College football could change at an astonishing pace the next few years. Players might have five years of eligibility, programs could be docked scholarships for poor graduation rates, and the Bowl Championship Series in 2006 will add a fifth game in its ever-changing quest to crown a true national champion.
Amid the swirl of these and other uncertainties, the ACC -- once a nine-team league with a reputation for being a one-horse show -- sought to shore up its position by luring the top football schools away from the Big East and improving its own competitive strength to a level second to none.
(Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
The process began formally in the spring of 2003 and resulted in lawsuits, damaged relationships, and seemingly endless talk of market shares and geographic footprints.
But essentially it worked, and the league will never be the same.
With the additions of Miami and Virginia Tech this fall and Boston College a year from now, the ACC has landed what it wanted: a new television contract beginning this year and conference championship game beginning next season. The expansion ensured that no matter what shape the sport takes in the future, nothing will happen without the ACC. It also had benefits beyond long-term economic viability.
Once a league that spent autumns anticipating basketball season, the ACC can stake a claim -- beginning this season -- to being the strongest football conference in the country. Beginning Sept. 6, when Florida State plays at Miami in prime time, the ACC officially will move from afterthought to superpower as a football league.
Last month, during the ACC media days that drew a conference-record 200 media members, Maryland Coach Ralph Friedgen looked around the room and saw the future.
"You see all this media here?" Friedgen said. "We're going to be the most powerful media league in the country. Boston, you're probably going to end up pulling part of New York and Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Charlotte, Atlanta, Miami. That's pretty powerful.
"And we're truly an Atlantic Coast Conference now. You go from Miami to Boston. You want exposure? As time goes on, I think TV contracts are going to get better. I think the bowl games are going to get better. The media coverage is going to get better. Eventually every kid this side of the Mississippi is going to want to play in the ACC."
About 20 percent of Division I-A teams will change conferences in the next two years, a dramatic land shift felt from the ACC all the way to the Sun Belt Conference. No conference seemed to benefit more than the ACC.
After surpassing 3 million in total attendance for the first time ever last season, the conference is expecting even bigger numbers at the gate. Maryland sold a school-record 30,000-plus season tickets. Clemson sold all of its season tickets (56,800) for the first time in school history.
The league signed a seven-year, $258 million contract with ABC and ESPN, nearly doubling the annual income under the old contract, which had been signed in 1998. If there was a moment of affirmation for the revamped ACC, this was it. ACC Commissioner John Swofford simply said, "It's what the conference needed."
The Miami-Florida State game on Labor Day will be televised this year and next. The number of Thursday night games on ESPN and ESPN2 will double from three to six. At the time, ESPN Executive Vice President Mark Shapiro said that expansion "definitely got our attention."
In addition, the ACC signed a deal with Raycom/Jefferson-Pilot Sports for syndication rights through 2010 that will televise games on or up to 11 Saturdays, an increase from eight.