The past doesn’t change, but the view backward is perpetually open to interpretation. Witness the ongoing debate about the symbols and causes of a war that took place 150 years ago.
So it’s no surprise observers recall different reasons, if they recall any at all, for the pivotal ACC expansion announced nearly four years ago. This might seem like old news, but it continues to color perception of current events.
“People have a tendency to look at things as they are at that moment,” said John Swofford, the ACC commissioner, making an observation that transcends sports. “When you’re talking about expansion you’ve got to think more broadly.”
The addition of Pittsburgh and Syracuse, followed in short order by Louisville and Notre Dame, transformed the ACC into the current 15-member arrangement that promised to be a basketball colossus. But that doesn’t mean the conference expanded to advance its basketball interests. The hard-eyed truth is that membership was increased to gain markets and as a matter of self-defense at a time of great upheaval in college sports.
Within the ACC’s highest councils, there was concern the conference might unravel.
“It had nothing to do with basketball,” Gene DeFilippo, the athletics director of Boston College at the time and a member of the ACC’s expansion committee, said in a 2011 Boston Globe interview. “It was football money which drove expansion. It was football money and securing our future.”
Yet, confusing effect with cause, observers continue to insist the ACC aimed to bolster basketball, which undeniably benefited. At least all agree adding Pitt and Syracuse, from states that actually touch the Atlantic Ocean, wasn’t a move to strengthen football’s immediate prospects.
“I think it was a number of things,” Swofford said. “There’s seldom any singular reason.” Perhaps that’s why, at last week’s football media confab in Pinehurst, players representing Syracuse and Pitt were at a loss to explain why their schools did join the ACC.
“I never knew,” Pitt senior defensive tackle Darryl Render said. “They never really told us,” said Syracuse quarterback Terrel Hunt, a fifth-year senior.
In their first two seasons as ACC members, neither program posted better than a 7-6 record or a breakeven mark in conference play. This year, even such modest outcomes appear beyond reach, as both the Orange and Panthers were picked to finish next-to-last (sixth) in their divisions by the media.
The programs do have some claim to football glory, although of the moth-eaten variety.
Syracuse enters the season with 708 all-time victories, a total eclipsed among ACC schools only by Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech, with 711 each. Pitt claims nine national titles dating to 1915, more than all but five schools, none in the ACC. (Syracuse claims one, in 1959.) The most recent Panthers championship came in 1976.
Scoff if you want, but Pitt’s eight pre-World War II titles came under estimable coaches, College Hall of Famers Glenn “Pop” Warner and Dr. John Sutherland. Those championships are no more or less respectable than the 1924 Helms Foundation crown claimed by North Carolina basketball, celebrated with a banner in the Smith Center rafters.
Unlike the Tar Heels basketball program, Pitt and Syracuse football have enjoyed only sporadic success in this century. The fact they weren’t targeted to boost ACC football broke with precedent – the three previous expansions, dating to Georgia Tech’s arrival in 1979, were motivated by the league’s unrequited aspiration to rank among the nation’s football elite.
Opportunity for Louisville
The most recent additions were spawned instead by a crazed game of conference shifting as programs shopped for the best deals during an age of breathtaking TV largesse.
Pitt and Syracuse joined the ACC in September 2011, reportedly spurning the Big 12. The Panthers were being recruited as a proximate partner for West Virginia, which joined the Big 12 in October 2011.
The ACC supposedly remained a target for cannibalization, especially after Maryland left for the Big Ten in November 2012. Maryland President Wallace D. Loh captured the tenor of the time, emulating a bottom line-oriented corporate executive in citing the “strategic interest” and “financial vitality” that drove the school’s decision.
The defection created an opportunity for Louisville to join the ACC a month later, again trumping the Big 12. That didn’t quell heated rumors other ACC schools might join the Big Ten.
It made a lot of sense then, it makes a lot of sense now.
ACC commissioner John Swofford
The frenzy cooled in April 2013, a month after Notre Dame joined the fold, when the ACC formed a “grant of rights” pact to tie schools’ individual TV rights in a collective legal knot. The alliance enabled the ACC to protect against losing members and/or having to scale back athletic aspirations, either by reducing the breadth of sports in which teams compete for national championships or limiting the capacity (and demand) for new facilities.
Worse in some eyes, the ACC could have become a backbencher like the Missouri Valley Conference. Led these days by Wichita State, the MVC, the nation’s second-oldest league after the Big Ten, is self-consciously “basketball-centric,” according to commissioner Doug Elgin. It’s also relatively stable, tradition-rich, regionally compact, and competitive nationally in a number of sports from basketball to baseball to track and field.
What the MVC lacks are the TV dollars that accompany big-time football, as well as the clout and prominence enjoyed by members of what Swofford called the “Autonomy Five” – power conferences with significant leeway to make their own rules within the framework of the NCAA.
Swofford insists Pitt and Syracuse made sense for ACC membership on multiple levels. What comes to mind first, however, is market geography. “We had the geographic gap, if you will, between Maryland at the time and Boston College.” Then he lists “quality of institutions, quality of football and basketball programs” and “good marketplaces from a media standpoint.”
It helped that Syracuse and Pitt were looking for a place to land as the old Big East unraveled, its football-playing members jumping ship. “You put all of that together, it made a lot of sense then, it makes a lot of sense now,” Swofford said.
History’s verdicts have a way of shifting before our eyes. Pitt and Syracuse basketball don’t look so good at the moment.
After a run of 10 straight NCAA tournament appearances, the Panthers failed to get bids in two of the past four years. They aren’t projected as a Top 25 program in the upcoming season, either. As for Syracuse, it faces fallout from an NCAA probation as well as the announced retirement three years from now of Jim Boeheim, who elevated the Orange to the game’s front rank. Coach-in-waiting Mike Hopkins is widely respected, but it’s rare a program replaces a Hall of Famer without experiencing struggles.
Meanwhile, the broadcast and telecommunications industries underwriting big-time sports are going through their own transformations. Some changes are quite unexpected, like ESPN’s loss of 3.2 million subscribers in barely a year’s time. Under the circumstances, being well-positioned geographically, perhaps the primary goal of the 2011 expansion, might prove the new, improved ACC’s greatest virtue.