For now, at least, Josh Heird is content to stay the course.
With college athletics again destabilized by the Big Ten’s poaching of UCLA and USC from the Pac-12, the University of Louisville’s athletic director said he has neither initiated nor received any overtures about changing leagues. His stated goal as of Friday afternoon was to “bolster” the Atlantic Coast Conference.
"For me," Heird said, "it’s about being as prepared as we possibly can to put the ACC in the best possible position to succeed.”
Realistically, Louisville may not have a better alternative than to sit tight and seek to strengthen the league it joined eight years ago.
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If the Big Ten and Southeastern Conference are inclined toward further expansion, numerous schools have bigger alumni bases, occupy larger media markets and, to the extent it still matters in dollar-driven decision-making, offer more academic cachet than does U of L.
Furthermore, few schools have as little flexibility to seek greener paydays as do those in the ACC. The conference's exit fee, equivalent to three years of the league's operating budget, now exceeds $100 million. Additionally, any member school changing conferences is bound by a grant of rights agreement to forfeit its media revenues to the ACC through the expiration of an ESPN contract that runs through the 2035-36 school year.
Whether those provisions could withstand litigation is unclear. The University of Maryland challenged the ACC's exit fee after leaving for the Big Ten, eventually reaching a 2014 settlement that paid the league $31.3 million of the $52 million it was then due, roughly 60 cents on the dollar.
Whether individual schools will be deterred from joining a more lucrative league by the short-term costs associated with leaving the ACC is a question confronting administrators, accountants and attorneys at Clemson, North Carolina and other potential targets.
“I think it makes it difficult,” Heird said. “I don’t think it makes it impossible.
“I think if you ask any of USC’s or UCLA’s colleagues in the Pac-12 on Wednesday, they probably would have felt pretty confident that the Pac-12 was going to be 12 teams. And all of a sudden, on Thursday, it’s not."
Just last August, in response to the Southeastern Conference’s annexation of the University of Texas and the University of Oklahoma, the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 formed a “collaborative” alliance.
The alliance was announced despite the absence of any signed agreement. As ACC Commissioner Jim Phillips said: “It’s about trust. It’s about we’ve looked each other in the eye.”
Now that that trust has been trampled by the defections of UCLA and USC, the ACC and Pac-12 must contemplate a competitive landscape that will soon include two 16-team super-conferences possibly inclined toward further expansion and demonstrably uninhibited by distance. They will also face growing financial disparities within the Power Five conferences driven by television dollars and, simultaneously, a dwindling inventory of potential league partners.
Do the ACC and Pac-12 raid each other or the reconstituted Big 12 to remain viable? Is there a merger that makes sense? (The Pac-12’s Board of Directors Friday authorized the conference to “explore all expansion options.”)
Will the Big Ten or, more likely, the SEC make a run at Clemson, the ACC’s football flagship? (“Given the projected gap in annual revenue distribution, can Clemson really maintain its status as a contender when the schools it’s competing against from the SEC have a budget twice the size?” Chris Plummer wrote for 247Sports. “If the SEC came calling, could Clemson say no?”)
Can scheduling challenges and revenue potential finally compel Notre Dame to forsake its independent status in football? (The Irish are contractually obligated to the ACC if they elect to join any conference, but CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd reports Oregon and Washington have been told the Big Ten is waiting on Notre Dame before exploring further expansion).
Did Louisville find a home in the ACC only to have the league implode? (“The way the ACC survives: convincing ESPN to give us more money,” wrote Chris Graham of Virginia's Augusta Free Press.)
“I think that conferences get larger,” Heird said. “So what does that look like? Is it three major conferences? Is it four? Is it two? I do think (the number of) conferences get reduced here. (But) I don’t know what that looks like."
As for possible additions to the ACC, Heird said, “I don’t think there are specific institutions that make more sense than others,” but added, “I do think we’re in a position that any institution in the country outside of the Big Ten and the SEC would want to have a conversation with us.
“I think we have an extremely strong league. And I understand what’s driving these changes: It’s football. But I also know, if you look at our league top to bottom. I’ll put it us up against any league in the country.”
For now, at least, Josh Heird would rather bolster than bolt.
Tim Sullivan: 502-582-4650, email@example.com; Twitter: @TimSullivan714
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Louisville on the ACC amid conference realignment: Build, don't bolt