By Ken Tysiac
Charlotte (N.C.) Observer
June 3, 2008
The biggest surprise of the ACC spring meetings came in the final hour of the final conference at the oceanside Ritz-Carlton resort in Fernandina Beach, Fla.
As ACC officials were wrapping up their deliberations, a couple of reporters burst into the conference room. They asked whether they were in the right place for commissioner John Swofford's press conference.
It turned out that they were in the right place, but just a few minutes early for Swofford's annual rundown of the business the ACC accomplished during the meeting. It also turned out that Swofford didn't have much to announce.
In recent years, ACC officials had entered their annual meetings saying that there wouldn't be much business done, then announced that they'd awarded several ACC Tournament sites for basketball or put the football championship game out for bidding.
This time, they were true to their word. The scheduling issues in men's basketball and football that had generated some interest before the meetings quickly fizzled.
"This year's agenda was different from many other years," Maryland athletic director Debbie Yow said. "There were a lot more items on the back burner than there were on the front burner. And we certainly didn't have anything like what we had with expansion.
"We've had some years where everyone worked so hard it didn't matter much if our meetings were at a beautiful resort at the beach or in someone's garage. This year, there was plenty to discuss, but without so much urgency for the most part."
SOME SCHEDULING DECISIONS
After the ACC got just four teams into the NCAA Tournament this past season, despite having the nation's highest RPI ranking, some basketball coaches were willing to consider increasing the conference schedule from 16 games to 18, to mirror what the Big East, Pac-10 and Big Ten are doing.
"It (18 games) is always going to be on the table, because of the other conferences," Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg said.
Swofford didn't allow it to stay on the table for long. The coaches were reminded that just one year earlier they had committed to a 16-game conference schedule through 2010-11, the final year of the ACC's television contracts.
Though coaches and athletic directors could have re-opened the discussion if they were adamant, the issue died with that reminder from the ACC office.
A proposal for the ACC to increase its conference football schedule from eight games to nine received more discussion, but almost all of it was negative.
There are some benefits to a nine-game conference schedule. Since college football added a 12th regular-season game in 2006, nonconference scheduling has become increasingly difficult.
It's now common for schools in the Bowl Championship Series leagues to be scrambling at the last minute for a new "buy" game, where they won't have to return the trip, because an opponent finds a more lucrative offer. So dropping the nonconference schedule from four games to three would have some benefits.
For schools such as Clemson, Georgia Tech and Florida State, though, nine conference games would be especially problematic. They count on revenue from at least seven home games to support their athletic departments.
A nine-game ACC schedule would force them to play five ACC road games every second year. Because they're already locked into perpetual nonconference series with in-state rivals, that would make it difficult for them to be certain of seven home games every year.
With the post-expansion ACC still trying to prove itself in football, coaches also were concerned that playing one another wouldn't have helped their standing against the other power conferences. The best (and worst) the ACC could do is a .500 winning percentage in those extra games, because somebody has to win and somebody has to lose.
Some coaches would rather schedule marquee games against nonconference foes and try to win them. N.C. State's Tom O'Brien also said the ACC coaches talked with some friends in the Pac-10, which plays nine conference games, and didn't receive favorable reviews.
"There are going to be years when you'd have to play five road (ACC) games and only four at home," O'Brien said. "The imbalance of scheduling, we don't want to do."
FOOTBALL TALKS CLOCK, BOWLS
Coaches also were briefed on a number of significant rules changes set to debut in college football this fall. The length of games should be shortened, because the clock will stop on out-of-bounds plays only in the last two minutes of each half.
It's hoped that another change using an NFL-style, 40/25-second clock between plays will allow college teams to increase the number of plays per minute in games.
ACC officiating coordinator Doug Rhoads said the average NFL game lasts three hours and three minutes, while the average college game lasts in excess of 3:22.
Two years ago, college football tried its own plan to speed up games by:
starting the clock as soon as the ball was put in play after possession changes, rather than on the ensuing snap;
shortening the kicking tees to reduce touchbacks;
on kickoffs, starting the clock when the kicker's foot hit the ball, rather than when the receiving team touched it.
Games grew shorter by about 14 minutes on average, but coaches were concerned because the average game had about 14 fewer plays. They repealed the 2006 changes a year later. Now they hope an NFL-type plan will speed up the game without significantly decreasing the number of plays.
"They're trying to find a happy medium," Rhoads said.
The ACC also is creating new bowl ties that will keep more conference teams close to the league's geographic region. In 2008, the new Congressional Bowl in Washington, D.C., will get the ninth pick from the ACC, provided the conference has nine bowl-eligible teams.
For 2009, the ACC is completing plans for the Congressional Bowl and the GMAC Bowl in Mobile, Ala., to get some combination of the eighth and ninth bowl-eligible teams.
That will end the ACC's commitment to the Humanitarian Bowl in Boise, Idaho, after 2008.
ACC teams played in Boise six times in the last seven seasons, and in many cases coaches and players enjoyed their trips. They took part in winter activities such as snowmobiling that some of them had never experienced. Clemson fans may recall the 2001 game, when a team manager built a replica of famed "Howard's Rock" out of snow for the team to touch before taking the field.
But Boise's fate as an ACC partner shifted the moment a bowl official made light of Boston College defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka's name before the Eagles played hometown favorite Boise State in the 2005 game. That awkward snafu, combined with the distance factor, changed everything.
"Our schools, coaches and ADs wanted that game back within our geographic footprint," Swofford said.
GRIDIRON: GETTING DEFENSIVE
The state of the conference in football is somewhat unsettled, as the ACC moves into its fourth season with 12 schools and the 11th season of the BCS.
It was hoped that adding Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College would soon lead to the ACC's first season with two teams in BCS bowls and a resulting, lucrative payoff for the conference. That hasn't happened, and as major national news outlets do their 10-year reviews of the BCS format this summer, they find the ACC with a dismal 1-9 record in BCS games.
Together, Florida State and Miami were supposed to provide the ACC with an unrivaled axis of power in the fertile recruiting ground of Florida. But over the last two seasons, those two teams have slumped to a combined 26-25 record.
"Two things happened," departing Miami athletic director Paul Dee said. "One, we fell off a little bit in recruiting. And two, and they're probably related, the level of competition in this league top to bottom is more difficult than the Big East. That's not a criticism of the Big East. That's just a fact that made it more difficult."
The benefit to all that is that the ACC has demonstrated the balance it long had lacked. When FSU won or shared 11 of 12 league titles immediately after it joined the conference in 1992, the ACC was criticized because nobody could challenge the premier team.
Now, nobody is dominating the ACC, and the league is getting criticized for its failure to have a premier team.
Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe said the critics are "missing the boat" on the strength of the ACC.
"I think we probably do get hurt by not having one team that kind of jumps ahead of everybody and runs away with it," he said, "but I think that makes for a pretty good football league."
BASKETBALL WANTS MORE BIDS
The ACC also has faced some post-expansion hurdles in men's basketball, a sport it is used to dominating.
Twice in the last three years, just four ACC teams received bids to the NCAA Tournament. Fewer bids, over time, mean less money for the conference under the NCAA's distribution formula.
That development led to perhaps the most significant action the ACC took this spring. ACC coaches and administrators were frustrated that the conference's high RPI didn't help it get more teams in the tournament.
Swofford's response was to send a letter to the Division I men's basketball committee, which selects the tournament field. He asked that conference strength be added to the factors the committee considers when handing out bids.
Currently, the committee considers teams and their schedule strengths independently, without regard for their conference affiliation.
"Sometimes it seems to work against you if you're really strong at the bottom (of a conference), because it makes it tough to get conference wins," Swofford said.
Coaches hope that tactic will help and believe they need to try every method possible to get more representation in the NCAA Tournament. Greenberg, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, Maryland's Gary Williams and Wake Forest's Dino Gaudio all have said the coaches need to publicly tout the strength of the conference as often as possible to get out the message.
Greenberg is strengthening Tech's schedule, after a 1-7 record against top-50 opponents was cited as the reason the Hokies missed the NCAA field last season despite going 9-7 in the ACC.
Many coaches believe the NCAA Tournament field should be expanded.
Last season 53.8 percent of the 119 Football Bowl Subdivision (also known as Division I-A) teams went to bowl games, and the NCAA certified two more bowls for 2008. In basketball, 65 of the 341 Division I teams (or only 19.1 percent) played in the NCAA Tournament last season, although additional teams participated in the National Invitational Tournament (32) or the new College Basketball Invitational (16).
"We already have a play-in date," Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said. "So it's not like the day isn't being used. You're not adding a date. It's already on the books. All you do is add more teams, and they play on that same day. It's not that difficult a process."
The problem is that the NCAA Tournament is such a successful, lucrative event that TV executives and college athletic officials are reluctant to tinker with the formula. A three-week period before the Masters seems just long enough to hold the nation's attention without becoming tiresome.
Two years ago, the Division I men's basketball committee considered expanding the field but ruled against it. With that in mind, Swofford said, the ACC isn't going to pursue such a change legislatively.
MOVING TARGETS FRUSTRATING
When discussing the NCAA Tournament, coaches and officials always are quick to add that they appreciate the job the committee does. They say they understand that they need to continue playing strong nonconference schedules and winning games against top teams.
But they are frustrated that the criteria for selection seem to change along with the membership of the committee. Top-50 wins seemed to be important this year. In past years, road wins or how a team performed in its final 10 or 12 games seemed to have greater significance.
Wake's Gaudio made the point that even if the criteria were consistent, it would be difficult to know which opponents to schedule. Most games are scheduled so far ahead of time that the quality of the opponent changes.
In 2006-07, the Demon Deacons visited Air Force and were clobbered 94-58 by a team that easily made the NCAA Tournament field. In 2007-08, Wake defeated an Air Force team that finished 173rd in the RPI, so the Deacons didn't get a "quality" win out of the deal.
"You've got to be a prognosticator to figure out who you're scheduling down the road, how good they're going to be down the road," Gaudio said.
There is one troubling ACC basketball statistic that you won't hear much about from the coaches. Over the last three years, ACC teams have gone just 19-15 in the NCAA Tournament. That .559 winning percentage is the conference's lowest for a three-year period since 1978-80, which was long before the tournament expanded to 64 teams.
Among BCS conferences, only the Big Ten had a lower NCAA Tournament winning percentage over the same period. Having teams left out of the tournament is frustrating. Having the teams that get into the tournament lose leaves the impression that the committee made the right decisions by keeping other ACC teams out.
That's not good for a league that's used to dominating college hoops.
LEAGUE CREATES NBA PANEL
Some other basketball issues troubling coaches and administrators will receive additional attention from a new committee the ACC is forming. Hamilton and athletic directors Lee Fowler of N.C. State and Craig Littlepage of Virginia are among the members of the ACC's new "NBA Issues Committee."
They will study what's become known as the NBA's "one-and-done" rule, which states that players must be 19 and a year past the graduation of their high school class to enter the draft.
College athletic officials are concerned that players who know they are coming to school for just one year aren't making good-faith efforts in the classroom and are susceptible to improper contact with agents. While ACC officials were gathered at their meetings, allegations surfaced that Southern California guard O.J. Mayo had received improper benefits from a "runner" for an agent.
The amount of time underclassmen have to withdraw from the NBA draft also is worrisome to coaches. This year underclassmen had until April 27 to enter their names. Then they could maintain their amateur status as long as they refrained from hiring an agent and withdrew from the draft by June 16.
"We're not talking about taking away the right of an underclassman to participate in the (NBA draft) process. We think that concept is worthwhile," Wake Forest athletic director Ron Wellman said. "What we're talking about is examining the process to see if we can give the individual enough time to make a decision without putting his school and his coach in a bind for a two-month period, where they don't know who's coming back to school, and they don't know how many scholarships they have available (for recruits).
"The NFL gives underclassmen about two weeks to make that decision. Do basketball players really need two months? That's the question. And the only way we'll get to an answer is with some cooperation from the NBA, because they are still the ones who are making the rules on this."
Three players from North Carolina Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green went through this process, which has become known as "testing the waters," this year. So did N.C. State freshman J.J. Hickson.
Some coaches say this creates too much uncertainty for their rosters and causes players to miss valuable time in summer school, which makes it more difficult for them to stay on track for graduation.
"That whole culture is something we'd like to step back and take a look at," Swofford said. "Those are not necessarily simple issues, as we all know, and not necessarily issues that are controllable."
MAJOR DECISIONS WILL WAIT
For the most part, though, the ACC seems to have its own issues under control. That's the reason its spring meetings were unusually uneventful this year.
Having the conference's TV contracts completed through the conclusion of 2010-11 leaves the ACC in a fairly settled condition. A lot of the scheduling and other issues that came to the forefront because of expansion have been decided, even though they will be under review constantly, in basketball in particular.
The ACC Tournament is awarded to either Atlanta or Greensboro in every year through 2015, although the ACC has an option to move one tournament from 2013-15 and give Greensboro the 2016 tournament. In baseball, the conference is looking forward to a once-in-a-lifetime tournament in Boston's Fenway Park in 2009, though other cities will bid on the 2010-12 tournaments this summer.
After three years of declining attendance in Jacksonville, the ACC football championship will move to Tampa in 2008 and 2009, and Charlotte the following two years. In those two cities, the conference will continue its attempts to weave an event with seemingly large profit potential into the fabric of a culture that's still warming up to football.
When it's time to renegotiate the TV contracts in a couple years, more issues will come to the table, as the ACC attempts to learn through scheduling and other methods how to maximize the revenue it gets from its TV partners.
But this year, aside from some unexpected visitors in the ACC's conference room, there were few surprises for the league as it mapped its course for the future.
ACC Sports Journal editor David Glenn also contributed to this report.