Team #12: The Real Story
by Jim Alderson, 1/21/04
We’re going to have to wait a year for the ACC football championship game. The news out of Greensboro and Providence is that negotiations to have Boston College escape the Big East and come join Tech and Miami for the 2004 ACC party broke down, and the Eagles will remain in the L’il E for the lamest of lame duck seasons. Enjoy those football trips to WVU and Pitt, Fredo.
The latest twist in this extended Conference Realignment season came as a result of the unwillingness of the Big East to compensate CUSA the $10 million the latter was requesting in reparations for being ripped off of most of its quality and high-profile programs in both football and basketball. The L’il E declined to provide much more than a plugged nickel following early indications from the ESPN family of networks, plus corporate parent ABC that, a couple of nanoseconds after the Canes and Tech were gone, demanded a renegotiation of the football television package and has shown a marked disinterest in televising many L’il E games. Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese, who saw Tech and Miami absconding with the bulk of both his ABC [Canes] and ESPN [Tech] loot was told that the replacement value of Louisville, Cincinnati and South Florida to the networks was roughly $0.00. Tranghese’s attempts to have CUSA instead pay the L’il E for taking the Cards, Bearcats and Bulls didn’t seem to get very far, so CUSA remains intact for one more year, leaving Fredo in the L’il E lurch, and the ACC without 2004 football championship dollars. Six leagues ranging from the ACC down the collegiate athletics food chain to the Sun Belt will sit in final membership limbo a while longer.
It is interesting, to me, anyway, to reflect back on the expansion drama and determine just how the point was reached that will have the physical well-being and property of the few BC fans who actually travel to away games placed at risk during the 2004 football season and, for that matter, how the ACC ended up with a Fredo Tech fans jubilantly assumed had been left behind to deservedly rot in the emasculated L’il E.
This whole business started a couple of years ago when BC officials entered into secret negotiations with ACC Commissioner John Swofford at the behest of Miami President Donna Shalala who, like most every one else associated with football membership in the Big East, wasn’t particularly fond of the arrangement and, unlike most every one else, was in a position to do something about it. Most are aware that John and Donna’s Excellent Expansion Adventure ended in the summer of 2003 when Shalala, informed by Swofford after numerous farcical ACC presidential teleconferences that there would be no ACC expansion without Virginia Tech, reluctantly agreed to a thirteen-team ACC in which Tech and the Canes would be joined by Shalala’s designated dance partners Syracuse and BC.
This arrangement lasted until NC State Chancellor and expansion gadfly Marye Anne Fox, who publicly went back and forth on expansion, only a week before the last vote telling the Raleigh newspaper, "I just can’t make up my mind," finally did so by splitting it down the middle, two yeas for first Tech, then Miami, before astounding all and delighting many Tech fans by voting nay on Fredo and indicating she would do the same to a Syracuse which was never brought up for a vote. The ACC had eleven, 11/12 of the number needed for the football championship that would make the entire thing financially worthwhile.
Speculation immediately arose wondering exactly why Fox behaved as she did, dropping the No bomb on BC. Some assumed that her alumni and board ties to Notre Dame gave her insight and perhaps clout in Irish decision-making, and that vetoing Fredo indicated the Irish would soon be en route to the ACC. That didn’t happen, as Notre Dame continued to play footsie with several conferences, all the while locking up another football television deal with NBC and preparing to wait and see how they would shine into the next BCS deal. The Big 11 has been waiting out Notre Dame for going on twelve years now but Swofford, aware that he was getting nowhere with the NCAA in attempting to modify the 12-team requirement for a conference football championship, and secure in the knowledge that the economics of expansion could not begin to work without one, could not afford to deal with similar Irish dawdling. A twelfth team had to be brought into the fold, and he began casting about for one.
The first was call was to Gainesville, Florida. It was received with interest by officials of the University of Florida, who already had academic ventures with present and future ACC schools, including Tech, and would have added another solid land-grant university to an ACC now flush with them. Academic common ground and Florida administrative and faculty interest in the ACC quickly paled when compared with the revulsion the thought of ACC membership brought to those who really count, the influential alumni, especially those cutting big checks every year to watch SEC football in Ben Hill Stadium. They consider Tennessee and Georgia their biggest rivals rather than Florida State and Miami, and wanted no part of the ACC. Florida told Swofford, "Thank you, no."
The next call went to former ACC member South Carolina, where a previous administration had let former football coach Paul Dietzel take them out of the ACC about thirty years ago in search of football glory that has yet to materialize. The Gamecocks have not exactly experienced great success in the SEC, and a return to the ACC would seem logical in a number of areas, from geographic proximity to competitiveness, as the Gamecocks have not exactly set the SEC world on fire, and their athletic budget is more in tune with those in the ACC than the monster ones at SEC East rivals Florida and Tennessee. South Carolina was not interested, however, and neither was Kentucky, contacted to see if they were interested in injecting further spice into ACC basketball. With the coveted SEC members proving that while a Vanderbilt might leave in theory, no one in practice has exited that cash gravy train since Sewanee and Georgia Tech, Swofford cast his eyes back to the Big East and prepared to further plunder that stricken league. The question was which school.
It always seemed to me that West Virginia was the logical choice, arrived at by the methodology of glancing at a map. Certainly WVU President Hardesty thought so, as he made a strong pitch for inclusion. There are those inside the conference who claim WVU was discussed at a meeting of ACC ADs, one of those in which Swofford claimed expansion was not discussed. The discussion apparently began and ended with concerns about the safety of players and fans at the hands of that charming WVU fan base.
There are those in the conference who say, including whoever anonymously related to the Charlotte Observer a few months back, that Pitt could have had ACC spot #12 had they shown any interest in it whatsoever, but they did not. Go figure. Either the Pitt administration has an athletics death wish, or they feel fairly good about their chances when the Big 11 gets around to adding a twelfth member, and they eventually will. Rutgers would have seemed another good choice, given their location a relatively short jaunt up I-95 from Maryland. The conference seemed to have had difficulty recognizing the potential on New Jersey’s flagship institution and getting past the chronic losing of the past two centuries, now well into a third. Swofford was running out of BE schools. Meanwhile, there was trouble brewing back home.
There was a strong push being made by East Carolina to nominate themselves as the twelfth ACC team, an effort that was enlisting the assistance of Eastern North Carolina legislators. They were petitioning NC Governor Easley, who had proven so helpful to Tech and his buddy and our Governor Warner in encouraging state schools Carolina and State to either vote for Tech or vote No across the board, getting one of each. Despite, when asked to do the same for ECU, his response of "You’ve got to be kidding," there were quite a few members of the North Carolina General Assembly representing ECU’s core Eastern North Carolina constituency who were clamoring around Raleigh for ECU’s admittance into the ACC. The Pirates had no chance, as even if political pressure could be brought on Carolina and State to sponsor the Pirates, ECU would never have gotten any votes from those five schools outside North Carolina, who have often chafed at the perceived conference domination by the Big Four and had no intention of adding a fifth.
Still, those legislators were a mischievous lot, having banded together in the past and exerting enough influence to hold up public funding for what is now known as the RBC Center, home to State basketball and Carolina Hurricanes hockey, until pork in the form of tax dollars was handed over to build an upper deck to one side of ECU’s Dowdey-Ficklen Stadium. They had also proven effective enough to force North Carolina to do what it swore it would never, actually play a football game at ECU. While they could not get ECU into the ACC, they might cause much trouble during state budgetary sessions that determine how much cash flows to the state schools. ACC expansion had to end, and end in such a way that the Tar Heels and Pack could look the Pirates straight in the eye and swear, "What could we do?"
Enter Duke. Duke, that most ardent foe of expansion [Coach K is still griping about the sullying of HIS basketball conference], found itself in a position to determine its final stage. Duke had recognized that of all the things that would come out of a conference expansion for football purposes, very little of it would be positive for them [a topic which will be explored during the long Dead Zone]. Duke had voted to begin initial talks with Syracuse and BC along with Miami before, when push came to shove, Duke President Nan Keohane exclaimed, "Just kidding," and voted against inviting them or anybody else. Still, expansion had happened, and an eleven-team ACC would serve to only dilute Duke’s basketball revenue while failing to increase the size of the football check they draw. There had to be another school added, and with fellow opponents Carolina and State facing political pressure, Duke could choose the team and determine, at least partially, the makeup of the future ACC. The Blue Devils did just that.
There were three BE teams left on the table, Syracuse, UConn and BC. Despite my personal animus towards that backstabbing Fredo, I can see that he would be the choice over Syracuse, due mainly to the fact that it is much easier to fly into Boston than Syracuse, no small concern. Location factored in; Boston is closer, if not much more so, to existing ACC schools than is Syracuse, in fact slightly closer to Maryland than Miami is to Florida State. I suspect, however, that these were not the primary concerns to Duke, the one that caused President Keohane to break ranks with fellow Tobacco Road denizens State and Carolina and cast the deciding vote to bring Boston College into the conference.
Of all available expansion candidates, which school most closely resembles Duke? That’s right, good old Fredo. From its high academic standards to its private funding to its relatively small number of alumni translating into a skimpy fan base to the often-overbearing arrogance, BC mirrors Duke. Sure, Duke considers Harvard its academic peer, but they weren’t available. Fredo was an acceptable substitute. Duke might be stuck with we mountain rednecks from Tech and forced to deal with those South Florida renegades, but at least Fredo gives them somebody with whom to conduct decent dinner conversation at conference meetings. Actually, there may be a little more to it than that.
Perhaps the overriding interest for Duke in the final ACC expansion school is that the winner be, like Duke, a private school. The biggest issue now facing collegiate athletics is the fault line that has developed between those schools belonging to a BCS conference and those that do not. When that is settled, undoubtedly by the BCS conferences forming a football division apart from the current I-A, another is brewing just below the surface, the division between public and private schools. The large state universities hold the high cards in college athletics. They have the biggest stadiums, the most alumni creating the largest booster organizations, all yielding more of the resources necessary to continue the arms race that continues apace- certainly LSU is now paying a bit more for its football coach, and can afford to. The private schools are finding it more difficult to keep up, particularly in the cash-intensive sport of football. This is a gap that will continue to widen, and solutions are hard to come by.
Vanderbilt has long complained that its inability to spend as much as its larger SEC rivals on football creates a very difficult competitive situation. Vandy’s calls for the SEC to address it by providing them with a bigger share of SEC revenue sharing, taking it from the schools whose football teams earned it and handing it to them, were laughed at by the rest of the conference. The solution taken by the Vanderbilt, remarkably days after Virginia Tech was off the table as a potential replacement, is to de-emphasize athletics in general, not exactly the avenue to success in the football-driven SEC. Baylor and Northwestern, two other private schools in other conferences facing the same financial problems, have also gotten nowhere in their attempts to achieve budgetary equality through conference welfare payments. These schools do not have the huge endowments and resources of PAC 10 privates Southern Cal and Stanford, nor the football cash cow possessed by Notre Dame. What’s an under funded private school to do?
The conference problem faced by Vanderbilt, Northwestern and Baylor is that they are the only private schools in their respective leagues. That will not be the case in the ACC, where fully a third of the conference membership will be composed of private schools: Boston College, Duke, Miami, and Wake Forest. They will have a much larger voice in conference matters, including the inevitable friction that will occur as the budget gap between the state schools and the private ones widens. It will not be the schism that proved fatal to the Big East, but it will be there and will have to be dealt with. The ACC’s private school contingent will possess, at least for the time being, the league’s dominant programs in both football (Miami) and basketball (Duke). They will have much greater clout in conference matters than that possessed by the private schools in the SEC, Big 11 or Big XII. When and if the day comes when say, a Donna Shalala or Coach K demands a greater cut of conference earnings, it will be from a position of strength. Perhaps Duke, observing the dissolution of its former conference power base of the four North Carolina schools, was attempting to build another; Fredo is certainly going to owe Duke big time.
Obviously there is a lot of speculation on my part here, perhaps some of it wild. Former Duke President Nan Keohane
isn’t talking, as she cast the deciding vote to flesh out the ACC with Boston College and promptly retired. Still, it
is an attempt on my part to survey the landscape and come up with an answer to the vexing question that has baffled many
Hokies since last October: why Fredo?