by Anthony Harrison
Syracuse University forward Briana Day’s layup beat the buzzer, but it only softened the loss.
As cannons spewed a rainbow of confetti and balloons of every color wafted from the rafters of the Greensboro Coliseum, the Notre Dame University band blasted the greatest fight song in sports — the Fighting Irish’s “Victory March.”
Notre Dame secured their third-straight conference title by handing the Lady Orange a decisive defeat, 68-57, in the 2016 ACC Women’s Basketball Tournament championship game on Sunday.
The ACC named senior guard Madison Cable tourney MVP. She’d sunk six threes but bashfully shook her head as verdant fans thundered with cheers and applause.
Techies rushed the podium and awards table to midcourt as soon as celebrating players left the floor. The young women on the Notre Dame squad received hunter-green championship shirts, black-brimmed caps emblazoned with the championship logo and statuettes — miniature replicas of the elegant ACC championship trophy.
The opulence and prestige of today’s tournament was just a dream 30 years ago. It evolved dramatically in that time, thanks to visionaries like former ACC Assistant Commissioner Dee Todd and behind-the-scenes champions of the game like officials observer Doreen Bryant.
Todd and Bryant sat across from each other at Elizabeth’s Pizza on Lawndale Drive in Greensboro. After catching up a bit with some small talk, as old friends are wont to do, one of them glanced up at the TV showing ESPN’s “SportsCenter.”
They started talking shop.
“I just saw something where Louisville got sanctioned in that sex scandal?” Todd asked.
“Mmhmm,” Bryant replied with a somber nod. “They can’t play in the postseason this year. Not the ACC, not the NCAA.”
Todd could only shake her head.
“We don’t help these young people make good decisions because we keep bailin’ ’em out,” Todd said. “Dealing with young people now — they just know everything.”
“They think,” Bryant quipped.
“I’ve always said that high school boys should watch college women’s basketball,” Todd continued, “because it’s so fundamentally sound. You find very few high school boys who are playing above the rim, you know? So the great fundamentals that you’re getting from the women’s game…”
She trailed off, again shaking her head.
“But they would never see it that way,” Todd concluded.
DeLores “Dee” Todd broke barriers from the beginning.
Todd studied pre-med at Winston-Salem State University in the late ’60s, then moved to Chicago. There, she earned a master’s in human relations at Governors State University, worked towards a doctorate in behavioral psychology at Northwestern University and coached high school track.
She was beautiful, too. Several people suggested she become a model.
“I couldn’t have cared less about that,” Todd remembered. “I’d tell you, ‘If it isn’t a run, jump, throw or hurdle, I don’t do it.’”
Eventually, she relented and modeled for occasional print work by the agency handling Kellogg’s account.
In 1980, the agency asked if she’d do a photo shoot for Corn Flakes.
“I was fussin’,” Todd said. “I was saying, ‘I don’t look like that.’”
In the photo, Todd’s enormous bouffant hairdo makes her look as though she was about to step onstage with the Supremes.
“They might’ve drawn that in, because I don’t remember wearing my hair like that,” Todd laughed, looking at the shot on her phone at the pizzeria. “People didn’t know how to photograph dark hair back then.”
The campaign proved to be a cultural landmark: She was the first African American to appear on the box for one of the world’s most popular cereals.
“I had no idea how big that was,” she admitted. “I was just in the right place at the right time.”
After the buzz from the Corn Flakes campaign died down, she began coaching track at Northwestern in 1983. There, her fated trajectory began, but, again, not without protest.
Todd approached her supervisor to ask for time off to focus on an internship for her PhD. Her supervisor discouraged her from continuing, saying a doctorate might hold her back; employers would assume she’d request higher pay.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Todd recalled. “I just thought, I earned it, so why not?”
Again, Todd relented.
“In a way, I’m glad I did,” Todd admits. “As I reflect back on my career, I don’t see one place where it would’ve helped me.”
From Northwestern, Todd then became a track and field coach at Georgia Tech.
Soon enough, she again found herself at the right place at the right time.
In 1988, after receiving a substantial grant, the ACC began improving different programs including drug education, compliance and — importantly — women’s basketball. The conference was looking for a new assistant commissioner who would prioritize the women’s game.
Then-ACC Assistant Commissioner John McCrone wanted to hire a woman who’d been a Division-I coach.
“He believed coaches understand the needs of coaches, because you’d been in their seat,” Todd said.
McCrone personally endorsed Todd. She interviewed for the position in Greensboro and was hired, again making history — she became the first female assistant commissioner of the ACC.
Todd compromised in the past, but now she held authority to impose change. She took her charge seriously.
The ACC distinguishes itself as the first conference to hold a women’s basketball tournament in 1978, four years before the NCAA conducted one. While the conference prides itself for a progressive attitude, its brainchild survived a rocky infancy.
Initially, the tournament venue changed annually, passing between schools’ host cities: Charlottesville, Va. Raleigh. College Park, Md. Clemson, SC. Raleigh again.
For the 1983 tournament, the ACC landed in Fayetteville at the Cumberland County Arena. There, it not only settled, but stagnated.
Todd found the arrangement unsatisfactory.
“I went for a site visit,” Todd recalled, “and I said, ‘Are you kidding me? This place is a dump.’ Women, they felt like, had been coming here long enough. And it was really third class.”
The sub-par amenities didn’t stop with the venue.
“I went to a men’s tournament, and the difference was night and day,” Todd said. “Men got elaborate gifts; women got a T-shirt.”
Additionally, the ACC didn’t provide the women’s tournament with services taken for granted in the men’s game.
“We didn’t have a tournament doctor or a team doctor,” Todd said. “They volunteered, just so that the women would have extra things. I say ‘extra,’ because that’s how they looked at it.”
After two years, Todd decided the bare minimum wouldn’t do. Instead of acquiescing and compromising, she took action.
First step: establishing the tourney in a different town.
Todd took bids from several East Coast towns and eventually granted the privilege to Rock Hill, SC, home of Winthrop University.
“One of the things [the conference] stipulated was they didn’t want to go to the campus of another [ACC] school,” Todd said. “Winthrop University’s coliseum sort of sits off campus. You didn’t necessarily need to say, ‘We’re at Winthrop;’ you could just say, ‘We’re in Rock Hill.’”
With a finer venue in place, Todd took another bold step toward legitimacy: She pushed to broadcast the games on live television.
“At the time, I’d sat in meetings where I actually heard people say, ‘Nobody wants to watch a bunch of women throwing up the ball — running ’round the court looking like men,’” Todd said. “The only thing they wanted to do was a tape delay, because they didn’t want to put the money into live TV. So we went with that for a couple of years, fighting to get on.”
The tournament needed the right game at the right time.