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A History Of Expansion

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

As the ACC's pursuit of Boston College, Syracuse and Miami became public this spring, critics bombarded the conference with accusations of selfishness, greed and commercialization. Indeed, money, power and football are the driving forces behind the league's current desire to grow, but that's nothing new. Beginning with the formation of the conference in 1953, and continuing through membership additions in 1978 (Georgia Tech) and 1991 (Florida State), money and football — and, more recently, television — always have been powerful elements in the league's decision-making process.

By Eddy Landreth
Chapel Hill (N.C.) News

June 2, 2003 The idea of Miami joining the ACC is nearly as old as the league itself, as are the arguments against commercialism and the proliferation of intercollegiate sports. The desire to accommodate football dates to the inception of the league as well. When seven schools — Duke, Clemson, Maryland, North Carolina, N.C. State, South Carolina and Wake Forest — broke from the 17-team Southern Conference in May 1953 to form a new intercollegiate athletic league, they did so with the interests of football in mind.

“King Football” was the only significant revenue producer at the time, and athletic officials at the seven schools were determined to further the sport. The league's formation was not about television contracts but bowl games. The marriage between television and college sports came later.

Men's basketball didn't produce significant revenue at most schools. (N.C. State was an exception because of Reynolds Coliseum, then considered one of the top venues in the South, and the Dixie Classic.) Bowl money helped build Duke Indoor Stadium, which today is called Cameron Indoor Stadium and is revered as a college basketball shrine.

“I didn't receive any (scholarship) money until the last year I was there,” said Maryland's Gene Shue, an All-ACC basketball player in 1954. “Maryland was a football school, one of the top-rated ones in the country. Basketball was in its infancy and considered minor.”

1950s: Football Inspired Jump

Just as faculty outrage at UNC and Duke today will have little effect on the ACC growing to 12 teams, the opposition to football and collegiate sports could not stop the ACC's original seven from splitting from their less serious contenders in the old Southern Conference.

When Southern Conference officials voted to deny Maryland and Clemson permission to play in bowl games in 1951, it only fueled the interest from the die-hard football schools to form a new league. Duke, then a national power on the gridiron, considered building a new conference with North Carolina, Penn State, Notre Dame and Syracuse, among others. Eventually, the original seven met in Greensboro, N.C., and created a new league.

Seven months after the ACC was formed, the league expanded for the first time, when Virginia was named the eighth member. Miami, Florida State and Mississippi Southern expressed interest in becoming the eighth school, but the difficulty in travel — commercial airline rates, then regulated by the federal government, were prohibitively expensive until the 1970s — kept them from gaining serious consideration. Virginia Tech and West Virginia were voted on and rejected because they, too, were seen as ill-suited for even ground travel.

The new conference viewed Virginia as the ideal eighth member, but UVa officials did not necessarily feel the same way. They frowned on big-time athletics, particularly football. Virginia president Colgate Darden had refused the football team permission to play in a bowl game in 1951.

“The team cannot take the time to go on through December in a strenuous period of practice for a game on New Year's Day and stand a reasonable chance of surviving the mid-year examinations,” author Barry Jacobs quoted Darden in the book “Golden Glory: The First 50 Years of the ACC.”

Scholars criticized football as corrupting for the young men who played it and the university setting in which it took place. Robert K. Gooch, a professor at Virginia and a former Cavalier football player, headed a group that in 1951 called for “less professional football teams.”

“We have never felt it to be the function of a university,” the Gooch report stated, “to provide a money-making spectacle of athletic virtuosity for Saturday afternoon entertainment.”

The on-field strength of the new ACC schools also concerned Darden when he considered whether Virginia should become the eighth member. He worried that the focus on athletics by the original seven “would relegate Virginia to a doormat role.” (Indeed, the Cavaliers averaged only three wins per season from 1953-82, when George Welsh arrived in Charlottesville.) In the end, though, Virginia officials understood they must join if they were going to participate in sports. If not, the school “could be left on the platform with a ticket in our pocket, baggage in our hand, but no train to ride.”

The new league cemented its status by signing a contract with the Orange Bowl for an automatic bid that would pay the league $110,600, a large amount of money at the time. Maryland then proved the conference's point about football by capturing the national championship in 1953, the first year of ACC play.

1960s: TV Lifted Hoops Only

The league maintained its eight members until July 1971, when South Carolina officially withdrew because university officials believed an ACC rule that required athletes to score a minimum of 800 on the SAT kept the school from competing against Southeastern Conference teams for high school prospects.

There were rumblings that Clemson might depart as well, but in the end the Tigers stayed, and the ACC played with seven members until Georgia Tech was added as an eighth in April 1978. Television markets played a role for the first time with this expansion, and once again, football was a key consideration.

Football gradually had become a second-class citizen in the ACC, after an entrepreneur named C.D. Chesley broadcast the 1957 national championship game in men's basketball between North Carolina and Kansas.

The NCAA controlled the televising of college football, and the lack of coverage for ACC teams in the 1960s strangled the league's ability to recruit and compete with the Pac-10, Big Ten and SEC, which dominated Saturday afternoon football broadcasts.

As a result, ACC football dropped from the national landscape. In many years, even into the early 1970s, the conference champion didn't merit a bowl invitation, or even a ranking in the final Associated Press poll. (The AP published only a top 10 from 1962-67, then a top 20 through 1989, when it adopted its current top 25 format.) There was no conspiracy at work; ACC football simply wasn't very good. In 1964, for example, the league champion was a 5-5 N.C. State team that was outscored by a 194-119 margin.

Chesley did not labor under the same NCAA-regulated constrictions with basketball. His broadcasts put the ACC ahead of every conference in the nation in exposure. Soon the fans' cry that this was the top basketball league in America became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“It really put the ACC in a special category,” TV analyst Billy Packer, a former basketball player at Wake Forest, said of Chesley's broadcasts. “Because of his exposure, the ability of the league to recruit beyond its natural territories, way beyond any other conference … separated the (ACC) from the other leagues when you started talking about the rise of quality.”

Tech, FSU Hardened Gridiron

When it came time to fill South Carolina's vacant spot, strengthening football clearly was part of the equation. Georgia Tech had won three national championships on the gridiron at the time of its adoption in 1978, and the Yellow Jackets had three former coaches in the College Football Hall of Fame: John Heisman, William Alexander and Bobby Dodd.

Tech also happened to play in the largest television market in the South, and the school eventually fulfilled its promise by winning the 1990 national championship in football.

After adding Tech, the ACC returned to what seemed like the perfect number of schools with eight. One of the declarations by the founders had been that they wanted to form a “playing league,” in which all the schools played one another in football and basketball for the championships. Eight provided the ideal number to meet this charge.

Athletics changed dramatically, though, when the courts broke the NCAA's monopoly on negotiating TV rights for all of collegiate football. This led to the formation of the 65-member College Football Association, which negotiated for several conferences and Notre Dame.

The new system worked until Notre Dame blew it apart by negotiating its own TV deal for football with NBC. Around this same time, the outset of the 1990s, Penn State joined the Big Ten, surprising the ACC (a long-time admirer) in the process. Suddenly, conferences began to shuffle. The SEC took Arkansas from the disbanded Southwest Conference, added independent South Carolina and divided into two divisions and negotiated a contract for football with CBS.

College football changed overnight. Even the bowl system eventually evolved from an illogical free-for-all to an organized means to choose a national champion.

Even with Clemson's national title in football in 1981 and Georgia Tech's in 1990, ACC commissioner Gene Corrigan believed the conference needed to add a respected football power to keep pace in the rapidly changing environment.

So the ACC and the Big East began the 1990s with discussions about forming a football-only conference that would include Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Boston College. ACC athletic directors and presidents said no to such an alliance.

Eventually, the ACC considered adding some combination of Miami, Florida State and Syracuse before settling on the Seminoles, who had inquired about joining the league back in December 1953. Coach Bobby Bowden and his program were consistently at the top of college football before and after their jump to the ACC, and their presence assured the conference it would be included in whatever deals came from bowls and television.

“Having Florida State with us without question gave us a place at the table,” said John Swofford, then the athletic director at North Carolina and now the ACC commissioner.

1990s: New Prosperity Levels

While the league grew in an effort to strengthen football, basketball just kept chugging along. At least one ACC team appeared in the Final Four every year but one from 1988-2002, with Duke, Maryland and UNC winning five titles among them.

Just as Georgia Tech before it, Florida State made good on its promise in football by winning the national championship for the 1993 and 1999 seasons. FSU also produced the only two Heisman Trophy winners in conference history, in quarterbacks Charlie Ward and Chris Weinke. Prior to its recent stumbles, the team earned top-four rankings in the final polls for an amazing 14 consecutive seasons.

But the Seminoles did even more. Their presence, combined with the league's ability to negotiate TV deals for itself, created a heretofore-unseen financial bonanza. By 1997, the ACC television contract for football equaled that of basketball for the first time in league history, with each bringing in around $17 million per year. Additionally, the conference became a power player nationally, as part of the Bowl Coalition, the Bowl Alliance and most recently (beginning in 1998) the all-powerful Bowl Championship Series, which distributed more than $90 million to its six automatic-bid participants (including the ACC) in 2001-02.

“Nobody knows for sure where we would have been in those (BCS) discussions without Florida State,” Swofford said. “We were certainly glad to have them on our side.”

Pre-Florida State, the ACC averaged six or seven games a year on ABC or ESPN, with another 12 on the regional Jefferson-Pilot television network. By the end of the 1990s, the conference had 29 games on ABC/ESPN and eight on Jefferson-Pilot. The final year of the ACC's existing football deal, which will expire after the 2005 season, is worth a league-record $25 million.

Meanwhile, under Swofford's direction, the conference's annual revenue totals have grown from $68.1 million (1997-98) to $77.1 million (1998-99) to $82.1 million (1999-2000) to $83.9 million (2000-01) to $98.1 million (2001-02). In almost every year, those numbers enabled the league to pay its members more per school than any other league in America.

Prosperity has been a two-way street for conference members. Florida State, an independent before joining, earned financial security by becoming the ninth ACC team. The league's average payout of $9.7 million per school in 2001-02 represented the highest number in the history of college athletics, and that sum alone paid for more than a third of the Seminoles' overall athletic expenses in that academic year.

“We never made a penny in basketball,” Bowden said. “Now all of a sudden, we're making millions even though we haven't been very successful in basketball. We're making millions on what North Carolina and Duke and Maryland are doing. On the other side of the ledger, our football has helped bring everybody else up.”

2003: Football, TV Back Again

Now in 2003, the conference is about to expand again, and once more football is the driving force. The ACC already has renegotiated its television contract for men's basketball, nearly doubling it to around $30 million per year. (That doesn't include the league's share of NCAA Tournament money.) With the football TV discussions coming up again soon, conference officials want to ensure they'll have similar leverage to increase that payday. They would like to increase their bargaining power with the other leagues with regard to postseason play as well.

“Expansion is a subject the ACC has periodically addressed since Florida State joined the league in 1991,” Swofford said in April. “With the changing landscape in conference affiliations over the last decade, I think the ACC, or any other league, would be remiss if it did not evaluate where things stand and what impact that landscape has.”

By adding Miami, the conference can boast two of the most consistent football powers in the country since the early 1980s. And given Florida's growing population base and the state's obsession with football, either Florida State or Miami is sure to be competing for a national championship in most years.

Further expansion also would enable the ACC to join another phenomenon that developed during the age of two-division leagues: the conference championship game for football. The SEC's title game has become a payday of more than $12 million for that league. The Big 12, a conference that formed in 1994 by combining teams from the Big Eight and the Southwest Conference, also has a title game in football. It doesn't generate the same income as the SEC's, but it's still a payday of more than $6 million.

The pursuit of television markets, which began with the addition of Georgia Tech in 1978, once more is playing a role. If Miami, Syracuse and Boston College join the ACC, as expected, the ACC will stretch along the Atlantic Coast all the way from New England to (almost) the southern tip of Florida.

The new geography would encompass the Boston, New York City and Miami television markets, and the additions would allow the ACC to increase its national TV coverage by about 50 percent. According to industry executives, the existing nine-school conference covers about 13.5 percent of the American TV market. The proposed 12-team league would cover about 20.2 percent of the nation.

Some of the same arguments voiced more than 50 years ago can be heard challenging expansion today — sports is corrupting the university system, intercollegiate sports is greed-driven and football is the tail that wags the dog.

But just as in 1953, in 1978 and in 1991, don't look for ACC officials to be swayed. The men and women who operate athletic departments see their job as succeeding on the field and at the bank. Expanding to 12 teams and two divisions with three more schools is what those people believe will keep the ACC ahead of the curve in both categories.

Much of the research for this story came from “Golden Glory: The First 50 Years of the ACC.” Chapel Hill (N.C.) News columnist Eddy Landreth was editor and project manager for the book.

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