a 48-46 overtime victory on a one-handed jumper by Jack McComas to end an eight-game losing streak against their biggest rival.

Finally, there was a large number of fans from the Raleigh community, generally unable to get tickets for State games because of the newly enlarged student population, which swelled from about 900 in 1945 to more than 5,000 just two years later, showed up outside the doors to see the game.

After the post-nongame riots subsided, blame was rampant in all sectors, with the student newspaper sports editor from NC State saying it was the “Carpetbaggers from Chapel Hill” putting partial blame on the event, while the Daily Tar Heel sports editor—my friend and former Greensboro News & Record colleague Irwin Smallwood—wrote “Carolina was not at fault in the remotest.” He blamed the State athletics department for giving out more tickets than the gym’s capacity, something that was not then or now proven.

Still, the game was canceled and not rescheduled since the start of the Southern Conference Tournament was less than a week away. The tournament had already been switched from Raleigh’s downtown auditorium, its home since 1933, to the larger Duke Indoor Stadium, to accommodate ticket requests. There was no time to reschedule the game.

However, the two teams did meet again. In Durham. In the conference championship game. First-year NC State coach Everett Case’s team held on for another close victory over the first-year coach Tom Scott’s White Phantoms. Afterwards, the Wolfpack became the first college team to cut down the nets after winning a championship, a tradition Case brought with him from the Indiana high school tournament, which he won a record four times.

So here’s my long-held belief: The cagey Case planned the whole thing. Thompson Gym was ill-suited for big-time college basketball and Case was hired with the promise that a new on-campus coliseum was “nearly complete.” In fact, when he arrived in the summer of 1946, all that was standing on State's campus was a rusted skeleton of steel girders, erected before the start of World War II, on a bare concrete pad.

He wanted it finished.

And in the aftermath of the canceled Senior Day, these were the words written by the editorial board of Technician.

“The straw that broke the camel’s back” was the large number of Carolina fans, Raleigh school students, State College alumni and Raleigh businessmen who crashed the gate by hook or by crook (some even used a ladder to get into an upper window). Had it not been for them, the gym may have held the number of the number of State students who wanted to see the game. As it was, the ticket books of those who were not attending the game were given to outsiders. The mob spirit prevailed all around the gym and it was impossible for the gatekeepers or the cops to keep control of the crowd without a fight which would have caused someone to get hurt.

“One definite conclusion of the abominable incident is that that coliseum must be completed at once. It is hoped that the many legislators who tried in vain to see the ball game last Tuesday night will return to the Capitol building with determination to approve the requested appropriations at an early date. Since there is no doubt that the money asked for will be approved, we feel that work should be started immediately on the coliseum so that there can be no duplication of the impossible situation of Tuesday night.”

A little more than 18 months later, after the fire chief condemned Thompson Gym and Case and his team had to play an entire season in Raleigh’s auditorium, the newly renamed Wolfpack played its first game in Reynolds Coliseum.

Read Technician’s coverage of the canceled game.

Reach Tim Peeler at timothy.peeler@gmail.com.