GREENSBORO, N.C. – The last time ACC commissioner John Swofford stood in front of this group, he was a hunter; a force in the superconference race.
That was last fall, only nine months ago.
On Sunday afternoon at the ACC football media days, Swofford's swagger had been lessened considerably.
Instead of fielding questions about possibly becoming the first big boy league to reach the superconference status of 16 teams – as was the case last fall, when Swofford was fresh off snatching teams 13 and 14, Syracuse and Pitt – he dodged a very different line of questioning Sunday.
Are Clemson and Florida State onboard long term with this league?
At 2-13 in BCS bowl games, does the ACC even belong in the top tier of football conferences?
And, point blank, is the ACC going to survive?
A couple of months ago, presumably good news (a new, lucrative, long-term TV deal) turned into a bit of a nightmare for Swofford.
Florida State and Clemson were rumored to be on the verge of jumping to the Big 12 after the ACC's new television deal with ESPN/ABC catered more to its traditional basketball schools. The new TV deal will net each ACC school approximately $17 million per year through 2026-27, but the league had given up third-tier television rights for football to ESPN/ABC while keeping them for men's basketball.
Florida State Board of Trustees Chairman Andy Haggard ripped the ACC and threatened a move to the Big 12 in an interview with Warchant.com.
Suddenly, Swofford went from hunter to hunted in the vicious game of conference realignment.
Swofford did not sound concerned Sunday. Two days earlier, he had met with Clemson's Board of Trustees and gushed about the positive vibes following the meeting. When asked how comfortable he was with all the current members being onboard long term, Swofford replied, "Totally."
And suggestions the conference might not survive in a world ruled by football made Swofford smirk.
"That's never been an issue in my mind," he said. "You're looking at a group of schools that are together for all the right reasons. With the addition of Pitt and Syracuse, we've redone our television rights and that's given us a great deal of security going forward. … There's just plus after plus after plus."
Let's be honest, though, there are a few minuses – No. 1 among them being the ACC's lack of punch, and the annual lack of a serious national champion contender in football.
The Big East clearly is off the college football map, thanks in part to the ACC raiding it and in part for playing poor football almost every week of every fall.
With the superconference drive continuing, the ACC's place went from front seat last fall to, well, it's tough to determine right now. There's no doubting the SEC, Big Ten, Pac-12 and, yes, even that resilient Big 12 are members of college football's royalty.
The ACC? For now, sure it is.
Swofford successfully sidestepped a question about luring Notre Dame to join the league and said the 14-team format is the complete focus "at the moment."
But its biggest football name has threatened to join the Big 12 and its second-biggest name (Miami) continues to make NCAA enforcement officers work overtime. Meanwhile, on the field, the conference has lost 13 of 15 BCS bowl games, with its most embarrassing moment being the freshest memory – West Virginia clubbing ACC champ Clemson 70-33 in last year's Orange Bowl.
Does it all add up to second-class citizen status in the near future for the ACC? Swofford says no way.
"I'm not the only one who believes that or we wouldn't have a place at the table that we have with football going forward," Swofford said. "We just need to take advantage of the opportunities and win games. You win your share, and it's not even a point of conversation."
Very true, conversations sure do change quickly these days in college athletics. Amazing how much they can change in just nine months.
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