Okay, let’s have a show of hands. Who saw this one coming?
This year’s extended Conference Expansion Season suddenly veered into an unexpected direction. As much of the civilized world sat and watched transfixed over the drama playing out in Texas and Oklahoma, the ACC suddenly entered the fray by scooping up Pitt and Syracuse. Who knew?
It had been assumed, quite naturally, from what was written, that the Big ? would be the first of the major conferences wiped from the face of college athletics. That, of course, greatly overestimated the death wish with which the conglomerated Li’l E/ Biggie E had attached to itself. Never write the Li’l E ‘On.’
It was a startling comeback by the Li’l E in its death struggle with the Big ? to become the first to eliminate itself. It was a remarkable effort. Its two most prominent schools, including one of the founding movers and shakers, will now call Greensboro its conference home. Well, if nothing else, the golf and barbecue will be better.
We were first made aware of this Conference Expansion gambit last Saturday morning while tailgating before Tech’s rather perfunctory and uninspiring win over Arkansas State [not much question why the OOC was toned down this year, eh?]. The initial reaction was, “Huh?” The question of ‘How will the Panthers and Orangepersons with their [currently] mediocre, at best, football possibly bring enough television cash into the ACC to justify their meal ticket?’ It seemed a reasonable question.
But, upon further reflection, it seems there was a method to the ACC’s seeming madness. This was not about next year, or the year after that, or ever how long it takes the latest newbies to extricate themselves from the Li’l E and actually begin play in the ACC. By going back to the tried-and-true calculation of ‘When you need members, raid the Li’l E,’ the ACC has positioned themselves as a survivor in the coming Armageddon. The annoying Li’l E, which, no matter how much the ACC tried, always seemed to pop back up and cause trouble and competition for E$PN loot, has now been eliminated once and for all as a serious conference. It will, no doubt, head back to its original mission as a Northeast-centric basketball league.
And, the basketball angle is not to be overlooked. While perceived football television riches are driving this land grab, there is plenty of cash to be made in basketball, too. The ACC has sure proved that over the years. The league had been badly watered-down after the 2003 expansion, particularly when measured against the Biggie E. Adding two of the country’s [and that other league's] premiere basketball powers sure changes that notion.
The axis is tilting towards 4 16-team conferences. And, make no mistake, once this all shakes out and the powers have aligned themselves, there will be a push for a Super Division, complete with a playoff built around the 4 conference championship games. Does anybody really think that a lawsuit by Baylor is going to hold this up for any protracted length of time? With the threat of the Big Four to leave the NCAA and take the lifeblood of the basketball tournament with them, the NCAA will have little choice but to allow it. Frantic scrambling might delay it for a while, but it will happen. And the ACC will be one of the four.
With the ACC now sitting at 14. seemingly 2 shy of the Magic Number, logical questions seem to be : Why only Pitt and Syracuse? Why not go ahead and add UConn and RUTSgers and get it over with once and for all? Attempting to think it through does seem to provide some answers.
There are snippets floating around that there was at least one ACC president opposed to UConn [Fredo, raise your hand!]. Even if Fredo still had vivid memories of the hard feelings and strong words that accompanied his ACC move in 2004 [Jim Calhoun: "I'll never play Fredo again! Ever!"], there is the little matter of UConn basketball. It is one of the country’s biggest winners. It is also one of the most consistent cheaters. The amount of time NCAA investigators keep heading to Storrs makes the jaunts to South Beach seem like once-in-a-lifetime happenings. At a time when the ACC is reeling from serious NCAA violations committed by numerous schools, perhaps it is best not to bring in another proven cheater, at least for the moment.
Then there is the bigger thing. If the ACC didn’t being in UConn and filler RUTSgers this time, it just might be because Little Johnny has bigger fish in mind. There are always conversations to be had with Texas. It seems highly unlikely that any accommodation could be reached with the guys who destroyed one conference to which they once belonged and are well on their way to ripping apart another. Plus, there is the question of exactly how the odious Longhorn Network could be incorporated into the ACC’s current business model. But, it never hurts to spend a little time chatting.
Then there is the really big fish. That would be Notre Dame. If expansion has taught us anything, it is to pay attention to what university presidents say, not sportswriters or Internet keyboard jockeys, including this one. More than one Irish prez has said that if Notre Dame joins any conference, it will be the ACC. There are some strong feelings in the entire Irish network, from administrators to fans, against joining the Big Teen. The strong anti-Catholic sentiment displayed by the Big Ten at its formation is still remembered in South Bend.
Notre Dame cherishes its football independence. Who can blame them? But, the time is rapidly approaching when the Irish will have little choice but to join a conference for all sports, including football. With a relevant Biggie E jerked out from under them, it might be time.
As with Texas, the Irish will bring some baggage, notably its NBC contract. But, perhaps a long view can be taken there. NBC is now owned by Comcast, the cable giant many people in my neck of the woods have grown to hate, with good reason. Comcast also picked up among the NBC properties an obscure cable sports network called Versus. There are indications Comcast intends to attempt to turn Versus into a major competitor to Disney’s sports Goliath; a start is going to be the moving in the near future of at least some Notre Dame home telecasts to Versus.
Remember last summer when Li’ller E commish John Marinatto turned down a television offer from E$PN? Remember the weauxfing he did about how he would use Versus to garner for his league the largest conference television contract in the land? That sure seems like a hoot, now, but it seems somebody was paying attention. The ACC has now triggered its renegotiation clause with E$PN. If the Total Sports Leader doesn’t care to fork over the really big bucks for the new and even larger ACC, just maybe there is somebody out there who does, somebody that already has a relationship with Notre Dame.
It is probably still a longshot, but it sure couldn’t hurt to spend a little time at least discussing things. The ACC can always head back at its leisure and collect UConn and the DORKS if things don’t work out. They ain’t going anywhere.
In the meantime, there is football to be played, then basketball, then perhaps a couple of more seasons, depending on how long Marinatto holds his breath, for all the good it will do him. Sooner or later, the ACC will be heading forward into the brave new world. This unexpected Conference Expansion Season move cememted that. Now, how about the Herd?