By Ken Tysiac
Charlotte (N.C.) Observer
May 30, 2007
AMELIA ISLAND, Fla. Clemson basketball coach Oliver Purnell hustled toward the elevators at the Ritz-Carlton
The ACC's basketball and football coaches were scattering, ready to leave the seaside resort near Jacksonville where conference officials met during the third week of May.
They decided to open up the fledgling football championship game's site to bids from four cities beginning in 2008. They resolved to push for an early signing date for football prospects on the Wednesday before the third week in December.
COACHES PROTECT 16 SCHEDULE
Their most important decision might have been keeping the men's basketball conference schedule at 16 games, rather than 18, at least until the end of the 2010-11 season.
Pac-10 teams already are playing 18 conference games. Big East and Big Ten schools will begin doing the same in 2007-08.
But the ACC coaches adamantly opposed an 18-game schedule. With 18 conference games, they said, they might be reluctant to play high-profile nonconference opponents. Games such as Duke-Georgetown and North Carolina-Kentucky might disappear from schedules if ACC teams were playing 18 conference games.
After getting seven teams into the 2007 NCAA Tournament, ACC coaches and many administrators were reluctant to change.
ACC teams will go through a second, three-season rotation of the current scheduling format. Each team will play its two "permanent partners" home and away every season. On a rotating basis, each team will play home and away against three conference opponents and meet the other six opponents once in each season.
"Coaches are supportive of the way things have gone," Purnell said. "We think the media and the selection committee, those people have looked upon us favorably."
The coaches' opinions did not fall on deaf ears. ACC athletic directors never seriously considered 18 conference games.
There wasn't much impetus for them to override their coaches. The ACC's television rights are contracted through the end of the 2010-11 season, so the conference wouldn't have been able to get extra money for the larger inventory of games the 18-game schedule would have provided.
TV executives and conference officials expect this issue to be decided at the bargaining table for seasons after 2010-11, after the next scheduling rotation and the TV contracts expire. If TV executives want more conference games, they will have to pay more for them.
"When the current run of television contracts are up in 2010-11, it will give the conference an opportunity to once again re-evaluate how many conference games there are versus nonconference games," said Ken Haines, president and CEO of ACC syndicator Raycom Sports. "And it will give its television partners the opportunity to then negotiate contracts based on a 16-game or 18-game schedule."
So the ACC hasn't heard the last of this issue, and other options could be presented in a few years.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has floated the idea of splitting into divisions, with each team playing divisional opponents twice and non-divisional foes once each season, for a 16-game schedule.
The SEC currently uses that format, and Krzyzewski contacted South Carolina coach Dave Odom to inquire about it. Odom, who coached 12 seasons in the ACC at Wake Forest, favors divisions because there is no variation in a team's schedule from year to year.
But divisions probably would be a divisive issue in the ACC. Duke and North Carolina would have to play twice and be in the same division to preserve college basketball's most hallowed rivalry. That would mean opponents in the opposite division would play those teams just once a year. Losing those high-dollar home dates against the Tar Heels and Blue Devils wouldn't sit well with teams placed in the opposite division.
One basketball issue that seems to be losing steam is the idea of expanding the NCAA Tournament. Many ACC coaches favor expanding from the current 65-team format to include perhaps three or seven more teams, to create additional play-in games.
"If you had a series of games on Tuesday or Wednesday and those teams played Friday-Sunday, you could expand the field significantly," Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg said before the meetings.
That sounds like a great idea to coaches from power conferences, whose teams likely would gobble up most of the extra at-large berths. Those teams wouldn't go in as play-in teams, though. Instead, they would be seeded ahead of mid- and low-major champions, who then would be relegated to the play-in games to fight their way into the 64-team bracket.
"Expanding the tournament," Davidson coach Bob McKillop said, "is simply going to benefit the high-majors."
The low-major conferences have the political clout to prevent that from happening. And their coaches will be happy to know that the 16-game ACC schedule over the next four years will provide plenty of opportunities for nonconference games against ACC teams in November and December.
TITLE GAME GETS COMPETITION
Basketball coaches weren't the only folks happy with the pronouncements from Amelia Island.
Event promoters and civic leaders from Charlotte, Tampa and Orlando were pleased with the ACC's decision to seek bids for the league's future football championship games.
One year earlier, it had seemed that opportunities to play host to future ACC championships in the major sports were shrinking.
The basketball tournament will be in Greensboro or Atlanta from 2009-2015, after making its final scheduled Charlotte appearance in 2008.
Jacksonville seemed to have a stranglehold on the ACC football championship game after 72,479 fans attended the inaugural event, when Florida State defeated Virginia Tech in 2005. Having a municipally owned stadium in Jacksonville available rent-free allowed the Gator Bowl Association to divert more money toward a financial guarantee for the ACC.
Those advantages quickly disappeared when Jacksonville's stadium became a wasteland of empty seats for the Wake Forest-Georgia Tech title game in 2006. A smaller crowd was expected because those schools have two of the smallest alumni bases in the conference, and the rainy weather didn't help attendance, either.
But the Florida weather was supposed to be a selling point for Jacksonville, especially when compared to Charlotte, another top competitor in the first round of bidding. Charlotte has played host to five bowl games in late December, having pleasant weather each time. Meanwhile, Mother Nature frowned on Jacksonville last year.
Jacksonville still has the advantage of playing host to the 2007 game, with one more opportunity to impress ACC officials.
"If it's 80 degrees and sold out with people hanging from the rafters," Gator Bowl president Rick Catlett said, "it will look pretty good for Jacksonville."
If the game in Jacksonville flops again, other cities will be ready.
Orlando is considered a longshot, at least for the immediate future, because it is moving forward with a stadium renovation that probably won't be finished until 2010. At that point, it figures to become a serious contender.
Charlotte and Tampa are likely to get much more consideration for 2008 and 2009. Tampa has favorable weather and a Florida location that would be attractive to coaches for recruiting purposes. ACC officials also were pleased with the way Tampa received the men's basketball tournament there in March.
The biggest drawback for Tampa is its distance from most of the schools in the ACC. Only Florida State and Miami are within 300 miles, and many fans from non-Florida schools complained in March about having to make the long trip to Tampa for the ACC Tournament.
Tampa's most obvious shortcoming is Charlotte's greatest asset. Eight ACC schools are within 300 miles of Charlotte, and the convenient location has contributed to an average of more than 61,000 fans at the bowl games held in the city in the last five years.
Weather at the northernmost location involved in the bidding, along with the necessity of paying the Carolina Panthers to rent Bank of America Stadium, are Charlotte's biggest obstacles.
Initially, ACC officials had planned to develop one site as a permanent host for their championship game, as the SEC has done with its tremendously successful event in Atlanta. Now there is no consensus on whether the conference should try to use one site or rotate the game among multiple cities, as happens with the Big 12 football championship game.
Officials are learning that the ACC will have more difficulty developing its game than the SEC did. Except for Vanderbilt, the SEC is a collection of giant public institutions, many of which are crazy about football.
All of those schools have huge alumni bases in Atlanta, so it's easy to sell tickets for that event there. The ACC has more private schools with smaller alumni bases. Its fans often are more passionate about basketball than football.
Regardless of where the ACC game is held, selling tickets won't always be easy.
If football-loving schools such as Clemson and Virginia Tech meet in the title game, there won't be many if any empty seats. But Wake Forest-Georgia Tech would be a difficult draw in any year, at any venue. It's doubtful that Boston College or Miami would send huge contingents of fans to an ACC title game, either, so a city's success may hinge on its ability to attract a large number of local fans who don't have ties to any specific team.
GRID SIGNING PROCESS PROBED
The news from the ACC meetings that might have the largest impact nationally involves football recruiting.
Signing day for football is well established on the first Wednesday in February. That date gives high school seniors time to take official visits after their football seasons end and make informed decisions.
But the date fails to accommodate the growing number of players who are committing during the summer before their senior years.
At one time, Penn State's Joe Paterno was about the only coach soliciting vast amounts of commitments from players before he had a chance to evaluate their senior seasons.
Now more schools are using their summer camps as recruiting tools and commitment machines. Players visit campus, stay overnight in the dorms, get to know the coaches and even watch film during camps. They get a good sense of whether they fit in at a particular program.
The prospects often commit in June or July, and under the current system they must wait seven months to sign a letter of intent. Meanwhile, coaches from other schools unwilling to honor the non-binding commitments often continue to pursue the players until they sign.
ACC coaches and administrators decided that's not a healthy process for anyone. Commissioner John Swofford announced plans to gather support from officials affiliated with other conferences to institute an early signing date. It would coincide with the junior college signing date in December.
The national letter of intent program is run not by the NCAA, but by the Collegiate Commissioners Association (CCA). During the Dark Ages of recruiting, schools from competing conferences didn't always honor one another's letters of intent. But now the CCA makes sure that letters of intent and signing dates are respected by coaches nationwide.
Many other sports have early signing dates, and the ACC coaches believe football should have one, too. N.C. State coach Tom O'Brien said an early signing date in football would help prevent players from accepting scholarship offers to one school, then shopping around for better offers in hopes of "de-committing."
"We can stop the de-commits," O'Brien said, "and people grabbing a scholarship and working to find something better."
Nonetheless, a December early signing date in football could create problems. For example, coaches sometimes are fired even after their teams play in bowl games. When a basketball coach leaves a school or is fired, his recruits who signed early often try to get out of their letters of intent to attend other schools.
In basketball, that typically means only three or four players scrambling toward new destinations. In football, where early signing classes could include 20 or more players, a coaching departure in January could create the kind of chaos the February signing date usually prevents.
An early August signing date is favored by some recruiting experts, because it would firm up summer commitments before the high school season even began. But that creates even more danger of the chaotic coaching departure scenarios than the December date.
Despite those possible problems, many coaches and high school players would welcome an early signing date.
"I'm sure it (coaches leaving) is a concern," said Tommy Knotts, who coached former Florida quarterback Chris Leak and current North Carolina wide receiver Hakeem Nicks at Charlotte's Independence High. "But they ought to be choosing for the school (and not the coach)."
HAPPY VIBES, POST-EXPANSION
The atmosphere at Amelia Island was much different from a few years ago, when school officials were divided by talk of the expansion that ultimately would add Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College.
In a hallway during a break in the meetings, Krzyzewski ran into Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden. Krzyzewski was one of the ACC's strongest opponents of expansion, and Bowden was one of the driving forces behind it. But the two men had nothing but kind words for each other as they discussed a mutual friend, West Point superintendent Franklin L. "Buster" Hagenback.
North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams returned giddy from a golf outing with football coaches Jim Grobe of Wake Forest and Chan Gailey of Georgia Tech, who were opponents six months earlier in the ACC championship game. Williams' laughter echoed through the lobby as he told of Grobe's sandbagging on the golf course.
The sense of togetherness in a conference that was bitterly at odds over expansion a few years ago might be Swofford's crowning achievement as commissioner. One of the things Swofford has enjoyed most about the ACC over the years is the congeniality with which the like-minded institutions have resolved their differences.
A compact geography surely contributed to that willingness to cooperate, and it's a credit to Swofford at the end of his 10th year as commissioner that the good will remains now that the conference extends from Massachusetts to Miami.
The coming years will bring new challenges.
The football championship game needs to get on solid footing at whatever location ACC leaders choose following the 2007 game. The 18-game conference schedule in basketball could become an issue again in a few years, when there will be TV revenue at stake. And ACC officials are watching closely to see how the Big Ten's new, 24-hour television network is received in the Midwest.
Could there be an ACC Network some day? Not before the current television agreement ends after 2010-11. By then, the ACC will have had plenty of time to watch the Big Ten, which Swofford said is uniquely well-positioned for such an experiment, because of its large number of schools with huge alumni bases in a relatively small geographical area.
It's safe to say that the ACC can afford to watch and wait.
According to tax records available on Guidestar.org, the ACC distributed an average of $10.85 million to its schools in 2005-06, its first year as a 12-member conference. That was nearly identical to the $10.89 per school in 2003-04, its last year with nine members.
Financially, at least, the conference is meeting the projections the ACC made while it was considering expansion. That made it easy for conference and school officials to leave the beach happy in May.