A funny thing happened to the Atlantic Coast Conference last week: two of its schools received phone calls from ABC-TV. Would they be interested, the network wanted to know, in changing the date of a game to be on national television?
The call was about football, not basketball, and what was funnier was the answer: no, thank you.
This is not Oklahoma-Nebraska, this is Clemson-North Carolina, two schools whose most notable football moments in recent years have been Gator Bowl upsets over Big Ten runners-up. The last time Clemson played on New Year's Day was 1959. Carolina hasn't started the year with a football game since 1950.
But now, North Carolina is the No. 4 team in the nation with a 5-0 record and had a Heisman Trophy candidate in Kelvin Bryant until he was injured two weeks ago. Clemson, No. 6 in the polls, is also 5-0, and defeated defending national champion Georgia, 13-3, breaking the Bulldogs' 15-game winning streak.
"It's been a long time coming, but we finally seem to have arrived in this conference," Clemson Coach Danny Ford said yesterday. "When people talk about the ACC now, they don't just talk about a basketball conference. They talk about football, too."
Ford's speech is not new. The ACC has been trying to pass itself off as a football conference since North Carolina finished 11-1 in 1972. But each time it appeared the ACC was ready to put a team in the nation's elite, something went wrong.
In 1973, after a big preseason buildup, Carolina dropped from 11-1 to 3-8. In 1976, Maryland went 11-0 in the regular season and earned a Cotton Bowl bid. Houston led, 21-0, before the first quarter was over and went on to a 31-21 victory.
In 1978, Clemson finished 10-1, then beat Ohio State in the Gator Bowl. But what was remembered was Woody Hayes punching the Tigers' Charlie Bauman, which led to Hayes' firing. That same year Maryland lost to Texas, 42-0, in the Sun Bowl on national television. In 1980, Carolina finished 11-1, including a Bluebonnet Bowl victory over Texas. But the Tar Heel game people remember is a 41-7 loss to Oklahoma.
This season, Carolina and Clemson will meet Nov. 7 in Chapel Hill. The winner probably will get a major bowl bid. The ACC might be ready to arrive.
"We've got a good conference, it gets better every year," said North Carolina Coach Dick Crum. "People have talked about our team being the best ever in the ACC. I don't think that's right. There have been a lot of good teams in this conference."
Good teams, yes. Great teams, no. What is scary about Carolina, if you are Maryland, Wake Forest, N.C. State, Virginia or Duke, is that Crum says this team is a year from peaking. It is, basically, a junior team and still learning.
For now, however, the ACC is content to bask in whatever glory these two teams may bring it this season. This is a league that has moaned and groaned over lack of TV exposure for years, and finding itself with a game between two conference teams that is attractive enough to bring ABC calling is a major step forward.
ABC was turned down because North Carolina does not want to play its last game in December. A major bowl might be wary of offering a bid to a team that has a tough game left. Clemson won't play a game after meeting arch-rival South Carolina because no matter what the circumstances, it will be anticlimactic.
Crum, in his fourth year, has taken advantage of fabulous facilities, lovely campus and Carolina's financial backing to build a program that should be in the top 20, perhaps the top 10, annually.
When the Tar Heels graduated the mainstays of their defensive and offensive lines last year, replacements were ready. When Amos Lawrence was gone, Bryant was there. When Bryant went down, Tyrone Anthony was waiting. ACC teams have seldom had this depth. It would appear Crum may attain the same position as Basketball Coach Dean Smith: each year, the ACC title race seems to come down to Carolina and someone.
Clemson is the one school in the conference that has always put football before basketball. When Charley Pell used the 1978 team's No. 6 national ranking to get the Florida job, Ford, then 30, stepped in.
A year ago, Clemson went 6-5 and was snubbed by the bowls for the first time in four years. "I think all of us, coaches and kids, stopped thinking winning was the greatest feeling in the world," Ford said. "We took a lot of things for granted, and you can't do that. This year, we decided right away that whether we were good, average or bad, we weren't going to be surprised. That's helped us a lot."
The opportunity is there once again for the ACC. People are looking at the rankings and noticing the two unfamiliar names near the top. The swell of publicity is growing at both schools. The spotlight is swinging toward the two campuses and the ACC.
Until now, that spotlight has proved too harsh to bear for ACC football teams. That is why people in Big Eight, Big 10 and Pac-10 country still hoot when the ACC is mentioned. North Carolina and Clemson now have a real-live chance to change the hoots to hollers.
Like Ford says, it has been a long time coming. The ACC has not yet arrived as a football conference. But it may finally be en route.