The last time I attended the ACC Football Kickoff was more than two decades ago, and it was a very different event with a different name.
It was The ACC Football Tour, and it was indeed a real tour that lasted from 1954, a year after the league was founded, through 1999. Perhaps 40 or 50 sports writers and sportscasters, most from local newspapers, would gather at ACC headquarters in Greensboro, N.C., then depart for a week-long bus trip to every school in the league.
We’d hit a school a day, taking more than a week to travel from Atlanta to College Park, Md. It was an informal process in a much simpler time, before cell phones, recruiting services, Twitter or blogs. You could mingle one-on-one with North Carolina’s Mack Brown and Virginia’s George Welsh, and we often watched teams practice.
How informal? The ACC kept a full cooler on the bus. We left Atlanta one year at something like 7 a.m. and one of my media cohorts, now long since retired, cracked open a Budweiser before the bus even took off.
At the time, the ACC was a relatively compact league of eight schools, and the media that covered the league was also a close-knit fraternity. A bus tour was a pretty good way to promote a league whose football prowess didn’t exactly command attention.
The ACC has since expanded to 14, with schools stretching from Syracuse and Boston to Miami. Clemson won the national football title and North Carolina the basketball title last season, when the ACC also won a record nine bowls.
It has morphed into a national conference, and that is reflected in the media crush that descended upon the Westin Hotel July 12-14 in Charlotte for the ACC Kickoff.
More than 500 journalists, from part-time bloggers to national college football writers, gathered in what locals like to call “Uptown” Charlotte for two days of non-stop football chatter.
An aside here: Charlotte is a cool place, with a downtown that’s exploding with growth. And that’s frustrating because when I was in college in the 1970s, downtown Charlotte looked a lot like downtown Norfolk. It was pleasant but small with a lot of unrealized potential.
The city and Mecklenburg County have since combined with the business community to attract corporate headquarters and make downtown the place to be. They built an NFL stadium 21 years ago and NBA arena more than a decade later, all downtown.
Downtown office buildings, including the 60-story Bank of America tower, give the city the look and feel of Atlanta. I walked downtown with Pilot writer David Hall, and millennials seemed to be everywhere, enjoying life in the city.
Charlotte is everything Hampton Roads aspires to be, but I digress.
The ACC put on a good show. As we traveled up the escalator to the second floor, where media interviews were held, our eyes focused on five trophies that were lined up with an obvious intent to impress.
The Heisman Trophy, won by Louisville’s Lamar Jackson, was on the far left. There were also the College Football Championship and ACC championship trophies won by Clemson; Florida State’s Orange Bowl trophy and the Progressive Bowl Challenge Cup, awarded to the league with the best bowl record.
A young woman hired to guard the trophies warily eyed anyone who came too close to take a photograph.
More than 30 radio stations or networks broadcast live from just outside the second-floor banquet hall where much of the action took place. A stage was placed at one end facing dozens of tables filled with sports journalists.
Each time a player or coach walked up the stage, his name and photo were projected onto a wall. Over two days, all 14 head coaches and 28 players stood behind a podium and took questions from the media.
After 30 minutes or so in the big room, players and coaches went to a “breakout” sessions, where for another 45 minutes, they took questions from the media. It was exhausting process for everyone involved.
The questions ranged from insightful to inane. How are your quarterbacks looking? Who’s going to be your backup nose guard? Do you think (fill in the blank) will step up this season?
My favorite was asked of Jackson: “How did it feel to win the Heisman Trophy?”
It felt good, he said.
The media crush around Jackson was so intense in the breakout room that he could not be seen unless you stood on a chair. I couldn’t hear a word he said, so I’m relying on a colleague’s recollection for the exchange above.
The best-dressed award went to Virginia Tech wide receiver Cam Phillips, who came decked out in a bronze double-breasted velvet jacket, flip-up shades over round eyeglass frames and shiny black shoes without socks. He was stylin’.
Virginia’s Bronco Mendenhall, who answers every question earnestly and with passion, looked particularly worn out after more than an hour with the media. And he wasn’t done. As the ACC’s TV partners, ABC, ESPN and Fox Sports had exclusive access to coaches and players for extended interviews.
They pay the league millions of dollars, so I can’t blame the ACC for that.
Access to ACC coaches and players isn’t what it was decades ago, and some of that is understandable. Athletes have so many more time demands, social media has put everything they do in the spotlight and more media outlets than ever cover the league.
Some schools, perhaps most, have responded by restricting access to players and coaches far too much. At some schools, practices are closed, interviews afterward often limited to 15 or 20 minutes and at times, interview requests are denied.
Assistant coaches at some schools are off-limits to the media all season.
There’s no real way to get to know coaches and players any more, and that’s not good for the media or the fans who rely on balanced and knowledgeable coverage of the ACC. But that’s a subject for another day.
The media had no complaints in Charlotte. The ACC’s media relations people were efficient and friendly. It was an impressive event befitting a league that evolved into a football powerhouse and long ago outgrew the quaint idea of a media bus tour.