By Dave Glenn and staff, ACCSports.com
January 5, 2004 During every bowl season, the winners and losers on the field are reported every day in every newspaper across the nation. This year, that news was very good for the ACC. The 50-year-old conference, which expanded by three teams earlier this year partly because it felt a need to upgrade its mediocre football reputation, finished 5-1 in the postseason. Many of the scores were extremely impressive, and several of the opponents represented strong teams and/or revered programs: Maryland 41, West Virginia 7 in the Gator Bowl; Clemson 27, Tennessee 14 in the Peach; N.C. State 56, Kansas 26 in the Tangerine; Virginia 23, Pittsburgh 16 in the Continental Tire; Georgia Tech 52, Tulsa 10 in the Humanitarian. Even the league's lone defeat had a silver lining, as Florida State's 16-14 loss in the Orange Bowl came at the hands of Miami, which will join the ACC this summer. This is a much better conference (today) than when we joined, and it's about to get stronger, said FSU coach Bobby Bowden, whose Seminoles were admitted to the ACC in 1991 and began playing a full football schedule the following year. They have won or shared 11 of 12 league titles since their arrival. With Miami, now you're talking about a different level, but you can't forget about the others. Maryland is better. Clemson is better. North Carolina State. Virginia. Virginia Tech coming in. If you're good enough to win the ACC now, in most years you're good enough to play for the (national) championship. Especially over the last two seasons, the ACC's postseason prowess sent signals that the league was improving even as a nine-team collection. At the end of 2002, a record seven conference teams (all but Duke and North Carolina) accepted bowl invitations. Four claimed victories, led by N.C. State's thrashing of Notre Dame in the Gator and Maryland's domination of Tennessee in the Peach. The league's 77.8 percent bowl participation rate represented an all-time NCAA record, helped of course by the proliferation of minor bowls in recent years. This year the ACC set a single-season record for most bowl victories (five), and its 83.3 percent success rate was the best for any year in which the conference sent more than two teams into the postseason. It's hard to believe, given the 28 Division I-A bowls on the national menu this year and the ACC's six (BCS, Gator, Peach, Tangerine, Continental Tire, Humanitarian) tie-ins, but as recently as 1997 the conference sent only four teams into postseason play. In 1988, before FSU gave the league a much-needed talent infusion, the ACC sent only two teams to bowls. At the time, only 10-2 Clemson finished in the Top 25 of the final AP poll, at No. 9. The Tigers of Danny Ford beat top-10 Oklahoma in the Citrus Bowl. In 1988 a 7-4 Virginia team, which finished second in the conference that year with a 5-2 record, stayed home for the holidays. This season, a 7-5 Virginia team that tied for fourth in the league was granted a golden opportunity: a matchup against an 8-4 Pittsburgh team that was one win away from the Big East's BCS bid and presented a serious Heisman Trophy contender in wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. It's a great opportunity, said Virginia coach Al Groh, who said he advocates a playoff system for the top teams but believes the second-tier bowls always will have an important place in the postseason. I can't imagine not playing another game. This is a reward for the players, a reward for the team's success, another opportunity for our fans to show their great support. It's an exciting game between two quality teams in a great stadium, and it's a lot of fun for everyone leading up to the game because it's a well-run event in a good location. By the time the games were finished this year, it was hard to imagine a more successful postseason for the ACC. Ideally, of course, the conference would have been a factor in the national championship picture, or it would have received two bids to the lucrative BCS. Otherwise, though, the success on the field, and the lack of embarrassing moments (not counting the league's officials) off the field, added up to an extremely positive result overall. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the conference and its six bowl participants drew mixed reviews in late December and early January. As college football fans digested a dizzying array of scores, statistics, crucial moments and countless replays, bowl officials were busy crunching their own numbers. Some of them, as they related to the ACC and everyone else in college football, weren't pretty. One things many fans forget, especially when their favorite team is bypassed by their preferred bowl in the selection process, is that bowls aren't primarily about fairness. Bowls are primarily about stop us if you've heard this before money, or at least breaking even financially, as non-profit organizations that generally are as concerned with the economic impact on their communities as they are about lining their own pockets. When the average fan inserts himself into the bowl selection process, he often feverishly looks at quality wins, strength of schedule, head-to-head success, conference finish and a variety of other merit-based arguments. Bowl officials look at those things, too, and sometimes their contracts with conferences explicitly require them (as with the Gator and Peach in the case of conference finish) to follow a particular criterion. But bowl officials look at much more, and their existence as economically viable entities requires them to do so. There aren't 28 bowls because the people in the ugly jackets have earned medals for their fairness over the years; there are 28 bowls because those folks know how to keep their television partners, corporate sponsors and local support bases interested and happy. They do that mainly by finding schools whose fans will travel to the games and spend a lot of money, and by creating matchups (by looking at teams and individual players) that will motivate locals to buy tickets and others to watch on TV. I don't think there's any doubt about it: If you don't treat your game as a business, run it as a business and make all of your decisions accordingly, you won't have a game for very long, Humanitarian Bowl executive director Gary Beck said. All bowl games have huge economic impacts in their respective cities. When we do our jobs well and create desirable matchups on the field, our community benefits. If we lose sight of those business principles, our game will suffer and our community will suffer. It's a trickle-down effect. This year, seven of the 28 bowls announced attendance figures of less than 26,500. The Humanitarian was the only ACC-affiliated game to fall short of that mark, with 23,118 fans on hand, most of them residents close to the game's home base of Boise, Idaho. In most cases, those are not the kinds of numbers that can sustain bowls, a fact that gives game officials even more reason to be sensitive about the selection process. Bowl games were never meant to match the best team against the best team, Gator Bowl president Rick Catlett said. It's about picking teams that will travel to your community that are good, deserving teams. Everything else is a secondary consideration. If the best team' by the standard of wins and strength of schedule has an unmotivated fan base or a poor track record for supporting their team, or it's so far away that it would be very difficult for fans to come to the game, it's not the best team' by our definition. With that in mind, here's an update on the off-the-field results for some of the ACC's 2003-04 bowl participants. The next time one of these postseason games makes a seemingly curious or apparently indefensible selection of Team A over Team B, keep this information in mind. Bowl officials certainly do. Clemson: For the Tigers, this year brought the stuff of which legends are made. Clemson officials received more than 34,000 ticket orders for the Peach Bowl matchup against Tennessee, and fans' overwhelming demand at the bowl's offices in Atlanta even temporarily created a computer-error-induced ticket shortage. Peach officials ultimately scrambled and worked with sponsors to cover their commitments to fans, but Clemson still had to refund orders through its office (beyond its 20,000 allotment) for only the second time in the last 20 years. In the end, bowl representatives estimated the Tigers had more than 30,000 fans on hand. That effort even surpassed fond memories of the 24,227 tickets (and even more fans) the Tigers bought to the Peach Bowl in 1999, Bowden's first year, which marked the school's biggest ticket purchase since the 1982 national title game. In 2002, Clemson fans faced a much more difficult challenge, the Tangerine Bowl, after a less inspiring (7-5) season. Orlando is an eight-hour drive for many South Carolina residents, and the game was played at the incredibly awkward time of two days before Christmas. The Tigers sold only 6,445 of their 12,500-ticket allotment through the school's ticket office, and even that came with the help of some creative marketing (e.g. free tickets to specified 2003 games with every purchase), but bowl officials also gave the school credit for another 3,000-plus tickets through other outlets. Only N.C. State, with an estimated 10,000 in 2001 (on the slightly more convenient Dec. 20 date), has brought a similar number of fans to the Tangerine. Teams from other leagues generally have fallen into the 1,000-4,000 range. According to figures provided by the Clemson athletic department, the school has sold fewer than 10,000 tickets to a bowl just twice (including the 2002 Tangerine) since 1977. The other came at the Humanitarian Bowl in 2001, a game for which other ACC schools have had trouble selling even 1,000 tickets. Clemson fans purchased 8,000 and brought more than 2,000 fans to the game. The Tigers ended up giving away more than 4,000 tickets to charities and other organizations in the Boise area, but they again left a positive impression on bowl officials. Historically, Clemson probably has the finest record of fan support (for bowls) in the ACC, said Florida Citrus Sports executive director Tom Mickle, whose group runs the Capital One and Tangerine bowls. You can't win or lose that kind of reputation in any one year. There are other ACC schools that get outstanding support, too, and Clemson isn't always going to be the automatic choice for every circumstance, but those fans certainly have earned the respect they get from the bowl people. Virginia: With big success stories in each of the last two years, UVa fans arguably did more than any other ACC group to improve their often-shaky reputation among bowl officials. At the same time, however, some in the industry argued that the Cavaliers' impressive turnouts for back-to-back trips to the Continental Tire Bowl in Charlotte said as much about the nature of the bowl system as it did about the Virginia fan base. Was that (Tire Bowl success) proof that Virginia football fans have turned over a new leaf, or was that proof that a big factor in any bowl's success is the accessibility of the game? one ACC-affiliated bowl official said. Would Virginia fans have turned out in such big numbers if the same game was held in Florida or Georgia? I'm not sure we know the answer to that question yet. Indeed, a large percentage of Virginia's fan base can drive to Charlotte within six hours, and the consecutive trips to the Queen City represented the shortest the school's football team ever had taken in the postseason. Given those parameters, school officials understood the event marked an important litmus test for the program, which had been bypassed by higher-profile bowls on several occasions in recent years. Groh used the terms snookered and hocus pocus to describe the bowl selection process in 2002, when the Cavaliers lost ACC-related bids to three teams it had defeated during the regular season. Obviously perturbed athletic director Craig Littlepage called it bizarre, after one invitation he fully expected to receive never came to fruition. With the interest generated by our team's success and the geographic proximity of the ballgame to our fan base, Littlepage said before the Continental Tire Bowl last year, this is not only a good opportunity for our football team but a great opportunity for the fans to demonstrate their support. We're hoping this game allows us to turn that (negative) perception around. Whether or not they were helped by the surrounding circumstances, Virginia fans certainly changed some long-held perceptions. In the end, they reminded many of the 20,000-plus crowds they brought to Peach bowls in 1995 and 1998, rather than the much smaller groups that traveled to other (Carquest, Independence, MicronPC.com, Oahu) postseason destinations in the 1990s. Before the Cavaliers' 2002 game against West Virginia, callers from both schools literally overwhelmed (with help from an ice storm) the bowl's phone system with ticket orders. Tire Bowl officials, who originally hoped to attract 35,000 to its inaugural event, ultimately sold out the 73,258-seat Ericsson Stadium. Virginia sold 18,507 tickets through the school, far more than its original 12,500 allotment, and bowl officials said they couldn't fill another 5,000 requests from UVa fans because of the sellout. By making earlier requests, West Virginia fans were able to purchase 30,000 tickets for the game through the school, and bowl officials estimated that more than 40,000 fans showed up to support the Mountaineers on game day. The highest estimate of Virginia fans was about 25,000. This year, the Cavaliers won the game on the field and in the stands. Virginia purchased more than 26,000 tickets through official outlets, compared to about 5,000 for Pittsburgh. In an effort to boost sales, Pittsburgh officials called every Pitt graduate within 300 miles of Charlotte with a taped message from Fitzgerald, encouraging them to attend. Virginia, which ended up with an estimated 30,000 supporters on hand, needed no such ploys to get their fans to turn out in huge numbers. Again. Maryland: While still showing strong support for their two high-profile programs, Maryland fans have encountered a difficult adjustment in recent years. It's one thing to splurge for an expensive road trip every few years. It's another story altogether when the men's basketball team and the football team are peaking and playing in some of the biggest games in school history at the same time. We've asked a lot of our fans, and that's one of the things you need to be a big-time program, Maryland football coach Ralph Friedgen said. A lot of this is new for us. In the last three years, we've had the Orange Bowl, the Kickoff Classic, the Peach Bowl and now (the Gator Bowl). The basketball team had three NCAA tournaments, two Final Fours and the national championship (in 2001-02). It's a lot of the same people going to all of these games. We're happy that so many of our fans have been so loyal, and we need more to have the reputation we want to have. According to bowl officials, the Terps threw a big scare into the Peach last year and the Gator this season, and the school's so-so reputation for traveling has resurfaced. Both games, which are by far the ACC's best and most financially sound events, ended up with decent numbers on the Maryland side of the ledger but fell well short of expectations. In 2002, Maryland athletic director Debbie Yow and Friedgen put the full-court press on Peach officials, eventually convincing them to take the Terps over second-place Virginia. The program's supporters had a strong showing in 2001, when they bought more than 22,000 tickets to follow the ACC champs to the Orange Bowl, which marked the Terps' first postseason appearance since 1990. Then fans purchased more than 17,000 tickets to the following season's Kickoff Classic, against Notre Dame. But less than three weeks before the 2002 matchup with Tennessee, Maryland had sold only 8,000 of its allotted 20,000 tickets. (At the same point, the Vols had sold almost 14,000.) As part of their marketing pitch to the Peach, the Terps had requested 2,500 tickets more than the required 17,500 allotment, and under ACC revenue-sharing rules those additional tickets were the responsibility of the school and not the conference. The slow early sales inspired Friedgen to send an e-mail to 7,500 Terrapin Club members, urging them to buy tickets, just as he had done prior to the Orange Bowl. In the end, Maryland fans purchased less than 16,000 tickets to the 2002 game, and Peach Bowl officials estimated on game day that the Terps were outnumbered in the stands by about a five-to-one margin. (Tennessee officially sold more than 20,000 tickets.) Maryland had to give another 3,500 to bowl officials to distribute to local organizations, and they ended up eating the rest of the 20,000 they had boldly requested. This year, the Terps purchased more than 17,000 tickets to the Gator Bowl. West Virginia fans bought more than 25,000 and were asking for more when the game sold out. Georgia Tech: Fans of the Yellow Jackets never have had a reputation among bowl officials for traveling well, and nothing has happened to change that perception. Part of the problem is inherent to Tech: The school has a small alumni base, compared to most state universities, and its supporters are more widely scattered geographically than is common to most other major programs. The other issue in recent years has been location: The Jackets' last three postseason games have been held in the states of Washington (Seattle Bowl), California (Silicon Valley Classic) and Idaho (Humanitarian Bowl). (Bowl officials) don't operate in a vacuum. A school like Georgia Tech is not going to be penalized for not bringing 10,000 or 20,000 fans halfway across the country, Beck, of the Humanitarian Bowl, said. When (hometown) Boise State is our host team, we have very high expectations for their ticket sales. In any matchup between a Western Athletic Conference team and an ACC team, we're going to expect the WAC school to bring more fans. Of course, we certainly hope the ACC school shows a lot of support, too. This year, Tech fans bought around 2,200 tickets to the Boise game, where local ticket sales (prices ranged from $15 to $35) accounted for the bulk of the crowd of 23,118. Given the absence of Boise State, which pursued, landed and won a more high-profile matchup against Texas Christian in the Fort Worth Bowl after originally being scheduled for another Humanitarian appearance, the small numbers were not unusual. The only other time in the last six years that the Humanitarian Bowl hosted two out-of-state teams, in 2001, Clemson and Louisiana Tech attracted 23,472. Two years ago, Tech actually lost $108,000 on the 2001 Seattle Bowl because of miserable ticket sales, even after a $1.1 million reimbursement from the ACC office. According to one report, the Yellow Jackets sold only 422 tickets to the game against Stanford and gave away more than 4,000 to various Washington-based organizations. Fortunately for Tech, the rest of the school's required 7,500-ticket allotment was deducted from the bowl's payout to the conference office, as specified by league bylaws, or the financial hit would have been worse. Last year, Tech sold fewer than 1,500 of its 5,000-ticket allotment for the Silicon Valley Classic in California. In 2000, the Gator Bowl matchup between the Yellow Jackets and Miami attracted the game's smallest crowd (43,316) in almost three decades. Meanwhile, though the Gator and Peach bowls have maintained or regained their status with the top non-BCS games nationally, and the Tangerine and Humanitarian bowls continue their alarming struggles, there has been no greater success story among the ACC's tie-ins in recent years than the one in Charlotte with the Continental Tire Bowl. It's easy to forget, given its recent success, but the Tire Bowl essentially was born as a direct result of its predecessor's failures. Raycom Sports, a Charlotte-based sports programming syndicator best-known for its long-standing relationship with ACC basketball, originally wanted to bring the MicronPC.com Bowl to the Queen City in 2002 after it struggled for much of the previous decade in South Florida. Raycom was the owner and underwriter for the event when it was played at Pro Player Stadium (known as Joe Robbie Stadium until 1996) in Miami, when the game zipped through a succession of title sponsors as the Blockbuster Bowl (1990-93), the Carquest Bowl (1994-97) and the MicronPC.com Bowl (1998-2000). The last two games at the 75,000-seat stadium in Miami, which were ACC-Big Ten matchups, drew announced crowds of 31,089 (Virginia-Illinois) and 28,359 (NCSU-Minnesota) that ranked among the smallest in the bowl universe. In 2001, facing $1.5 million in expenses, no title sponsor, an uncertain TV agreement (a deal with TBS expired), questionable local support and lagging attendance, Raycom pulled out of the Miami-based event. We knew we still wanted to be involved with the bowl system, and we knew we still wanted to be involved with the ACC, Raycom president Ken Haines said. When things didn't work out in Miami, our first thought was to bring a bowl to Charlotte. (Raycom is) here, of course, a brand-new, state-of-the-art venue (Ericsson Stadium) had just been built (in 1996), and we liked the fact that we would be a reasonable drive for a large number of fans at each of the ACC schools. We weren't sure how the details were going to work out, and there was a lot of uncertainty there for a while, but it helped that the ACC was very supportive along the way. We ended up losing a year (2001), and there were lots of twists and turns in the road, but all of that may have been a blessing in disguise. Upon Raycom's decision, the ACC faced the undesirable possibility of having only four bowl tie-ins and, arguably, only three good ones for after the 2001 season: the BCS, the Gator, the Peach and the former Oahu Bowl. The Oahu, based in Hawaii, was in the process of moving to Seattle because of its own difficulties with finances and NCAA certification. Thus, a league already paranoid about what it perceived as a lack of respect for its gridiron prowess found itself in an embarrassing position in terms of bowl security and, perhaps more importantly, public relations. At the time, every other major conference the Big 12 (seven), SEC (seven), Big Ten (six), Pac-10 (six) and Big East (five) had at least five tie-ins, and even Conference USA had four. With the ACC serving as a motivating force in that pressurized setting, the pieces eventually fell into place for the creation of two new ACC-linked games, including the Continental Tire Bowl. Florida Citrus Sports, an Orlando-based group that already ran the very successful Citrus Bowl (now Capital One Bowl) in town, hired respected ACC assistant commissioner Tom Mickle as its new executive director in September 2001. Less than a month after Mickle's introduction, FCS agreed to take over the MicronPC.com Bowl. The organization immediately turned it into the Tangerine Bowl, the name used for the Citrus/Capital One Bowl from 1947-82, in time for the 2001 postseason. The Tangerine now matches teams from the ACC and Big 12. Raycom officials, encouraged by the ACC's bowl discussions despite losing their long-held game, originally wanted to match the conference against the SEC in their new bowl, perhaps even in time for 2001. They even were ready to move forward without a title sponsor, under the proposed name Queen City Bowl. However, an NCAA moratorium on the creation of new bowls was in place at the time, and no other existing event was available for the taking. (The Tangerine, remember, actually was considered a successor to the MicronPC.com, not a new bowl.) So the new Raycom game, which eventually became an ACC-Big East matchup in the more lucratively named Continental Tire Bowl, didn't make its debut for another year. As the 2002 and 2003 games have shown, of course, it was well worth the wait. That (Continental Tire Bowl) truly has been a success story, ACC commissioner John Swofford said. Now, with our participation in the BCS and our involvement with four successful games in our geographic area, we have an excellent foundation in place for our future bowl affiliations. This year we (had) games against the Big East (Gator and Continental Tire), the SEC (Peach), the Big 12 (Tangerine) and the WAC (Humanitarian), and we like that variety. That's good for our schools, we think, and good for our fans, the location especially. We're always looking to improve, and with more teams we'll need to be creative in developing more (bowl) relationships that make sense for us, but we're very excited about our possibilities right now. We're in a much better place than we were in just a few years ago. We're moving forward from a good position.
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