May 19, 2010
This should be a triumphant week for the ACC, thanks to the impending television deal with ESPN worth $1.86 billion, a significant windfall thanks to a push by Fox that drove up the price to more than double the conference's current TV contract. Instead, it's taking a barrage of criticism aimed directly at old wounds, beginning with very unsubtle suggestions from the major newspapers in Raleigh and Charlotte that the 2003 expansion push was a failure and the Big Ten should do everything in its power to avoid the ACC's mistakes in its own expansion push over the remainder of the year.
Newspapers are one thing. But the Big Ten commissioner seems to have already taken the point to heart:
"A lot of these [expansion] things that we've studied have been, in my view, improperly studied [by other leagues]," Delany said. "Didn't understand the logistics, didn't understand the culture, didn't understand the academic fit, didn't really understand whether they were doing a merger or whether they were doing an expansion. Expansion is very difficult, and we're learning how to do it better, I think."
I.e., better than the ACC. You're quiet, Delany, but you cut deep.
True, Delany's comments could just as easily have been directed at the Big 12, whose own culture clash between North and South has come into much clearer focus as Nebraska, Missouri and Colorado explore their options elsewhere and Texas throws cold water on the idea of divvying up any more of its share of the league TV money with the Pac-10. The Big 12 is also more likely to face an existential crisis from Big Ten expansion than the ACC, which only really has to be concerned with SEC retaliation years down the line. For that matter, Delaney could have been referring to the disastrous 16-team experiment in the WAC that gave birth to the Mountain West Conference in short order.
But the Big 12 has never had to defend itself against the hubris that wafted over the ACC when it poached Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College from the Big East. The old Southwest Conference was a wounded dinosaur when it finally fell, ripe for the picking by the Big Eight. More importantly, the Big 12 has largely lived up to its billing as a power conference on the field: Between Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas, the Big 12 has put a team in seven of the last ten BCS Championship games and seven others in the top five of the final polls in the same span. An at-large BCS bid in addition to the conference champion is more or less a given.
The ACC, on the other hand, hasn't sniffed the title game or even the year-end top five since Florida State's last stand as a national power in 2000. In the meantime, the ACC champion has won only one BCS game in that span (Virginia Tech over Cincinnati in 2008) and has yet to qualify a second team, even with the addition of the fifth big-money game in 2006. The last four Orange Bowls, all featuring the ACC champ, were the four lowest-rated games of the BCS' four-year cycle on Fox. The ACC Championship Game itself is still trying to figure out ways to improve sagging ratings and stave off a repeat of the Jacksonville attendance disasters of 2006-07. It hasn't helped, either, that the closest thing to a resident overlord, Virginia Tech, is generally viewed as a boring paean to "winning ugly."
It wasn't supposed to be this way. It's easy to forget in retrospect what a coup adding Virginia Tech and especially Miami was seven years ago. Aside from the mercenary fashion that facilitated it, the move was generally hailed as a master stroke that would make the league nationally relevant on an annual basis – something other than Florida State and the Seven Dwarves (and Duke) for the first time in a decade. At that point, either FSU or Miami had played in the de facto national championship game 13 times in the previous 16 years from 1987-2002, winning it six times. Accordingly, the most crucial decisions – the non-geographical alignment of divisions, the commitment to keeping the conference title game in Florida for its first five years – were all made in the expectation of an annual December blockbuster between the 'Noles and 'Canes, presumably with some national championship ramifications more often than not.
Of course, so far, all of those assumptions were wrong – Florida State has played in one ACC title game, Miami in none – but the upshot is that they didn't have to be wrong (if Miami and FSU had maintained their dominant pre-expansion tracks) and don't have to be wrong going forward. Both schools are still dominating conference recruiting under new, younger administrations that have only begun to clear out the must of the ossifying regimes from which they arose. There is still a vague sense as both continue to put up winning records, attract big-name non-conference opponents, and hover in and out of the polls that the corner is only a couple players and maybe a break or two away, and they'll meet each other, romantic comedy style, sprinting around the other side. There's an even vaguer sense that another up-and-comer – Clemson, Georgia Tech, North Carolina – can continue their nascent ascendencies right into the national elite, how ever unlikely that seems now.
If either of those scenarios (especially the first, bringing Miami and Florida State back to national prominence) were to come about, or if Virginia Tech finally takes the next step with the long-awaited encore to its breakthrough, undefeated regular season in 1999, it will be much harder to keep piling on for the lack of a conquering hero at the top. That may seem like wishful thinking after the last five years, but the point is that the potential still exists for the ACC to be the top-tier league it was aiming for in 2003. The problem isn't in the recipe or the ingredients so much as it is in the execution, but there's still plenty of time for the thing to come out the way it was supposed to. (Or close enough, at least, that everyone is able to choke it down without much complaining, anyway.)
Unless, of course, the SEC decides before any of that happens to take Florida State and Clemson in its rippling arms and carry them off to become new members of the mightier tribe in the Great Aggregation. That would be a satisfying bit of turnabout for Big East fans (if there still is a Big East at that point), but a smarter expansion plan wouldn't have stopped it.