What’s UNC’s future in the ACC amidst conference realignment?

AMELIA ISLAND — An hour into Monday’s presentation by NCAA president Charlie Baker, North Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham ducked out to take a phone call.

It’s the type of mundane administrative act that would normally be easy to ignore at an event like the ACC’s spring meetings. But these are not normal times for the ACC or one of the biggest wild cards in college sports.

Hours before league meetings began at The Ritz-Carlton, North Carolina’s board of trustees held its own meeting about the budget. The remarks in Chapel Hill sounded a lot like the remarks at Florida State meetings that preceded its lawsuit against the ACC.

FSU athletic director Michael Alford in February 2023: “(We) cannot be $30 million behind every year compared to our peers.”

North Carolina trustee Dave Boliek on Monday: “It’s not getting any better in terms of funding and our ability to fund and compete at the highest level with the current amount of resources that our athletic department generates, with the amount of money that we receive or do not receive from the ACC.”

FSU trustee Deborah Sargeant in August: “We don’t want to have to do this, but we have to do what it takes to compete.”

North Carolina trustee Vinay Patel on Monday: “The expectation is enormous from an alumni side, and we need to make sure that we’re doing right by what we have, and then moving forward what are we going to need?”

If that wasn’t clear enough, Boliek told Raleigh’s WRAL-TV he’s advocating for a move to a richer league.

“We need to do everything we can to get there ...” Boliek said. “I think all options are on the table.”

Which — combined with trustees’ concerns about the Tar Heels’ athletic budget and the administrator who oversees it — made Cunningham’s seven-minute phone call seem much more interesting than it probably was.

It must be noted, too, that Cunningham accused FSU of “barking” instead of simply leaving the league and moving on. Those didn’t sound like the comments of an administrator looking to exit and clash with the comments of trustees (plural) who aren’t bullish on the ACC.

What does all this mean? Maybe nothing. But maybe a lot.

Though FSU and Clemson are the ACC’s football powers, the Tar Heels might be a bigger target for the Big Ten and/or SEC. North Carolina has premier academics and basketball. The state is the third-fastest growing in the country, ranks ninth in total population and doesn’t have a presence from either of the Power Two (yet).

If North Carolina is seriously considering an exit, the school’s tactics have been relatively quiet. The Tampa Bay Times requested the contracts of any legal firms the school has used to explore conference realignment. The school said last week it had “no existing or responsive University records subject to disclosure” under the state’s public records law. UNC hasn’t clarified if that means the school hasn’t hired any outside attorneys or if its contracts are shielded from disclosure.

Regardless, North Carolina is the soul of the ACC. Perhaps the league could survive without FSU and Clemson. But if the Tar Heels take Tobacco Road out of town to the Big Ten or SEC, all bets are off.

That’s all context for what bubbled up at UNC’s trustees meeting and boiled over into the lobby of the ACC meetings. When a conference’s viability is in question, every mundane word or action gets magnified.

Like an AD stepping out to answer the phone.

Kicking off

ESPN announced some early kickoff times and TV information for the fall:

• FSU vs. Georgia Tech (Ireland): noon Aug. 24, ESPN

• Miami at Florida: 3:30 p.m. Aug. 31, ABC

• Boston College at FSU: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 2 (Monday), ESPN

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