After a shaky start in conference realignment roulette, the basketball-rich ACC rebounded and became the first power conference to reach 14 teams.
That seemed to be an unlikely scenario a few weeks ago when the Southeastern Conference looked it might snatch up one — or more — ACC schools. Instead of losing teams, the ACC added two (Pittsburgh and Syracuse) with the possibility of adding two more at some point.
It may look like a surprise move — the ACC is not known for its football prowess and nearly a quarter of the league is mired in NCAA scandals — but the conference obviously is appealing. That’s something the ACC apparently knew even if others didn’t.
While reports focused on what schools might possibly leave the conference, the league was quietly looking at who wanted to join.
A committee of ACC athletic directors, presidents and faculty representatives have been evaluating the landscape for a year and a half, and Commissioner John Swofford said “double-digit numbers of schools” approached the ACC looking for a new home.
Part of the attraction was the ACC’s resources, Syracuse athletic director Daryl Gross said. Adding two teams triggered a clause that allows for renegotiation of the ACC’s 12-year, $1.86 billion television contract with ESPN.
When asked if there was a problem with sharing revenue with 13 other schools instead of 11, North Carolina State Chancellor Randy Woodson said “we wouldn’t do it if the pie didn’t get bigger.”
Woodson says the move helps the ACC protect itself.
“It’s a very unstable environment,” Woodson said of the college football landscape. “What we want to do is make sure the league stays together, No. 1, and there’s a commitment for that. ... You see we’re taking that in a proactive way and one step at a time.”
Despite all the uncertainty — and there is plenty of it — Swofford said the ACC wasn’t panicking when it accepted Pittsburgh and Syracuse. But he said there was no ignoring Texas A&M and the SEC; the Pac-10 becoming the Pac-12 and at least considering expanding to 16 with Texas, Oklahoma and two other schools; or the questions about the future of the Big 12.
“I don’t think it’s really a reaction to that, although in a subtle way, when you look over the past year or so and you see the movement with the Pac-12 ... the Big Ten expanding, the Southeastern Conference expanding — all of that comes into play, not necessarily in a measureable kind of way,” Swofford said. “But our interest has always focused on what is best for us.”
Just a few weeks ago, the ACC outlook appeared bleak. The conference seemed vulnerable to the expanding SEC. After Texas A&M applied for membership to that league, among the most frequently reported targets to become the SEC’s 14th team were Florida State, Virginia Tech and Clemson.
Knowing the realignment cards it was holding, the ACC took another survival step.
The league’s presidents unanimously voted to raise the exit fee for any school leaving the conference to $20 million, up from $12-14 million.
“Within the conference, there was an awful lot of solidarity,” Georgia Tech athletic director Dan Radakovich said. “That’s why we increased the exit fee. While one person may look at that as a set of golden handcuffs, it really wasn’t. ... We wanted to make sure the main focus was making the conference better, what moves to make, what teams to add, to make the ACC a better conference. “And not just for now, but for years to come.”
The ACC became even more of an attractive destination without doing anything on its own.
The Big East was close to signing an extension for its television rights with ESPN this year but walked away from a reported nine-year, $1 billion deal to test the market. That decision to wait ultimately contributed to a rift in the Big East, Gross said.
“I wouldn’t even say one (conference) was more stable than the other,” Gross said. “It was more that theACC presented some opportunities for our athletic department and our institution that were more in line with enhancing the mission that we have in wanting to be national champions in every single one of our sports across the board, and that has a better fit to it. ... What this has done for us is give us the ability to add more resources to enhance that mission.”
The only similarity between this round of expansion and the last for the ACC is that it once again added schools from the Big East.
The mid-2000s addition of Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College was largely fueled by football, with the league growing to 12 teams and then staging a championship game. This move was about adding like-minded schools located in significant media markets to help the league keep pace as college sports inch closer to the era of 16-team superconferences.
The Panthers and Orange certainly make the ACC even more of a basketball powerhouse. But on the football field, it’s fair to question whether Pitt and Syracuse will make the much-maligned league any stronger. Neither has won an outright Big East football championship since Donovan McNabb was taking snaps for the Orange. Since 1998, the two have combined for one BCS appearance — the 2004 Pitt team was embarrassed by Utah in the Fiesta Bowl.
“The perception is this is a big-time move up for us,” Pitt coach Todd Graham said, “and perception is reality.”
Still, it doesn’t seem to matter to the ACC that it might remain the weakest of the big-time football conferences. More important for the ACC is that it remains one of them — while creating stability for its members in a decidedly unstable environment.
“I know it’s a dire time because of (all the) movement and speculation — and I think we are going to see more movement,” Gross said. “It’s inevitable. So, now’s the time to be asserting yourself.”
AP Sports Writers John Kekis in Syracuse, N.Y.; Will Graves in Pittsburgh; Paul Newberry in Atlanta; and David Ginsburg in College Park, Md., contributed to this report.