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Perhaps Shalala Described It Best: “a Bizarre, Strange, Goofy Process”

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

By Dave Glenn, ACC Sports Journal
July 1, 2003 Of the more than 1,000 expansion-related e-mail questions readers submitted to the Sports Journal over the last four weeks, most were answered by the coverage given to ACC expansion in the mainstream media. Here are some possible exceptions: In the press conference to announce Miami's decision to join the ACC, university president Donna Shalala used the term “Goofy” to describe the expansion process. Because of her location in Florida, does she get some sort of kickback every time she refers to a Disney character?

Shalala is a very intelligent, creative administrator who understands finances and had a first-hand view of the inner workings of the ACC expansion process. If she did have such a kickback arrangement with the folks at Disney, surely she wouldn't have had to try very hard to work “Mickey Mouse” into the conversation.

Is it too simplistic or critical to suggest that, by adding Miami and Virginia Tech, ACC schools ended up with a result none of them wanted?

Absolutely, positively not.

In the weeks after the ACC's original expansion plan finally became public, with Boston College, Miami and Syracuse up for discussion, Sports Journal writers spoke with numerous presidents, chancellors, athletic directors and other league officials. None of them ever mentioned Virginia Tech as a serious possibility, even when asked about the Hokies directly, and none of them ever spoke about the ACC as anything but a nine- or 12-team conference.

Unbelievably, after more than 18 months of studying various expansion proposals, the league ended up pushing through — in the final days, with the June 30 Big East deadline (when the departure fee jumped from $1 million to $2 million) looming — a combination that had never been previously studied or discussed. The Miami-Virginia Tech pairing had never been mentioned by anyone until the day of the final vote. Similarly, an 11-team ACC had never been contemplated, studied or discussed. So much for long-range planning and expensive consultants.

“We made a mistake,” one ACC athletic director said. “Everyone is going to put on their happy faces for the cameras, but we all know this was mishandled. The voting process was a mess, the public-relations process was a mess. We approved something we barely had time to consider, and we did it in a way that left a lot of people wondering exactly what they had voted for.”

How did that happen?

Welcome to the good, old-fashioned American political process.

Day after day, twist after twist, the ACC expansion debacle evoked thoughts of an old saying: A camel is a horse, created by committee. It was the perfect analogy.

Everyone comes to the table with the common vision of a beautiful thoroughbred. As the process evolves, however, various parties (hello, Virginia?) start attaching requirements to their votes. One guy lives in the desert, so he wants the horse to have a hump to carry water. Another guy lives in a windy region, so he wants long lashes to protect the eyes. And so it goes. By the time everyone finishes with their demands, the only proposal that gets enough yes votes is the clunky camel, not the graceful horse, even though nobody had a camel in mind at the start. Get it?

“Three months ago, if you proposed Virginia Tech, you would have received nine no votes, and there wouldn't have even been any discussion,” another ACC athletic director said. “Three months ago, if you proposed an 11-team conference, you would have been laughed out of the room. But here we are. It's crazy, I know.”

At same point in the process, Virginia president John Casteen decided he was not going to vote for any expansion proposal that didn't include Virginia Tech. When Duke and Carolina refused to budge from their anti-expansion positions, or even to “trade votes” with the Cavs for political purposes, the result became clear. ACC schools had two choices: Approve a plan that includes the Hokies, or give up on expansion entirely.

How personal did it get?

Over the last two months, as it became clear that Duke and Carolina didn't share the vision of the other seven members, there was growing tension in the ranks. One ACC athletic director said, perhaps only half-jokingly, that the Tar Heels sometimes presented their anti-expansion stance in such absolute terms that he might have had to be physically restrained had he been sitting next to the UNC official who was speaking at the time. (Good thing for teleconferences.) Some criticized the Heels and Devils for lacking vision, or for caving in to political pressure, or for selfishly trying to preserve their power base at the expense of the league's long-term viability.

Virginia, of course, was another lightning rod for hard feelings. Many officials from other schools couldn't understand how the Cavaliers, who all along claimed to be pro-expansion in principle, could allow pressure from local politicians to hold their vote hostage. Everyone appreciated Casteen's desire to go to bat for the Hokies, but they thought his repeated proposals (voted down) would have been enough to alleviate the pressure. Some said they were surprised when they learned of UVa's ultimate stance, that it couldn't vote for any expansion proposal that didn't include Tech.

“That was a turning point,” one AD said. “It all unraveled from there.”

Still, numerous Sports Journal sources insisted that, despite significant doses of anger and frustration, all ACC officials maintained the expected levels of decorum and civility at all times. Eyes rolled behind closed doors, and desks were punched silently during teleconferences, but there were no personal attacks or awkward criticisms.

What about the final votes?

Going into the final votes, there already was plenty of bad blood among ACC officials. Coming out, it looked like something out of a Friday The 13th movie.

Everyone was still mad at Duke, Carolina and Virginia. Duke and UNC were unhappy because expansion finally happened. In a twisted sort of way, UVa was mad at itself for saving the Hokies. Some were mad at Clemson, Georgia Tech and Maryland for voting down a 10-team league, with only Miami as a newcomer. (Virginia also voted against that scenario, which UNC and Duke favored at the end.) Others were irate at N.C. State, which surprisingly voted against Boston College at the last minute. BC and Syracuse were mad because they were unceremoniously left to retreat to a league they had tried to abandon. The Big East was mad because it lost its two best football programs.

“I'm still not clear on the motives behind voting against a 10-team league with (only) Miami coming in,” one AD said. “There were a lot of positives there and very few negatives. You're still short of 12 in either scenario, so why not stop at 10, with No. 10 being the one school everyone wanted from the beginning? … You wonder if some people just didn't want Duke and Carolina to have their way.”

In perhaps the most bizarre twist of the final voting night, some administrators left the meeting wondering about the wisdom of the voting methodology. In considering the Miami-VT-BC threesome, the Wolfpack's surprise vote against the Eagles (who failed 6-3) came after the Hurricanes and Hokies had passed by 7-2 margins. If BC had been voted upon first, would Virginia Tech have received the same support?

“Would the same seven schools have voted yes on Virginia Tech if they already knew Boston College was out?” one ACC official said. “I don't know the answer to that question.”

So who's to blame?

There are only two reasonable schools of thought: (1) ACC commissioner John Swofford deserves the bulk of the blame because he miscalculated the number of votes he had and never should have moved forward without seven certain votes in his pocket, or (2) someone misled Swofford at the start but later pulled a reversal that almost made the conference the laughingstock of the American sports world.

Swofford is no idiot. He has overseen the most impressive period of growth in the 50-year history of the ACC. He recently negotiated the most lucrative conference-specific basketball TV contract in the history of college sports. He's rubbed a few important people wrong along the way, sure, but that's the case with the overwhelming majority of powerful people. Regardless, the guy is smart enough to count to seven.

“John knows he's going to get the brunt of the criticism,” one AD said. “But I think most people in this conference understand what a wonderful asset John has been to this conference, and how valuable he was during the expansion process. Did he make mistakes? Sure.”

According to numerous sources, UNC and Duke never strayed from their anti-expansion positions. There was a period, as the Heels and Devils were arguing over various details (including divisional alignments, etc.), during which some saw a glimmer of hope. Clearly, however, Duke and Carolina were no votes at the beginning, and that's when Swofford had to make the decision on whether or not to move forward.

And Virginia?

“I think John Swofford and John Casteen may be the only two people who are certain of the answer to that question,” one AD said. “My impression was that Virginia abandoned its original position as the process went along, but I never directly heard any promises from (Casteen's) lips. Maybe (Swofford) did. I don't know.”

Why all the surprises?

In a typical story, journalists and readers often are surprised by various twists and turns simply because they don't have access to all of the relevant information going on behind the scenes. Writers may have their sources, who shed some light on the situation, but normally the public gets only a slice of the big picture. As a result, what surprises them does not necessarily surprise the (in this case) presidents, athletic directors and other officials who are on the case.

With ACC expansion, at least after Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese made the process public with his “bunch of hypocrites” commentary in April, many journalists had great sources and many fans were very educated about various aspects of the process. The many surprises came, instead, because the players in the game were so often surprised themselves.

“I made a joke to one writer that he must have thought I was lying to him all along,” one AD said. “I would try to keep him informed to the extent I could, but my story kept changing. What was probably hard for him to understand was that I was just as surprised by some of these things when I got the news as he was when I shared it with him.”

Will the ACC stop at 11?

Probably not.

Remember, seven ACC schools — everyone but Duke and UNC — thought expanding to 12 was a good idea. Once Virginia Tech became part of the equation, even Virginia was on board. In the end, N.C. State decided Boston College wasn't a good fit for that 12th spot, but even the Pack made clear throughout the expansion process that it was in favor of a 12-team conference.

As long as the NCAA continues to limit football title games to leagues with 12 teams (see below), it's awfully hard to imagine the ACC staying at 11 in the long run. The scheduling is awkward, at best. The league still desperately wants to expand its geography. (The proposed BC-Miami-Syracuse trio would have increased the league's coverage of the nation's TV market by about 50 percent. The VT-Miami combination did very little in that regard.) Officials also want a bigger place on the postseason stage, rather than letting the Big 12 and SEC get all of the attention.

Interestingly, the ACC's power structure — at least as it pertains to expansion — didn't shift at all in the jump from nine to 11. Unless the conference changes its bylaws, it still must avoid three no votes to approve an expansion proposal.

“Unless we change the bylaws, it's going to be even more difficult to expand in the future,” one AD said. “Assuming Duke and Carolina remain opposed, we're going to need everyone else on board. Everyone else means nine now, not seven. Presidents change. (Athletic directors) change. Does that change somebody from yes to no? When it comes times to vote, will all nine be ready to say yes? Will all nine agree on the same (expansion target)? I don't know about that. We'll see.”

Under the existing rules, 75 percent of member schools must vote in favor of expansion for it to pass. (Oddly, almost everything else in the bylaws requires only a two-thirds majority.) So, while some things change, some things remain the same. If three schools don't want a particular expansion scenario to happen, it won't happen.

Think about it, as it pertains to a hypothetical ACC with any number of members. Six of eight is 75 percent. Seven of nine is 77.8 percent. Eight of 10 is 80 percent. Nine of 11 is 81.8 percent. As long as there are only two no votes, it's full steam ahead. But throw in a third no vote, and look what happens. Five of eight is 62.5 percent. Six of nine is 66.7 percent. Seven of 10 is 70 percent. Eight of 11 is 72.7 percent. Only at nine of 12 (75 percent) could the league overcome three no votes, and with 12 members the expansion topic likely would revert to its status as a back-burner issue.

“If we get to 12 somehow,” the AD said, “my guess is that none of us will still be around by the time the next expansion vote comes up.”

What's the likelihood of getting the NCAA to change the rule that prohibits conference title games in football in leagues with fewer than 12 teams, and why didn't anyone think of that before?

Nobody's sure, and nobody knows.

One of the many bizarre truths brought to light by the ACC expansion process is that there was a very important NCAA rule (requiring 12 schools in a conference for a championship game) in place, impacting dozens of schools and millions of dollars, and few knew when, why or how the rule was adopted in the first place.

Apparently, ACC administrators weren't the only ones operating in the dark. According to NCAA Division I associate chief of staff Steve Mallonee, nobody has asked to change the rule since it was quietly installed in 1987 at the request of a Division II conference. Mallonee said his office received hundreds of calls on the topic in May and June, after news of the ACC's expansion plans broke. Before that? Nothing.

“It was a non-issue,” Mallonee said. “Everybody knew about the rule, obviously, but it was a non-issue. Nobody ever talked about (changing) it. I don't even remember anyone ever asking about it (until recently).”

Imagine that. All this talk about nine schools or 12 schools — Swofford said all along he'd be shocked if the final result was anything else, and many ADs privately admitted the same — and apparently nobody even considered challenging the 12-team requirement.


“Most of us talked about 12 as the magic number because of (a championship game), but it was much more than that,” one ACC athletic director said. “We wanted to expand our geography. We wanted to add major TV markets. We wanted to be able to attract a more diverse group of sponsors and advertisers. You can't do all of those things by adding just one school.”

The SEC, which expanded to 12 teams in 1992 and immediately staged a football title contest, made $12.4 million on its game this year. The Big 12 and MAC also have championship games. All these other leagues with eight or nine or 10 or 11 schools, and nobody even thought to ask until recently? In retrospect, it's hard to believe so many intelligent, thoughtful people didn't even consider asking the obvious question.

“Why don't we change the rule?” Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski said in late June, when he publicly blasted the ACC's handling of the expansion process. “The rule came up, I think, because of Division II (football) playoffs. And the BCS just kind of took it because it was there. It's a rule. Moses didn't bring it down from the mountaintop … it's a damn rule. So why not attack the rule and say, ëLook, why can't we have a playoff if we have 10 teams?'”

It sure would have been nice to know in advance, of course, but the ACC now plans to ask that exact question as soon as possible. Even with the glacier-like pace of the NCAA legislative process, a new rule could be in place as early as the 2004 season. That would be perfect for the new ACC, which won't have the Hokies and Hurricanes competing as full members until next fall, after one lame-duck season in the Big East.

Here's how the ACC's attack on NCAA Bylaw will unfold. First, the league will submit its proposal in writing by July 15. Next April, it will be voted on by the NCAA Division I Board of Directors, an 18-person group that includes three I-AA members and four I-AAA (non-football playing Division I schools) representatives. (Georgia Tech president Wayne Clough represents the ACC.) The measure needs a simply majority to pass, and if so it will take effect for the 2004 football season.

Will the proposal pass? Nobody knows.

Even within some I-A conferences, there are sharp differences of opinion. Big 12 and SEC officials, for example, love the exposure their championship games get and worry that their impact (and profits) will decline if more games enter the picture. Many football coaches in those leagues, however, think the title contest makes it more difficult for a school to win a national championship (it's one more chance to lose) and more difficult for a conference to produce two BCS teams. In theory, they'd love to see successful teams from other leagues knock each other off toward the end of the season.

The Big Ten (which has 11 members) and the Pac-10, meanwhile, have shown no interest in hosting their own title games. They've resisted the urge to expand to 12 teams, despite many opportunities to do so, and league officials thus far have indicated no pressing need to alter the existing NCAA rules on the matter.

Interestingly, it's very likely that the votes of the seven non-Division I-A members will carry the day, and nobody claims to know what they're thinking. Needing 10 votes, with one (its own) in its pocket, the ACC undoubtedly would be able to find at least a couple of votes in the I-A ranks. League officials then could find themselves in the odd position of romancing the votes of folks who won't be directly affected by the legislation in front of them, which is exactly the scenario that drives many college administrators crazy.

Of course, ACC expansion was supposed to be easy. Everyone saw how that one worked out.