LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Atlantic Coast Conference staffers have been here for several days now, preparing for the college sports version of a New Year's Day celebration.
July 1 is when the calendar turns over in college athletics, and Louisville officially becomes the 15th member of the ACC Tuesday. There will be a downtown celebration – with a public viewing party for the U.S. World Cup soccer match against Belgium serving as the warmup act – and a lot of pleasantries exchanged between ACC Commissioner John Swofford and the Louisville administrative leadership.
The ceremony marks a new beginning for the league and its latest member, but it also serves as the culmination of a 10-year power play by a conference once considered both genteel and non-threatening to the national pecking order.
Neither of those things is true today. Swofford has Big East blood on his hands and a burgeoning powerhouse league at his disposal.
Ten years ago, he and his ACC colleagues started the 21st century realignment chain reaction that rocked college athletics, killing the northeast's niche league in the process and doing more harm than good to college sports as a whole. When what once was a placid basketball league plundered the Big East for football-first Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College, that set the stage for nationwide movement. Then the ACC perpetuated the upheaval by grabbing Pittsburgh and Syracuse from the Big East. The final two blows were taking Notre Dame as a mix-and-match member (all-in for every sport but partially in for football) and replacing departing Maryland with Louisville.
Then, after all that, Swofford & Co. brought stability to the shifting landscape in the spring of 2013 by securing the league grant of rights deal – stopping the carousel for what most hope will be many years to come.
Now that the pieces are finally rearranged, the ACC is the conference that gained the most in Darwinian terms. It's morphed from nine to 15 teams, and from mid-Atlantic to owning the entire Atlantic seaboard – with some strong inland schools as well.
"We're positioned very, very strongly as we look ahead," Swofford told Yahoo Sports. "With the addition of Louisville, we're now at a place within our conference where there will be stability going forward. We're where we want to be. And our potential is unlimited."
Indeed, the present is profitable and the future is promising. The Southeastern Conference may be king, the Big Ten may be old money and the Pac-12 may have the greatest geographic hegemony – but the ACC has formally arrived as an equal partner in the power-five conference hierarchy.
Per the league's figures, "the ACC geographic area will contain the most television households and highest population of any conference nationally." Those are vital factors when it comes to media-rights contracts and attracting local talent. More TVs mean more revenue, and more revenue means even more pumped-up athletic programs, which means a stronger recruiting pitch to players. (Unless, of course, an O'Bannon v. NCAA ruling diverts a sizeable stream of the revenue gusher to the athletes.) And if more of those players are in your footprint than ever, the better caliber of recruit your teams should be able to sign.
The ACC is home to the defending champions in football, Florida State, and after years of national pratfalls in the most important sport that was huge.
"[A football title] is something that we needed to do," Swofford said.
And it wasn't just a one-year spike, but a sign of the gradual reemergence of the league's top football program – indeed, the Seminoles may well start the 2014 season ranked No. 1. In addition, Clemson is coming off a BCS Bowl victory over Ohio State, and Louisville went 12-1 and finished 2013 ranked 15th by both the AP and USA Today.
The loaded basketball portion of the league did not deliver in the NCAA tournament last season, failing to put a team in the Final Four. Duke and Syracuse were stunned by double-digit seeds, and only Virginia advanced to the Sweet 16. But the arrival of the Cardinals gives the ACC six of the past 14 national titles, and four active Hall of Fame coaches (Rick Pitino, Jim Boeheim, Roy Williams, Mike Krzyzewski). Multiple ACC national titles in the near future are not a possibility; they're an inevitability.
And the ACC is flush in non-revenue sports as well, excelling at lacrosse, golf, soccer and baseball.
Of course, predatory growth and huge success in college sports typically come with a price. The Tuesday celebration in Louisville comes a day after the NCAA announced that it is reopening its investigation of the North Carolina academic scandal, two years after it slammed the Tar Heels' football program for a wide range of violations. This time the focus figures to be on the blueblooded (and frequently pious) basketball program – and that's a big deal. Historically, nothing has been a greater part of the ACC's foundation and identity than North Carolina basketball.
On the football side, the ACC now becomes the league that welcomes Bobby Petrino back to the big time. When the deal was cut between the conference and Louisville, Charlie Strong was the coach – but since then he bolted for Texas and Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich brought back a coach with every bit as much baggage as he's had success. The second-chance rationale that went into re-hiring Petrino has evidently transmitted to his recruiting, as the Cardinals have stocked up on transfers who ran into trouble at other schools.
And the very fact that a league loaded with elite schools would take in academic lightweight Louisville is commentary in itself. This was not a move to make the ACC stronger in the U.S. News & World Report rankings; it was a move to make it stronger in the football and basketball rankings, plus a wide array of other sports.
On the playing field, Louisville is a great addition. The surprise is how quickly that has come to pass.
A decade ago, when the ACC started this radical remake, the Cardinals were playing out the string in Conference USA and on the verge of a move to the Big East. Their football stadium seated 42,000 then, 55,000 now. Their basketball gym was a historic but outdated hulk on the state fairgrounds; now the downtown arena might be the best modern arena in America. Their non-revenue sports were upgrading; now they have arrived as a national power in baseball, men's soccer, swimming and others.
Would the ACC have looked twice at Louisville in 2004?
"Probably not," Swofford said. "I think that's fair to say. It was a very different world at that time, too. But they have positioned themselves to be a tremendous addition to any conference, and we're thrilled that they're joining ours."
The decade-long building of a bigger ACC is complete on Tuesday. In the Darwinian world of modern college sports, no league has done more to survive and thrive than John Swofford's.