The ACC washed away any rumors of expanding up to 16 by sending out a single invitation to Louisville this morning while also indicating a sea change in the thought process of the conference’s leadership. For years, the ACC refused to consider schools such as West Virginia on the basis of academics, which meant that Connecticut would have been a virtual lock over the likes of Louisville and Cincinnati to have received an invite from the conference if this situation had occurred even one year ago. However, the brand value of the ACC’s football side has diminished so greatly over the past several years that conference commissioner John Swofford and company took a different tact this time around. Even the chancellor of the University of North Carolina (which is to the ACC what Texas is to the Big 12) admitted flatly that the addition of Louisville was completely about athletics as opposed to academics.
Kudos to Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich for getting his school into this position. He has proven himself to be one of the top athletic directors in the country in turning a basketball school that was in Conference USA not too long ago into a comprehensive top-to-bottom sports program that made sure it wouldn’t get left behind in a new football-driven world. Louisville already would have the largest athletic budget in the ACC outside of UNC, which is quite amazing considering that the Big East’s conference distributions are completely paltry compared to what the ACC has been doling out to its members. Out of all of the schools that have moved in conference realignment over the past couple of years, no one has gone out and made their own luck like Tom Jurich and Louisville. This is a big-time athletic department that should have been in an AQ conference long before it was invited to the Big East in 2003 and certainly shouldn’t have been sweating it out in the current round of realignment.
Unfortunately, the ACC’s decision left behind another school that deserves better than a watered-down Big East: UConn. I rarely blame the leadership of schools for failing to get spots in different conferences since so much is out of the control of those individual institutions. However, the ACC invite should have been UConn’s to lose. UConn had the academic profile and better geographic fit for the ACC along with a larger immediate TV market (#30 Hartford vs. #48 Louisville) and entry points to two massive metro areas (New York City and Boston). Yet, UConn somehow got characterized as a weaker football addition and athletic department overall compared to Louisville in the past week despite going to a BCS bowl and winning a national championship in men’s basketball in the same season only two years ago. That’s an accomplishment that not even Texas and Ohio State have been able to achieve. I told several UConn fans late last week that their school was doing an extremely poor job in addressing the negative public perception issues and Louisville had taken ownership of being a “football move” for the ACC (never mind that Louisville is the highest basketball revenue generator in the country and it’s not even close). What really wasn’t that large of an athletic achievement gap between UConn and Louisville became perceived as a massive gulf in the eyes of the media and fans and, faced with the increasing scrutiny of whether the ACC ought to maintain its power conference status in football, this might have been the one time that the university presidents were won over by public sentiment in an expansion decision. This is an instance where the UConn leadership can’t take an “it is what it is” look at what has occurred. My impression is that they believed (as I admittedly did) that the ACC was going to vote in UConn over Louisville and Cincinnati on academics just like it did in all of its other raids of the Big East previously. They didn’t bank on the ACC’s mindset changing, failed to address what the ACC was concerned the most about in the college conference landscape and, as a result, got burned. It’s a shame since Connecticut ought to be in a better home than the new Big East, but they whiffed on their best (and possibly only) opportunity to move on up.
I know a lot of expansionistas out there are just waiting for the next defection from the ACC to cause a chaotic exodus beyond Maryland (with names like Florida State, Clemson, Virginia, Virginia Tech, North Carolina and N.C. State moving around), but I’ll reiterate that I don’t see that happening. Conference realignment isn’t necessarily a zero sum game. The Big Ten will likely be able to gain more value out of Maryland than the ACC lost from that school defecting, just as the Big East is losing more value from Rutgers and Louisville leaving than the Big Ten and ACC will respectively gain from those schools. UNC and UVA, in particular, still see themselves as Southern schools culturally (hence a negative reaction toward the Big Ten at this time) along with top notch academic standards (which means that notwithstanding the ACC’s addition of Louisville, this is a large mark against the SEC), and as long as those two schools are there, the ACC is going to receive favored status from the college sports powers that be and that decreases the likelihood of others (such as Florida State) going anywhere else. As with all things in conference realignment, we always have to say “never say never”, but it will likely take years for UNC and UVA to get to the point where they’d seriously consider leaving the ACC.
In the meantime, get ready for the ACC-Big Ten Challenge to continue tomorrow night on ESPN, as Rutgers plays Louisville for the Big East football championship.
(Image from 97.1 FM The Fan)