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A Few Things You Might Not Have Known About Acc Expansion

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

By Dave Glenn, ACC Sports Journal
June 2, 2003 Of the more than 650 expansion-related e-mail questions readers submitted to the ACC Sports Journal over the last four weeks, most were answered by the exhaustive media coverage given to ACC expansion in the aftermath of critical public comments from Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese, including previous articles in the Sports Journal and on ACCSports.com. Here are some of the possible exceptions: Football, television, power and money were the biggest factors in this, obviously, but which individuals were the driving forces behind expansion?

It sounds odd, considering the ACC's reputation as a North Carolina-centric conference, but beyond commissioner John Swofford (a UNC graduate) the most influential pro-expansion figures in the conference were Florida State athletic director Dave Hart and Georgia Tech AD Dave Braine. Both worked feverishly behind the scenes, especially over the last 18-20 months, to build support for the idea inside and outside the league.

Fans of the other seven ACC schools may be surprised that the conference's two most recent additions — Tech in 1978, FSU in 1991 — had enough clout to successfully advance their agenda, but the league's power structure has been shifting for some time. The four North Carolina-based schools still form a powerful voting bloc and carry heavy influence, but most of the dominant personalities at the administrative level are elsewhere.

Swofford left his position as North Carolina's AD in 1997 to accept the job as commissioner. Tom Butters of Duke retired in 1998, after 20 years as the Blue Devils' powerful AD. Dr. Gene Hooks, Wake Forest's AD since 1964, retired in 1992. His replacement at Wake, Ron Wellman, is the veteran Big Four athletic director. He's a close ally of Swofford, an expansion proponent and — like Hart and Braine — plays more of a modern, CEO-type role than what the league was used to seeing in the past.

“We entered a new era for college sports a while back, and these folks are big-time businessmen, visionaries,” one high-ranking ACC official said, speaking of Swofford, Braine, Hart and Wellman. “They are not content to win some games, balance the budget and keep the alumni happy on a year-to-year basis. They're always looking at the bigger picture, always trying to anticipate and stay ahead of the game, and I think that's a good thing. Imagine where this league would be right now if (former commissioner) Gene Corrigan wasn't able to convince a lot of skeptics to bring in Florida State 12 years ago.”

Hart has been at FSU since 1995. Braine has been at Tech since 1997. The only ACC athletic directors with longer tenures also can be described as pro-expansion, CEO-types: Wellman (1992) and Maryland AD Debbie Yow (1994). Swofford, Hart and Braine pushed for an expansion vote in 1999 but fell short of the required seven votes. Four years later, of course, they succeeded by a 7-2 margin.

Interestingly, two other powerful college athletic directors who share many personality characteristics with the ACC's Fabulous Five are Gene DeFilippo of Boston College and Kevin White of Notre Dame. Both are known to have been in regular contact with their ACC counterparts in recent months, with White spending a significant amount of time with Swofford at this year's Final Four weekend.

Was there an Expansion X Factor?

Absolutely, positively, yes.

If there's a country singer out there who's interested in re-making a classic, here's one to consider: Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys … But TV Consultants Might Not Be A Bad Idea. OK, it's a bit wordy, but it's true.

ACC officials never quoted them by name, most media reports on expansion never mentioned them at all and only a few of these guys ever discussed anything on the record, but television consultants played a central role in expansion discussions from start to finish. They were, by far, the most powerful “invisible” force in the process.

The ACC's chief consultants were from the Bonham Group, a Denver-based sports marketing company that has negotiated more than $1 billion in television deals. (Former CBS Sports president Neal Pilson is an advisor to the Bonham Group but, contrary to published reports, did not work directly with the ACC.) All parties declined comment during the expansion talks.

“You and I are smart enough to look at other conferences' (football championship games), see how much money they make and take an educated guess at how much an ACC game might make,” the ACC official said. “But you and I are not smart enough to look three years into the future, factor in the state of the economy and other market forces, and come up with an intelligent number for our next (football TV contract), first with these nine teams and their markets and then these 12 teams and their markets. That's where we desperately needed some expertise from someone we trusted.”

The largest items on any major conference's revenue sheet come from football TV contracts, basketball TV contracts, NCAA Tournament income, basketball tournament money, football championship game money (if applicable) and bowl proceeds. (The ACC's basketball income is set for many years with lucrative, long-term contracts at the conference and NCAA levels.) Parties on both sides of the expansion argument agreed that a 12-team league would provide at least a slight bump in each category, and a large one (from $6-12 million) with the football title game, but by far the biggest source of disagreement came with projections of the next football TV deal.

The ACC's existing football TV contract, which will max out at $25 million in its final year (2005), pales in comparison to that of the SEC ($48 million) and some other major conferences. Of the ACC's $98 million in revenue in 2001-02, about $48 million came from football and $48 million from basketball. That's nice balance, but most major conferences make a lot more on football than they do on hoops, and that's where ACC number crunchers saw so much room for financial growth. Thus, the expansion idea.

If the TV consultants' most optimistic projections prove correct, the ACC's next football TV deal could approach $40 million a year, and that improvement alone would give the conference $15 million in new revenue. That's a nice chunk of the $30 million it likely would need to maintain or improve upon its national-best annual payout ($9.7 million per school in 2001-02) in the future. If the TV consultants' most skeptical projections prove correct, on the other hand, the ACC would be lucky to land a $15 million-a-year deal as a nine-team league and likely would only preserve its $25 million a year with 12 teams.

“That $20 million difference (in projections) was one of the biggest sources of contention,” the ACC source said. “I know that a TV consultant was one of the last people to speak at the Big East meetings, and a TV consultant was one of the most important people to speak at our meetings. It's a vitally important issue, and nobody had iron-clad answers. In many ways, it's a leap of faith, even when you're confident in your advisor.”

How did the ACC finally get the seven votes it needed to expand?

As recently as April, numerous well-connected ACC sources said they thought it was unlikely that Swofford and his allies would be able to get the seven votes they needed to approve formal expansion discussions.

Indeed, four years ago, the expansion count wasn't even close, and sources said the only rock-solid votes as recently as two years ago were from FSU and Georgia Tech. Then, a variety of variables changed in the direction of a more favorable vote.

At N.C. State in 1999, Marye Anne Fox was a relatively new chancellor (hired in August 1998) and Les Robinson was the athletic director. Robinson, described as an old-guard AD, was skeptical of expansion, and Fox — a fiery, aggressive, pro-football leader — had too many other matters on her plate. After Lee Fowler took over as AD in September 2000 and Fox settled into place, the Wolfpack became a gung-ho athletic program, especially in football. The Pack gave coach Chuck Amato $1 million for his staff, lowered the academic bar to an FSU-type level for incoming recruits, then poured millions into some extremely impressive facilities improvements. In the end, holding an essential swing vote, NCSU embraced the football- and money-driven expansion decision of 2003.

Similarly, at Clemson, president James Barker didn't arrive until October 1999, and athletic director Terry Don Phillips didn't take office until July 2002. Both quickly embraced the pro-expansion stance that had been adopted long ago by many at the school and in the Tigers' fan base. While at Oklahoma State, Phillips saw first-hand many of the benefits of a 12-team league after the Big Eight became the Big 12 in 1994. Previously, 17-year Clemson AD Bobby Robinson, another old-guard administrator, often voiced extreme caution and skepticism in expansion discussions.

Finally, some outside forces helped convince Maryland, Virginia and Wake Forest (and probably others) that what was wrong in 1999 was right in 2003.

Miami, which won four national championships in football from 1983-1991, had developed a reputation as a renegade program and was coming off probation in 1999. Only later, as Butch Davis continued to clean up the program and the Hurricanes captured their fifth national title in Larry Coker's first season as head coach (2001), did they regain their status as a gridiron powerhouse and TV darling.

“That was an enormous negative four years ago,” the ACC source said. “Some people could still see that it was a strong university, despite the bad publicity around the football program, but others just couldn't get past the probation and the image problems. Miami was still a good candidate in many ways, but that was not the message the conference wanted to send.”

In the bigger picture, of course, the ACC clearly came to its own crossroads this year. With the football TV contract and the BCS deal both set to expire after the 2005 season, and negotiations for both likely to begin in the summer of 2004, expansion became a now-or-never proposition. Even if the new schools can't play a complete schedule until the 2005-06 academic year, which is the most likely scenario, at least they will factor into the all-important negotiating process before their true arrivals.

“Maybe it wasn't now or never,” the ACC source said, “but it was ‘now or by next year it may be too late because someone else may beat us to the punch.'”

How and why did the ACC's expansion plan finally become public?

Everyone knows about Tranghese's controversial comments by now, but most probably don't realize the accidental role played by Wake Forest basketball coach Skip Prosser in the whole process.

First, though, here's Tranghese, simply because anything this inflammatory that comes out of the mouth of a veteran college administrator is worth printing again, if only because it happens so rarely.

“I have no use for the ACC right now,” Tranghese told the New York Daily News. “They're a bunch of hypocrites. They operate in the dark. They'll never acknowledge this, but I'm aware the ACC for the last couple of years, without ever picking up the phone and calling me, has basically gone out and tried to convince our teams to enter their league. …

“The ACC has tried to conquer by dividing. They whisper things to each person. They're trying to intimidate those schools, telling them, ‘The Big East will not be a viable conference in the future, and you could be left out if you don't come on board.' … The ACC, probably more than anybody, has tried to disrupt our conference for a long time. They haven't done it yet. And, as long as I'm here, they're not going to do it.”

Although many media members suggested that Tranghese made a tactical blunder with his public comments, those who know the Big East leader well suggested that he knew exactly what he was doing. He realized the expansion idea was gaining momentum, and he saw that there wasn't much he could do (although he later tried very hard) to counter the ACC's financial arguments, so he made a private matter a public matter in the hope that the inevitable media frenzy could derail the concept.

Considering the eventual fallout — the angry accusations of greed by media members toward the ACC, the outrage of some schools' faculty members, the (mostly anti-expansion) involvement of senators, governors and various other politicians up and down the East Coast, the unbelievable political pressure exerted on Miami president Donna Shalala by her Big East peers — Tranghese's stumble, or plan, almost worked.

Prosser's seemingly minor role in this whole mess may have been more important than most realize. Reportedly, the single event that pushed Tranghese over the edge and into his public explosion was Prosser's series of exchanges with Pittsburgh officials, who were trying to lure him away from Wake Forest after Ben Howland left for UCLA. Pitt representatives told Tranghese that one of Prosser's biggest concerns about the Panthers job was the long-term viability of the Big East, and Tranghese correctly surmised that Wake and ACC officials were the ones who had whispered those doubts in Prosser's ear.

“Tranghese desperately wanted to see one of his schools lure away the ACC coach of the year,” the ACC source said. “When it didn't happen and he found out one of the possible reasons why, he wasn't very happy.”

How and why did the ACC keep things under wraps for so long?

As recently as late April, after Tranghese's comments, Swofford said in published reports that the ACC still was “leaning” toward remaining a nine-team league. Perhaps he was being honest, but more likely he was simply continuing his practice of manipulating the media to his advantage. For the previous 18 months, as full-scale studies of various expansion scenarios and a variety of detailed discussions with potential candidates took place virtually unnoticed, Swofford always maintained that expansion was merely a “back-burner” issue. At best, those comments were extremely misleading.

Meanwhile, the commissioner privately emphasized to league officials on many occasions that it was in their best interest — and in the best interest of their hopes for expansion — if they kept quiet about the matter. Even administrators who regularly hold off-the-record conversations with select reporters avoided the topic or curiously spoke about it only in very general terms. Clearly, Swofford saw attention as a bad thing.

“I think John would have been very happy to hold a surprise press conference, announcing the additions of Miami, Boston College and Syracuse,” the ACC source said. “He definitely didn't want this to be a public process.”

Somehow, Swofford even managed to keep the ACC's annual meetings in mid-May a relatively private event. Despite the fact that the expansion issue already had become a red-hot topic of discussion in the public forum, the commissioner's statements to the media — “we're not going to come out of these meetings as a 12-team league” and “we have many things to discuss besides expansion” — apparently convinced most to stay home.

Only seven college beat writers made the trip to Amelia Island, Fla., to cover the ACC meetings: Luciana Chavez of the Raleigh News & Observer, Bill Cole of the Winston-Salem Journal, Omar Kelly of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Tim Peeler of the Greensboro News & Record, Bob Thomas of the Florida Times-Union, Edgar Thompson of the Palm Beach Post and Jack Wilkinson of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. One week later, at the Big East meetings in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., more than 70 reporters were on hand.

Miami is obvious, but why Boston College and Syracuse?

The first part of the question is the answer to the second part of the question.

Miami, as the linchpin to the entire expansion process, held far more leverage than any other school. By April, the ACC already had secretly entertained the Hurricanes with two extensive expansion presentations, but according to sources no other Big East school had been approached in any detailed manner at the time. Miami ultimately wanted Boston College and Syracuse as part of the package, and what the Hurricanes wanted they were very likely to get.

“I would never guess what might have happened if (Miami) said they wanted Rutgers and Temple,” one ACC source said, “but as it turned out their preferences matched the preferences of most of our members.”

Miami and most ACC schools all considered Boston College and Syracuse attractive candidates because of their impressive academic credentials, desirable TV markets and large athletic budgets (especially in football), but the Hurricanes had an important additional motive for pursuing a continuation of their relationship with the Eagles and the Orangemen: Miami attracts an extraordinary percentage of its student body from the Northeast, especially New Jersey and New York, and school officials were adamant about maintaining their visibility in that region.

Is there a possibility for even further expansion?

Yes. It still has to be classified as unlikely, at least for now, but ACC officials have had many informal conversations with Notre Dame and even Penn State in recent years. The Nittany Lions never have been completely happy in the Big Ten — ACC and PSU officials both now wish they had considered one another back in the late 1980s — although the Lions haven't been particularly receptive to pitches from other leagues, either.

The hang-up with Notre Dame, which will be far more open to suitors if the Big East collapses rather than raiding another conference, is clear. The Irish (with their $8 million-a-year TV deal with NBC) want to remain independent in football, and the ACC won't consider any school that isn't interested in being a full member.

If either of those two positions changes, some ACC officials said they could envision a 14-team league, with the Irish and either Virginia Tech or PSU as the final two additions. If the ACC and Notre Dame both stick to their current positions, however, the conference will be more than happy to enter the next chapter in its 50-year history with 12 healthy, happy members.