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."