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Five Years After the ACC's Expansion, Is Bigger Really Better?

By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 13, 2008

When the Atlantic Coast Conference extended membership invitations to Virginia Tech and Miami in June 2003 and to Boston College four months later, ACC officials offered visions of soaring revenue and heightened national prestige for a conference known traditionally for men's basketball. The plan was to make the ACC more like the Southeastern Conference and the Big 12, with conference championship games, opulent television contracts and national renown for its football teams.

In the five years since realignment was initiated the ACC, with its expanded roster of 12 schools, has signed a seven-year, $258 million contract with ABC and ESPN -- which nearly doubled the annual income of its previous TV deal -- and hosted three football conference title games at the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla.

ACC Commissioner John Swofford said expansion "has met expectations in every way," and several officials inside and outside the conference say the overall level of play of both football and basketball has improved. Others, however, say the benefits of growth have in many ways fallen short of predictions.

And in one of the most critical and unforeseen byproducts of the realignment, the rival Big East Conference -- forced to expand in response to the flight of three of its schools to the ACC -- has strengthened its standing as a big-time football conference and fortified the depth of its basketball programs to an extent the ACC has yet to realize.

Traditional football powers Florida State and Miami have suffered through disappointing seasons the past two years, leaving Virginia Tech and a slew of middling programs to maintain the ACC's clout among Bowl Championship Series conferences. Three seasons after the ACC introduced its two-division, superconference format, it has yet to earn an at-large bid to a BCS bowl in addition to the automatic bid one of its schools gets for winning the conference championship. In BCS bowls since expansion, the ACC is 0-3.

Revenue generated by the ACC conference championship game decreased from 2005 to 2006, a development that left outgoing University of North Carolina chancellor James Moeser unimpressed with the financial payoff from expansion.

"There was a financial concern, and [the expansion] has not been an enormous benefit," said Moeser, who stepped down June 30 after eight years. "Certainly, it has done no damage. It has been positive, but not overwhelmingly."

Meantime, the Big East has experienced a broader range of success, especially considering the condition it was left in after losing three of its most competitive football schools to the ACC.

The Big East was regarded as a fragile entity ready to crumble following the departure of Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College; "close to extinction," as Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese described the conventional wisdom of the time. Instead, the Big East fought back with an aggressive expansion of its own that in some ways has trumped the ACC's growth.

"We ignored" comments about the Big East's demise, Tranghese said. "We couldn't sit there and whine about it. We had to focus on rebuilding. And then we had to win."

A Boost for the Hokies

Confined to a recliner in his Blacksburg home, Virginia Tech Athletic Director Jim Weaver had plenty of time to reflect on the past five years. Nearly two weeks removed from hip surgery, Weaver had limited mobility, but that didn't keep the inflection in his voice from altering pitch as he described his school's still relatively new environment.

"We had longed for the ACC to be our home way back when the league began in 1953," Weaver said in a recent phone interview. "We're just delighted that it finally is."

And for good reason. Virginia Tech -- which with Miami began competing in the ACC in 2004, a year before Boston College -- has earned the ACC's BCS bowl bid two out of the past four seasons. The Hokies have appeared in two of the three ACC conference title games.

In fact, Virginia Tech has been a stanchion for a conference whose football powerhouses have struggled in recent seasons. Florida State won the inaugural conference title game and earned a BCS bowl in 2005-06, but has gone 14-12 in the two seasons since. After going 9-3 and winning six conference games in its first ACC season, Miami -- the prized jewel of the ACC expansion because of its football team's tradition of success -- has won just five conference games and finished with a 12-13 record the past two years. The Hurricanes have yet to play in an ACC title game.

When it came time to divide the conference into two, six-team divisions, Florida State and Miami were split up, the hope being that each program would anchor its respective side. "Florida State and Miami were put in separate divisions because people thought we would wind up playing in the championship game against each other," said Florida State President T.K. Wetherell. "But that hasn't happened yet."

Further hampering the ACC's bid for increased football prominence, Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina State -- all of which appeared on the rise at the time of the expansion -- have wavered since the realignment.

Mike Farrell, a college football recruiting analyst for Rivals.com, pointed to recruiting as one area in which the ACC has not taken full advantage of the reconfigured boundaries expansion made possible.

The ACC "wanted to take away the label of just being a basketball conference," Farrell said. "They wanted to make themselves a football conference like the SEC and the Big 12. Those conferences really raised the level of their recruiting on a national level. I don't think that's happened to the ACC yet. But that doesn't mean they haven't gotten good recruits."

In trying to make itself into more of a football conference, the ACC may also have unintentionally weakened its reputation in men's basketball.

Pete Gillen, men's basketball coach at Virginia from 1998 to 2005, said many of the league's veteran coaches were apprehensive about the realignment. According to Gillen, the league placed less emphasis on promoting ACC basketball -- for decades the heart and soul of men's ACC athletics -- while it focused on football.

Several league coaches perceived, Gillen said, that the ACC assumed the conference's traditional basketball strength would maintain itself. North Carolina won the national championship in 2005, but overall the league's basketball performance has fallen short of expectations.

In the past three years, the ACC has sent a combined 15 teams to the NCAA tournament -- the same number as in the three years immediately before expansion. The Big East, by contrast, has sent 22 teams to the tournament the past three years, including two seasons in which it sent a record eight teams; it had sent 16 schools in the three previous years.

"Football drove the expansion, and I understand that; they make all the money," said Gillen, who is a college basketball commentator for the CBS College Sports Network. "They're not hurting basketball, but they seem to think it's a self-perpetuating entity, and it's not."

Swofford dismissed suggestions that ACC basketball has declined since expansion, noting that the ACC remains one of the most competitive basketball conferences in the country. "What really builds a conference is competitiveness from within as well as a few key outside wins," he said. However, Swofford conceded that the ACC has not had as many wins against nonconference schools as he would have liked in recent years.

Not a Slam Dunk

In the immediate aftermath of expansion, the ACC was thought to be in pristine condition to develop quickly into a football superconference that would match the league's clout in basketball. The Big East, on the other hand, was projected to see its basketball competitiveness decline.

Tranghese, who did little in 2003 to hide his anger at the ACC for raiding his conference, said he did his best to ignore predictions of the conference's demise and that he advised his members to do the same. Many Big East leaders used the uncertainty surrounding the league's viability as motivation.

"Everybody took it personally, the way we were being treated," Louisville Athletic Director Tom Jurich said. "The expansion propelled us forward, no question. That's probably the greatest story of this whole league right now."

The Big East responded to the ACC's growth with an aggressive expansion of its own, adding five Conference USA teams -- Louisville, Cincinnati, South Florida, Marquette and DePaul.

Over the past three seasons, three of those schools -- Louisville, Cincinnati and South Florida -- have been ranked among the top 25 football teams in the country, as have once-overlooked Rutgers and Connecticut. West Virginia has established itself as the conference's power, having represented the Big East in two of its past three BCS bowl games. The Big East is 3-0 in BCS bowl games since the realignment took effect before the 2005 season, the only conference to go undefeated during that span.

The Big East's success in football can be attributed to many factors. Nick Carparelli Jr., the Big East's associate commissioner for football, said the commitment of school administrators on spending for facility improvements and retaining high-quality coaches are key reasons.

Farrell, the Rivals.com analyst, said the turn in football fortune has as much to do with the three schools that no longer are present among the conference's ranks.

"The fact that Miami, Boston College and Virginia Tech are no longer in the Big East makes it a whole lot easier for those secondary schools to step up," Farrell said. "Look at Rutgers. They've won for two years. It's not like there's a huge winning tradition there. Is it a coincidence that those two years happened to follow the departure of Miami, Boston College and Virginia Tech?"

These days, those three schools compete in the ACC, where parity reigns and results are often surprising. The ACC conference title game, a critical prize sought through the expansion, has not lived up to its billing -- in part because of the surprising decline of some of the league's big-name football programs.

At the time of the ACC realignment, a league title game was expected to bring in around $6 million in revenue. In 2005, its first year, the championship game drew $5.7 million, according to tax forms. The following year, tax forms showed, the revenue total from the game dropped to $4.9 million. Revenue numbers from the 2007 championship game were not expected to be made public until this fall.

Repeated messages seeking comment from Gator Bowl Association President Rick Catlett were not returned.

Not only have Miami and Florida State yet to meet in the ACC title game -- which will move to Tampa the next two years after spending its first three in Jacksonville -- the matchups that have taken place may help to explain the revenue decline. A Florida State-Virginia Tech clash in 2005 was followed by a less glamorous Wake Forest-Georgia Tech game in 2006.

Last season's championship game featured Virginia Tech and Boston College, a more enticing contest but still not the marquee game ACC officials envisioned five years ago.

"I don't think there's any question that ACC football has been enhanced," Swofford said. "But I still think there is more we can do."

The reaction of some of those who participated in the expansion's inception is more sobering. For Moeser, the recently retired UNC chancellor, there remain too many shortcomings of the realignment to afford it a ringing endorsement.

"The expansion was all built around a football payoff, but it was not as great as people imagined," he said. "The potential is still there, and ultimately I think it will be a great beneficiary. So far, it has been a net positive."

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