End of an Era: Maryland’s Last Trip Down Tobacco Road Brings Back Old MemoriesPosted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on February 18th, 2014
Saturday night’s Maryland loss at Duke closes a historic chapter in ACC basketball history. It marks the Terrapins’ last visit as an ACC member to the Triangle area, long considered the heart of the conference (just ask Gary Williams). That game, a two-point loss in Cameron Indoor Stadium, seems like an appropriate last act in a long-running drama that has been playing since the formation of the ACC in 1953. Duke’s victory had many of the same elements that these games have had for years — specifically, a hard-fought, passionate contest with questionable officiating that ultimately resulted in another frustrating loss for the Terps.
Maryland fans have long expressed the feeling that their team just couldn’t get a fair shake on Tobacco Road. Check out this game recap from a 1974 Maryland-N.C. State game in Raleigh. Near the end of the article, Terrapins’ head coach Lefty Driesell is quoted as follows: “My complaint is the charging calls against us,” Driesell said. “I’m not saying the calls were wrong but it’s only called that way in this part of the country.” He is certainly not alone in thinking that Maryland was at a distinct disadvantage when playing conference games in the Tar Heel State, whether they were on a rivals’ home courts or in the frequent ACC Tournaments held in Greensboro or Charlotte. As Maryland prepares to join the Big Ten next season, let’s take a look at some of the other memories that Maryland will be leaving behind.
Maryland was a charter member when the ACC formed prior to the 1953-54 basketball season. Although the Terrapins captured an ACC title in 1958, it wasn’t until the fiery Driesell arrived prior to the 1969-70 campaign that Maryland basketball became nationally relevant. At the time, North Carolina and N.C. State were the top programs in the league, but Maryland quickly joined them and produced some classic games that had a major influence on the rising popularity of the sport. In 1973, the ACC and its TV broadcast partner, C.D. Chesley, decided to go big with the N.C. State – Maryland game in College Park as a prelude for sports fans to the NFL’s Super Bowl Sunday showcase event. The 87-85 win for David Thompson‘s Wolfpack in front of a nationally-televised audience was a highly entertaining game that helped push the reputation of the ACC as the best and most exciting hoops conference in the country.
The two teams met in Raleigh for another thriller on Super Bowl Sunday the next season, and although from 1972-74 Maryland went 0-6 versus N.C. State, the Terrapins still had a lasting impact on the game of college basketball. In those pre-March Madness days, only one team per conference could receive a bid to the NCAA Tournament. Maryland’s three-point overtime loss to N.C. State in the 1974 ACC Tournament helped set in motion the concept that multiple bids from a single conference might be a good thing. Outcry over the Terps’ exclusion — Maryland was a top five team all season — helped the NCAA to realize that including all the best teams in the NCAA Tournament was a superior business model. Starting the very next season, conferences were allowed to send two teams to the NCAA Tournament, and by 1980, all conference restrictions had been eliminated. For all intents and purposes, March Madness was born.
Driesell’s primary coaching rivalry during his 17-year tenure was with North Carolina’s Dean Smith. Here’s a link to a 1989 article by long-time ACC writer David Teel that describes that rivalry. As you might expect, Smith held a commanding edge in the head-to-head match-ups, winning 29 of the 39 ACC games between the two with many of those North Carolina victories the heart-breaking variety. During a stretch in the early 80s, for example, Smith’s Heels won three games in four years in Chapel Hill versus Maryland by three points or less. The most excruciating of those was a 72-71 UNC win in January 1983. Down by one and with the ball, Driesell drew up a surprise play during a timeout. To catch the Tar Heels napping, Driesell’s son, Chuck, was called upon to take the last shot. It was hugely unexpected because the sophomore was no scorer — he finished his career with only 107 points in 58 games. But despite some initial surprise, Smith’s All-American duo of Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins recovered defensively just in time to simultaneously block the shot and preserve the win, leaving a fuming Driesell chasing after the officials for not calling a foul. Of course the Lefty era ended unceremoniously in the aftermath of the Len Bias tragedy and subsequent program misdoings, but after a brief bottoming-out period in the late 80s, Maryland turned to one of its own, Gary Williams, to lead the program back to respectability and more.
Williams was the right man for the job, recruiting and developing players in his own image — tough-minded workers with a chip-on-the-shoulder attitude — as he built Maryland into a Sweet Sixteen-caliber program in the late 1990s. One of the strangest meetings between Duke and Maryland came in 1995, a game of which for the only time in ACC history, neither head coach was on the bench. That was the year that Mike Krzyzewski missed most of ACC play as he recovered from back surgery, and Williams was unable to coach that game due to illness. Maryland’s Joe Smith won that one with a tip-in at the buzzer, the last of his 40 points.
As Maryland basketball grew into a national power, things escalated to a higher level at the turn of the century. There was a period of time in the early 2000s when the Maryland-Duke games were among the most nationally-anticipated games of the season. The coaches involved in those games were good friends but fierce competitors, and their players reflected that same intensity to produce numerous classics. The apex in the rivalry was during a 2001 season that featured four must-see meetings, including the famous Jason Williams-led comeback win by Duke in College Park, as well as another huge comeback victory for the Blue Devils in the Final Four. Duke went on to win that season’s title, with Maryland shaking off those disappointments to come back the next season to claim its first national championship.
Maryland will end its 61 years in the ACC with slightly more league wins than losses, but little of that success came in the region of North Carolina known as the Triangle. The Terrapins will close things out with a combined record of 58-152 in Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill. But the competitive nature of those rivalries is what stoked the passion of Maryland’s fans, and made any win over a team from Tobacco Road something to be celebrated and savored. It will be years before any Big Ten school invokes that kind of reaction for Terrapins’ faithful, and that is the real tragedy of Maryland’s exit from the league it helped to build. To the Terrapins, the rest of the ACC says, “We will miss you… but you will miss us more.”