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ACC Expansion: No Buyer's Remorse


Some might say it’s a darn good thing Pittsburgh and Syracuse cast their lots with the ACC last September, because if the conference had seen how the 2011 football season turned out for the schools, it might have had second thoughts by January. Big second thoughts.

As it turns out, given the events of mid-May, when Florida State started grumbling about the conference’s new TV deal, its “North Carolina-centric” outlook, and how life in the Big 12, SEC or English Premier League might be better, some of that recalculating is already happening.

The 2011 Panthers staggered home 6–7, lost the BBVA Compass Bowl classic to SMU and saw their coach bolt for Arizona State after just one season at the helm. Syracuse, meanwhile, failed to build on its 2010 success and finished 5–7, a record that assured the Orange would be home for the holidays for the ninth time in the last 10 seasons. Clearly, the ACC wasn’t getting the Pitt of Johnny Majors or the Syracuse of Ben Schwartzwalder — or even Paul Pasqualoni, for that matter. Since conference expansion doesn’t often come with a money-back guarantee, it might appear as if the ACC had been stuck with a couple of schools that it might not want after all — especially in a climate in which football dictates policy. Call it expander’s remorse.

When FSU expressed its dissatisfaction, a significant part of it was due to the conference’s new TV deal with ESPN, which should bring members about $17.1 million/year from 2020-27 and reflects the league’s gridiron status behind the SEC, Big Ten, Pac-12 and Big 12 — all of which deliver more to their schools in television revenue.

The decision to add the Panthers and Orange, which have had much more basketball success than gridiron fortune over the past couple decades, didn’t provide a huge boost in contract negotiations — something that did not please Florida State. But along Tobacco Road and the other conference destinations the thought process is different. The Panthers and Orange aren’t charging into the league with gridiron fortunes high and the promise of fat BCS paydays in the near future, but the expansion game doesn’t work that way these days — at least not in leagues that can afford to be choosy.

It’s one thing for the Big East to enter into a marriage of convenience with Boise State and quite another to make a salient argument that BSU fits with the conference’s other members. Even if Pitt and Syracuse take five or 10 years to return to football prominence, the ACC feels it has made a good move bringing them aboard. FSU may be upset that the league’s inability to expand its football fortunes cost it some television dough, but the rest of the conference is pleased. To them, fit and geography matter most.

“(Pitt and Syracuse) may not have had good seasons last year, but over time, you have teams that are good and bad,” North Carolina AD Bubba Cunningham says. “You want to associate with schools you can work with.”

That’s the key to the Pitt-Syracuse entrance into the ACC. This is not about making the conference stronger in football, although it is reasonable to think the schools won’t struggle long term. This is about fit. It’s about increasing recruiting opportunities. It’s about adding markets to become more attractive to television networks. About bringing aboard schools with similar academic missions and profiles. If the ACC wanted simply to make itself better on the gridiron (and some maintain that should be the goal of every expansion), it could have looked elsewhere, perhaps to West Virginia. But when it comes to the bigger picture, the league made a good move and has solidified itself for the future. Even if the Seminoles skate to “greener” pastures, trading expanded travel (hello, Lubbock!) for a bigger TV payday, the ACC will still be strong.

“(Being successful on the field) isn’t the main philosophical reason why we expand,” Virginia Tech AD Jim Weaver says. “Once we decided to expand, we wanted to get institutions of like backgrounds and philosophical approaches.”

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Weaver’s fellow ADs share his sentiments. They point to the schools’ successes in other sports; for instance, both have been extremely successful in men’s basketball, although Pitt’s 2011-12 season wasn’t up to its recent standards. Syracuse’s men’s lacrosse team is a perennial powerhouse, something that fits in well in a conference with national contenders Virginia, North Carolina, Duke and Maryland. Most important is the fact that both schools are committing the resources necessary to be competitive. Last spring, Pitt opened the $29 million Petersen Sports Complex, which features top-shelf baseball, softball and soccer fields.

“Pitt and Syracuse have great histories associated with their (football) programs,” Georgia Tech AD Dan Radakovich says. “One thing intercollegiate athletics teaches us is that all things are cyclical. Are they making the right investments to get back to becoming power schools? Yes, they are.

“But you have to do more than just look at one particular sport. You have to look at the entire athletic program and how it fits into the whole institution.”

Even if the Panthers and Orange aren’t ready to bring BCS bowl checks into the conference coffers, they provide a big help thanks to their locations. Right now, Boston College is the ACC’s northern outpost and lacks a rival within eight hours of its campus. The Eagles can now tell recruits that they will be playing in the Northeast, while other ACC schools can start looking at players to the north and sell them on having the opportunities to play closer to their homes than they would have been able to before. “If you look across the rosters of our teams, we don’t have a lot of kids from that area,” Florida State AD Randy Spetman says. “This lets us look into that area. It will help (football coach Jimbo) Fisher reach out into that region.”

Pitt isn’t particularly close to Boston, but it isn’t far from Central Pennsylvania or even Philadelphia, and that means BC can enter the fertile Keystone State recruiting fields, as can member schools from North Carolina, Georgia and Florida. Boston College’s joining the conference extended the ACC footprint to New England, but the Eagles were sort of like an extra toe on that foot. With Pitt and Syracuse aboard next year, the northern end of the conference is much stronger.

“Schools in the south want to go into the north to recruit,” says NC State coach Tom O’Brien, who was at BC when the Eagles joined the ACC. “We can tell players they’ll get a chance to play in the northeast and New England, in New York and Pennsylvania. If you come to our school, you’ll get the chance to come home, and your family and friends can see you.”

Even if they can’t see you in person, there is always TV, and the arrivals of Pitt and Syracuse allowed the ACC to renegotiate its contract. FSU may not look at the new deal as perfect, but it is better than what the league had. What the Seminoles have to weigh is whether the estimated $3 million more they would get from Big 12 membership would offset the perks of being closer to home. Of course, if FSU somehow convinced the SEC to admit it (and perhaps Clemson), it would be a completely different story, since SEC schools are reportedly receiving $25 million/year from the conference’s new TV agreement.

“Television was not the overriding decision,” Spetman said about the decision to expand. “But Commissioner (John) Swofford’s decision to look this way allowed us to (renegotiate). Every day it seems like a conference is getting a new deal. We don’t want to be left on the back porch wondering what happened.”

Although Pitt and Syracuse aren’t yet members of the ACC — the Big East has a 27-month waiting period before a school can leave; that may be shortened — there are already those who are wondering if a 14-team league will be unwieldy and whether adding two more schools might create more symmetry. Spetman, who was at Utah State before FSU, remembers life in the 16-team WAC as having “some problems,” although the league’s geography (from Dallas to Honolulu) was likely the biggest hurdle. Radakovich is taking a wait-and-see approach, while Cunningham thinks “18 might be the ideal number.” Whatever the case, the carousel continues to spin, and the ACC has proven it is eager to take a ride. And getting stronger by adding the two schools could well lead to interest from the expansion Holy Grail: Notre Dame, which might be looking for a convenient home (read: one that will allow it to keep its NBC deal) once the new college football playoff system is finalized.

If Florida State leaves the fold, the ACC will likely move ahead, perhaps looking at Louisville and Cincinnati. Or Connecticut and Rutgers. Or Notre Dame. As always, fit will be a big factor.

And maybe a problem.