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Look Back on ACC Expansion? No Thanks
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 5/6/04
VT Athletic Director Jim Weaver shakes
ACC Commissioner John Swofford's
hand at the press conference
welcoming the Hokies to the ACC.
(image from WRAL Channel 5,
Raleigh-Durham)

In my office, over in the corner underneath a shoebox and an empty birthday party gift bag, I have a stack of old Roanoke Times sports sections. The stack is about four inches thick, has a hefty weight to it, and covers one topic: ACC expansion.

It has been a year since ACC expansion started to turn from message board fodder into real-life drama. The commotion started on April 17, 2003, two days before Virginia Tech's spring football game, when Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese started the festivities with the shot heard round the world, the New York Daily News article in which he told renowned basketball reporter Dick Weiss "I have no use for the ACC right now. They're a bunch of hypocrites."

Tranghese's rant, in which he accused the ACC of trying to steal three Big East schools (Miami, Syracuse, BC, and/or VT) with back-room dealings, was of course a calculated maneuver designed to flick on the lights and send the cockroaches scurrying.

ACC commissioner John Swofford responded the next day in the fashion you might expect: deny, deny, deny. But within about a week of Weiss' article, Miami AD Paul Dee had admitted to "conversations" with the ACC, and he even went so far as to make a presentation on April 25th to Miami's board of trustees on the pros and cons of joining the ACC.

At that meeting, Dee also told the board that if Miami went, Syracuse and Boston College would go with them.

To that point, VT had been mentioned as a possibility for ACC expansion, but when Dee flat-out named BC and Syracuse, it started a gut-wrenching odyssey full of twists and turns that would wear out Hokie fans, administrators, coaches and players from late April through late June, when the Hokies shockingly received a 12th-hour invitation to join the ACC.

Back to my stack of newspapers. The first Roanoke Times newspaper article I saved was from May 5th, 2003. The headline says, "Weaver wants Tech on line if ACC calls." The accompanying article details Weaver's efforts to get Tech positioned for ACC expansion by calling up those within the ACC and reminding them of VT's football prowess and geographic proximity.

"This can't be kicked around in the paper," Weaver was quoted as saying, his not-so-subtle hint to Roanoke Times reporter Mark Berman that he wasn't going to be very forthcoming with what was going on.

Oh, it most certainly could be kicked around in the paper, Mr. Weaver, and from late April through early July, it was. I've got the thick stack of newspapers to prove it, and TechSideline.com's daily Hokie News article database has hundreds of articles linked to prove it. (Most of the articles have disappeared from their respective web sites, by the way, but the headlines and lead-in paragraphs saved in Hokie News tell the tale well enough.)

But my point in writing this article was to say this: I don't like reliving the ACC expansion drama. It ended well for Tech, resulting in the greatest occurrence in VT sports history, that of the Hokies finally coming home to the conference they belong in but were never a part of.

But despite that happy ending, flipping through my stack of newspapers doesn't make me smile. Instead, it makes me recall the constant worry of that ten-week period, the endless message board discussions, phone calls, and emails fraught with apprehension and anxiety. While Tech fans fretted over what would happen to the Hokies, I personally had bigger issues at risk. TechSideline.com, which was finally getting its ducks in a row and coming around to being a viable business entity, was about to be threatened by a complicated expansion process that didn't include VT and looked like it would result in the Hokies being left behind in a depleted Big East, or worse, shipped off to Conference USA.

People don't buy subscriptions and T-shirts for a team that plays in a conference with the likes of Central Florida, Cincinnati, Memphis, and a Miami-less Big East. Hokie fans are good and loyal, but let's be honest, membership in a lousy conference with very little revenue and no BCS bid would have done some serious damage to VT sports, and by extension TSL. I was sweating it, big-time.

I sense that most VT fans feel a similar way about that expansion rollercoaster ride. They're looking forward to ACC membership, but in no way do they want to take a walk down memory lane to the late spring and early summer of 2003. That wasn't fun, and the memories of the ACC's relentless, plodding march to expansion as the powers that be in the Big East sat and pathetically wrung their hands do not bring a gleam to any Hokie fan's eye. The year anniversary of the Weiss article that started the whole thing came and went with no one -- except me -- marking it on the message boards.

It's like stepping off a city sidewalk and realizing that suddenly there's a bus bearing down on you. You dive back on the sidewalk on your belly, avoiding the bus narrowly, and land face down, right on top of a wad of hundred dollar bills just lying right there in the street. Wow. If that bus had never gotten that close to running you over, you wouldn't have found that wad of cash.

But while you're excited to have the cash and you're anxious to spend or save it or whatever, you're not going to spend much time reliving that instant where you looked up and realized a bus was about to run you over in the street.

ACC expansion was like that bus. I donít really want to think about it. ACC membership is like that wad of bills. I can't wait to spend it.

Those months of May and July are supposed to be a time when I recharge my batteries from the exhaustion of the football season, followed by recruiting, basketball season and spring football. Those events run non-stop from August to late April and keep me very busy, and sleep becomes optional. But from late April to early July of 2003, instead of resting, I was thrown from the fire into a meat-grinder, as site traffic levels reached unprecedented heights, roughly double what the traffic runs during a football season.

And the traffic was not pleasant, and no one was happy. Blecch.

I would like to celebrate the process that led to the glorious ending of VT getting an invitation to the ACC. I'd like to remind you every step of the way what was happening back then, maybe with a "One Year Ago Today, in ACC Expansion" feature, but you know what? I can't do it. I don't want to do it. It dredges up too many unpleasant memories.

Maybe after a few more years pass, that feeling of dread will fade, and I'll be able to regard the expansion process with a little more neutrality, because it really was a phenomenal once-in-a-lifetime story. But not yet.

What say we gather back here on July 1st, the day Tech officially enters the ACC, and celebrate then? Till then, I don't think I'll be taking many walks down memory lane to what happened a year ago.


Comments on the NCAA's New Academic Reforms

On another topic, I was thinking about the NCAA's recent landmark academic reforms, and they brought up some questions.

First, let's review the reforms, or the ones I found to be of particular interest. Starting with the freshmen who entered school this year (2003-04 academic year), the NCAA will require that athletes must have completed 40 percent of their degree requirements after their first two years. That number goes to 60 percent after three years and 80 percent after four years. The NCAA used to require percentages of 25, 50, and 75 respectively.

Programs will also have to keep their graduation rates above a yet-to-be-determined level.

With the old 25/50/75 rule, the only punishment handed down if a player didn't meet those requirements was a loss of eligibility for the player. And there were no graduation requirements, though the NCAA tracked the stats and published them.

But now schools face much bigger penalties than just losing a player's eligibility. Failure to have students make progress towards a degree and failure to graduate enough players will result in punishments escalating from public warnings to a loss of scholarships to ineligibility for postseason play (on the part of the school, not the players). The possibility of NCAA expulsion lurks as the final, fateful punishment for schools that really flaunt the rules or just can't meet them.

These reforms are all noble, but they may cause some real fur to fly if large numbers of schools, particularly influential ones, don't meet the criteria.

First of all, let's admit that schools who are having trouble meeting the numbers can get around them simply by cheating, perhaps by handing out unearned passing grades or by steering athletes towards fluff majors and then giving them athlete-friendly professors. So the motivation for academic fraud, which has always been present, has been ratcheted up.

But let's say a school refuses to cheat, has trouble meeting the new guidelines, and finds itself in a situation where the NCAA starts punishing them. I can see the NCAA issuing public warnings, taking away scholarships, and keeping teams from postseason play. They have done those things before.

But can you really see the NCAA expelling, say, the Tennessee Volunteers from the NCAA? That's the death penalty for a program. Sorry, but I doubt that punishment will ever happen.

On a different note, what will this do to discipline matters? With all the talk of discipline surrounding the VT football program right now, with the Marcus Vick/Mike Imoh/Brenden Hill troubles and the dismissals of Mike Brown and Michael Hinton, discipline is a big issue at VT right now, and the NCAA's academic reforms have an effect on that.

Let's say you've got a bad seed on your football team or basketball team, but he or she is in good standing academically. When the coach sits down to decide if he wants to dismiss a player, suddenly that coach has to calculate the effect this player's dismissal will have on the academic standing of the program.

From now on, you're not just deciding to boot a player from your team for the sake of discipline alone. If you boot a player and that player is a negative tally on your graduation statistics, it may cost you scholarships down the road, or even the ability to appear in postseason play! So a coach may feel pressured to keep a troublemaker on scholarship if that troublemaker is on course to graduate.

Let's admit it, most kids on the verge of being dismissed from a team by the coach are usually not in good academic standing, anyway. But I can see instances where a coach who might otherwise boot a player or "encourage" that player to transfer elsewhere might start making efforts to keep that player, no matter how detrimental to the team, because the extra diploma is needed so you can look good when the NCAA comes looking for the numbers.

The NCAA can make these decisions easier by using sound principles when deciding how to count graduation rates, but if you're like me, you don't trust them.

Interesting stuff, and it's reason #212 why I'm glad I'm not a college coach.

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