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A Major Player in ACC Expansion Moves On
by Jim Alderson, 4/13/04

The days, weeks and months draw short until Virginia Tech moves to the ACC. As I ‘X’ off another day on my calendar that has July 1 circled, I notice in the news that one of the major players in last year’s ACC expansion drama is moving on. NC State Chancellor Marye Anne Fox has resigned to take over a similar position at the University of California at San Diego. I shall miss her.

Fox came to State in 1998 and by most accounts was a strong and forceful leader. Her charge was to increase State’s research profile, a familiar one to most observers of fellow land-grant university Virginia Tech. She spearheaded the push at State’s Centennial Campus, a research facility very similar to our own Corporate Research Center. She was also a very strong and forceful leader, possessing a personality that was often described as ‘aloof’ and ‘arrogant,’ making her a lightning rod for criticism from those who feel that the only effective leaders are the touchy-feely types who engage in group hugs with the staff and conduct self-esteem retreats, leading the troops in belting out ‘Kumbaya’ around the campfire.

There was a very vocal segment of the State community that, because of these perceived character defects, wanted her gone, again a situation not exactly foreign around Tech for another executive. The State faculty was particularly disapproving of Fox, voting to censure her. They got no where, as Fox’s board solidly supported her. Her legacy at State will be debated for some time, but the Wolfpack is probably better off for having had her.

Marye Anne was not reticent when it came to her athletic department, either. She was not enthralled with the football coach at State when she arrived, Mike O’Cain, a former offensive coordinator for Frank Beamer at Murray State. A woman of action, Fox, following a particularly galling end-of-season loss, showed up at O’Cain’s house at seven a.m. the following Sunday morning and fired him, completely bypassing State’s AD at the time, Les Robinson, who first heard of O’Cain’s dismissal from Triangle news reporters asking him for reasons. "Huh?" and "Who fired him?" did not lend great stature to Robinson, who would soon be known as the former NC State Athletic Director, as he quit.

Robinson was totally out of the loop when it came to hiring a new football coach, too. Fox was a search committee of one, interviewing and hiring Florida State assistant head coach and NC State alumnus Chuck Amato. This was during the 1999 season, when some very good success experienced at Virginia Tech had schools all around the region scrambling to hire alumni to run their football programs, a trend that now has them in place for the Hoos and at State, Maryland and North Carolina in the ACC and WVU in the Li’l E. Virginia Tech might have been ahead of that curve, but Fox was only a decade or so behind.

It was during the ACC expansion saga that Fox really achieved notoriety. She became the wild card in the process, voting for the original expansion of Miami, Syracuse and Boston College one day and against it the next, offering no rhyme or reason for her voting patterns other than always voting ‘No’ on a Saturday, perhaps irked at having to give up weekend free time. As battle lines were drawn and attitudes hardened, making the increasingly-frequent presidential conference calls more and more contentious, Fox continued to flip-flop back and forth. She came under pressure from her geographic neighbors Duke and Carolina, who considered expansion a battle for both the basketball soul of the ACC and their own positions of conference power. She also heard from North Carolina Governor Easley, acting at the behest of his buddy and state next-door neighbor Governor Warner, who requested that she either vote for Tech or ‘No’ to everybody. A few days before the final vote, she told the Raleigh newspaper that she just couldn’t make up her mind.

Apparently the rejuvenating mountain air of the Alps did the trick, as Fox jetted off to Switzerland around the time that Georgia Tech President Wayne Clough came up with the novel idea of breaking the impasse by creating a thirteen-team ACC, adding Virginia Tech to the Canes, Orangepersons and Fredo. This received the thumbs-up from an exasperated Miami President Donna Shalala, who, while previously adamant that Miami would change conferences only if Syracuse and BC accompanied them and Tech did not, had burnt all bridges in the Big East and was growing desperate for any kind of solution that would get the Canes out of the BE and into the ACC. A thirteen-team conference it was going to be, and ACC Commissioner John Swofford called what would be the last conference call.

Marye Anne Fox had a final surprise.

The call was made at two a.m. Swiss time. Virginia Tech was voted on first, and in less than a minute Tech had what it had always desired, an invitation to the ACC. Miami came next, and this also went quickly, until it was Marye Anne’s turn to vote. She kept her fellow presidents hanging for close to 90 seconds before finally uttering "Yes" to the Canes.

Fox then threw the mother of all monkey-wrenches into the works by proclaiming "No" when Fredo’s turn came around, thereby earning her the amity of at least one Hokie, this one. It was a vote for the ages.

The ACC became an 11-team league, at least for the couple of months it took for Duke President Nan Keohane to change her vote and elect to have Fredo again change sides in the lawsuit. Fox continued to vote ‘No’ on BC. The question ever since has been why Fox voted as she did. She has steadfastly refused to explain it; one of her few comments about the whole thing was made during a Wolfpack Club cocktail party in Raleigh, saying she came very close to dropping the ‘No’ bomb on the Canes, too, after Virginia Tech had been admitted. I kind of wish she had. Tech being the only BE team going to the ACC would have been the ultimate ending. Bill Brill would have no doubt dropped dead on the spot upon hearing the news [instead of cruising the Caribbean and missing his first ACC Basketball Tournament in 40 years to protest allowing Tech into HIS conference - that sure showed them].

By 2005-06 the ACC would still be the 12-team conference it will be, as Swofford would have very quickly brought a new proposal before the presidents adding the same teams, but it would have been great fun observing the reactions. I’m sure Syracuse’s Shaw would have reminded Tech that we could have what we claimed was our original desire, the maintaining of the BE. These would have been comments made to the back of Dr. Steger as he headed out of the door marked ‘Big East’ and into the one labeled ‘ACC.’ The apoplectic reaction of Donna Shalala would also have been a joy to watch. Oh, well, it’s fun to speculate.

Many felt that the vote by Fox to blackball Fredo reflected some inside knowledge of intentions by Notre Dame by Irish alumnus Fox, also a member of Notre Dame’s board. Maybe so. There is a school of thought in ACC circles that Notre Dame could have become the twelfth team, but that their addition was botched by Swofford. The argument goes that Big John, after meekly agreeing to every demand made by Shalala, suddenly grew a spine when it came to dealing with Notre Dame and refused Irish requests for little items such as their full sharing of basketball revenue while keeping all of their football ones, only having to play six conference football games, and never being scheduled in the Orange Bowl. Who knows? Maybe one day Notre Dame to the ACC will again be explored, as expansion, or at least discussing it, is not over.

Tech and Miami join the conference July 1, and by the early morning hours of July 2 it can be expected that Shalala will make a proposal to add Syracuse as the thirteenth team. It will go nowhere, as there is absolutely no reason to screw with the optimum number of twelve for a conference unless a school can bring a serious amount of cash to the table, about ten million bucks annually, and SU does not. Their hope of escaping the Li’l E rests with some deal cut that would make Notre Dame the fourteenth team. Don’t hold your breath until the next deal Notre Dame has with NBC expires.

In the meantime Tech is entering the ACC as Marye Anne Fox leaves. Our association with her has been short, but she has left her mark on the ACC and the future of Virginia Tech. Whether she was a ditzy broad who couldn’t make up her mind or a master poker player who called Shalala’s bluff not to change conferences without Syracuse and BC, Marye Anne Fox contributed greatly to the slapstick comedy that was ACC expansion. In the end, she was Tech’s friend. I shall miss her.

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