Friendships made, knowledge gained at evolving ACC Kickoff
Posted July 19
Greensboro, N.C. — Former Duke long-snapper Patrick Mannelly’s recent retirement from the NFL triggered a flashback to what may have been the best ACC Kickoff ever. In 1997, the ACC staged its annual pre-season football fest in the North Carolina mountains and offered players, coaches, and members of the media a rafting trip on the French Broad River. And yes, we also had interviews and press conferences later on.
Jeff Gravley and I spent a couple of hours navigating this ancient waterway with Mannelly, Florida State linebacker Darryl Bush, and our guide, Jim. In truth, the players did most of the work. I’ll never forget taking a hit to the chest when the rapids increased from Class 2 to Class 3. We almost lost Bush overboard if not for Mannelly grabbing his ACC rival by the ankle to keep him in the canoe.
We all touched oars at the end of the excursion. It was an exhilarating experience.
Years later, when the Panthers played Mannelly’s Chicago Bears in the NFL playoffs, I requested an interview with the former Blue Devil. Before we rolled tape to talk about the big playoff game at Soldier Field, the two of us reminisced about that trip on the French Broad River.
In the beginning, the ACC Kickoff brought coaches and members of the media together just before the start of football practices in August for Q&A about the upcoming season. I can’t tell you exactly what year the event began, but I know in 1981, my first year at WRAL, it was already up and running.
The ACC Kickoff was much different in those days -- usually staged in one or two rooms at places like Foxfire and Pine Needles. Players and coaches gathered for a Sunday evening social and dinner. Monday morning, about 30 writers and a handful of TV and radio types conducted interviews and everyone went home. (Well, not everyone -- some lingered for a round of golf. Superball, of course.)
I carry a few memories from those quiet days in the 1980s: Hanging out with then-Duke head coach Steve Sloan, waiting for the rain to stop so that we could get in some golf (the rain never did stop); looking around on a Sunday night to see Steve Spurrier and Mack Brown, later fierce rivals in and out of the ACC, in the same room enjoying a social beverage while they conversed with members of the media; finding myself sitting across the breakfast table from former Georgia Tech coach Bill Curry.
Having grown up in Wisconsin during the heyday of Vince Lombardi, I found it really cool to pass the bacon to a former member of the Green Bay Packers and hear stories about Bart Starr.
The ACC Kickoff Expands
When Gene Corrigan became ACC Commissioner, he expanded the ACC Kickoff. Yes, long before the ACC added a ninth, tenth, or fifteenth school, the league expanded its pre-season football media event from 24 to 72 hours.
Corrigan wanted to create a gathering that would not only produce publicity for the ACC (and give the media some hardcore football news during the quiet months of July and August) but also provide plenty of get-acquainted time for athletic administrators, head coaches, assistant coaches, and bowl representatives, as well as reporters. Oh, and did I mention, the commissioner wanted to hold the expanded ACC Kickoff at some of the best resorts in the ACC footprint?
Corrigan particularly wanted to create a special event for assistant coaches. He wanted them to have some fun before the grind of the football season. And looking back, those were some days.
The schedule for the 1990 ACC Kickoff is still etched in my brain. Sunday’s agenda called for nothing more than check-in, golf, social, and dinner. Monday there was a seminar with a broad-based panel about several of the issues in college football. It was newsy, but it only lasted 90 minutes. The rest of the day was devoted to mingling, dining, wining, and yes, more golf.
Tuesday brought the main event --coaches’ interviews. Local television folks in those days wanted an outdoor backdrop for Q&A with the coaches. Fog crept into the picture during most of the eight interviews we conducted (yes, there were only eight then). Afterward, the ACC staged the first Coaches-Media Golf Tournament… followed by one more leisurely evening.
Wednesday, Corrigan gave the “State of the Conference” address. After a period of questions and answers, we all went home.
In 1991, at Wintergreen, the event brought more of the same. More interviews, another seminar, another “State of the Conference” address, more food and beverage, more golf, and even more fog. The (now) Annual Coaches-Media Golf Tournament had to be re-located to a course down in the valley because you couldn’t even see your putts drop on top of the mountains in Virginia that day.
Kiawah and the Alligator
No one who attended the 1992 ACC Kickoff will ever forget it. The conference decided to stage the event at Kiawah in South Carolina. The first night’s social and dinner were held alongside the Atlantic.
There was golf on the Ocean Course. My colleague Caulton Tudor and I played in the same foursome, overwhelmed by the stiff winds. Even playing superball, our group couldn’t break par. One TV reporter, not in our group, hit his tee shot near the water on the 17th hole. The fellow was about to address the ball when he noticed an alligator lurking a few feet away. Appropriately, he decided that staying alive to tell the story of ACC football was more important than a golf ball.
The expanded format continued throughout the 90’s at places like Lake Lanier in Georgia, Saddlebrook in Florida, Homestead in Virginia, and Pinehurst. Somewhere along the way, I think it was 1995 or 1996, the conference decided to include players and player interviews in the ACC Kickoff program. That added a much needed dimension to the scope of the event.
Corrigan’s idea was that the ACC’s disparate representatives -- coaches, players and administrators -- would get to know each other and members of the media away from the packed stadiums and sometimes tense press conferences of the regular season. I think his idea worked to a certain point.
People did make acquaintances, and I would say learn to respect each other, in a way that probably could not have happened if their only interaction had come on opposite sides of a press table. Coaches and reporters grew to trust each other. I can think of several stories we broke that came from tips born from the relationships built over those leisurely ACC Kickoffs of the 90’s.
Golf As A Vehicle of Understanding
As a golfer, I admit to bias, but I believe golf proved to be a special ice breaker.
In 1996, Tudor and I found ourselves paired with then-Wake Forest coach Jim Caldwell. The media guys were moaning and complaining after we missed the green and found our best shot sitting in thin grass with the ball below our feet, chipping downhill to a narrow expanse of green. Caldwell hitched up his pants and said, “men, the way I look at it, we have an opportunity to make a great shot.”
We didn’t make the shot, but I learned something about the positive mentality of a guy who would later coach in the Super Bowl.
Oh, and here’s another Caldwell nugget: A few years later, rain caused most of the coaches and media to skip the annual ACC Kickoff golf event. Not Coach Caldwell.
“You play football in the rain, you play golf in the rain,” he exclaimed.
I had considered heading back to the house, but after that admonition from Caldwell, I joined the 40 or so (out of 160) who braved the elements. Memorable.
In 2001, the ACC golf pairings fairy put me together with UNC coach John Bunting . He and I attended Carolina at the same time and I actually called his games in my student days on UNC-TV. To that point, however, we hadn’t met.
Over the next four hours at Wild Dunes, I learned about his background, offensive and defensive philosophy and personal interests, not to mention his will to compete. Our team didn’t win the tournament, but we did beat Bobby Bowden’s team.
Later that year, when UNC upset Florida State, I congratulated Bunting on his second win over Bowden. He smiled and remembered the Coaches-Media Golf Tournament: “That’s right, we did beat them back in July, didn’t we?”
I can’t list all the memorable rounds at the ACC Kickoff, but getting to play with Doc Holliday, then at NC State now at Marshall, was special. In 2008, I got to play with Maryland play-by-play man Johnny Holliday, a terrific broadcaster and person, though Johnny tells me Holliday is not his real name.
I played with a Wake Forest assistant who told me how several members of then-coach Jim Grobe’s staff had been together since their days at Air Force – even before their time at Ohio U. And most memorably, I played one round with two assistants from rival schools. After the round the two men gave each other a warm embrace and said effectively “we may be bitter rivals on the field, but you’ve got a friend for life.”
The ACC Kickoff Today
I tell all these stories about the rafting trip, and the golf and leisurely socials and dinners to make the point that the ACC Kickoff, historically, has been about shared experiences as well as questions and answers. However, expansion, cost containment and more expansion have put the focus today more squarely on the formal interviews. And let’s be clear, the changing nature of the media -- growth of talk radio, the sprouting up of new websites on the internet and the explosion of the social media have all contributed to making the here-and-now the primary player as the ACC Kickoff has evolved.
In recent years, the ACC has condensed its pre-season football media event to about 36 hours -- although that’s still longer than it was in the 80’s. The event now calls Greensboro home at the Grandover Resort, which certainly has the facilities needed for 200-plus coaches and media.
The league still stages a seminar (a really good one about rules changes), and the Commissioner, John Swofford, still gives a detailed presentation about the state of the ACC. The Coaches-Media Golf Tournament lives on, and Sunday evening presents some opportunity for mingling among the participants over drinks and dinner. But in and around those activities are an incredible number of question-and-answer sessions.
Where once numbers were small enough that all media could get one-on-one interviews, coaches and players are now shuttled every 10-to-15 minutes from print to radio to radio row to the electronic media, to the rights-holding networks. Where once reporters prepared to interview eight coaches, they must now be ready to fire questions at 30 players, and 15 coaches.
Each year there are memorable quotes. And no question, reporters leave Greensboro knowing much more about the ACC, its football teams and the state of college football than they did previously. There are still some old friendships renewed and some lighthearted moments, but the ACC Kickoff now makes relationship-building, even getting acquainted, much more challenging. Everyone -- coaches, players, and media -- find themselves just too busy.