ACC's Forward Progress Limited
Expanded Conference Rates Mixed Reviews at 5-Year Mark

By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 14, 2008

The Atlantic Coast Conference's symptoms five years ago were easily diagnosed: diminished ego, voracious appetite and selective vision. The conference with the highest average revenue payouts, an acclaimed tradition of basketball success and a reputation as one of the most pristine collegiate scholastic associations in the country needed -- or, at least, felt it needed -- to grow.

Tired of the persistent malaise with its football clout among Bowl Championship Series conferences and intent on catching the eye of television network executives, the ACC set out to expand from nine to 12 schools in 2003 in hopes of satiating all of its competitive, financial and academic desires in one fell swoop.

The results, to date, have incurred mixed reviews.

Coaching instability throughout the football ranks has numbed the recruiting advantages made possible by a league that now spans 1,500 miles of the East Coast. In addition, the programs expected to serve as the ACC's backbone have withered in recent seasons.

Meanwhile, a lucrative television deal signed shortly after the realignment was announced sparked an economic boon, felt mostly by the conference's newest members. The highly coveted ACC football championship game has contributed to the windfall, despite attendance numbers that have decreased each year.

The expansion "in the short term, has not had a tremendous impact; it has elevated expectations, which make the broadcasting rights more valuable," said Marc S. Ganis, president of the Chicago-based sports consulting firm SportsCorp Ltd. "In the long term, it should raise the level of competition among the schools that have not had a tradition of excellence in football. The smaller schools will get more exposure."

The conference's scholastic identity -- which some schools felt was in danger of being tarnished with the addition of Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College -- has changed. That modification, however, stimulated an academic consortium that provided a platform upon which the trio could ingratiate itself with the ACC's established members.

"I'm not sure there's been a terrifically positive benefit," said Paul Haagen, a law professor and former vice chair of the academic council executive committee at Duke University. "It has been less negative than some people feared and less positive than some people will claim."

Spread Offense

By adding Boston, a major media market in the Northeast, and Miami, a hotbed of athletic talent located near Florida's southern tip, the ACC extended its reach to recruits and fans.

Recruits "understand more clearly the boundaries of the conference," said Dana Bible, offensive coordinator at North Carolina State. "It strikes me that recruits anywhere in that range are open to considering all teams in the conference."

However, several ACC football programs have been unable to take full advantage of the conference's expanded borders because of coaching changes. Half of the ACC's 12 schools -- Boston College, North Carolina State, Miami, North Carolina, Duke and Georgia Tech -- have introduced new head football coaches in the past three years. Of those six programs, only Boston College finished the 2007 season with a conference record above .500.

"Stability has not been there with many of the programs," said Mike Farrell, college football recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. "It's tough to develop the top-rated kids when you have to start over. It stunts their development a little bit."

Wake Forest Athletic Director Ron Wellman hired Jim Grobe to take over his school's football program in December 2000, and Grobe's staff began redshirting more freshmen to give them an additional year of seasoning. Six years into Grobe's tenure, an experienced Demon Deacons squad won the ACC championship game over Georgia Tech and played in the program's first BCS bowl.

Wake Forest has evolved far beyond the football program that won a total of 38 games in the 1990s. "The fact that it's not the traditional powerhouses is an interesting story," Wellman said. "And who's to say Wake Forest is not the next Miami or Florida State?"

As for programs such as Miami, Florida State and, to a lesser extent, Maryland, which were supposed to serve as the bedrock of ACC football but have struggled in recent seasons, Farrell said they are having a difficult time adjusting to the upward push that higher quality recruits have created among the conference's middling teams.

Indeed, numerous sources -- both inside and outside the ACC -- contacted for this story agreed the competition level in the conference's revenue sports (football and men's basketball) has risen, even if the competition results suggest otherwise.

Well-respected ACC basketball veterans, such as Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski, voiced their concerns during the expansion proceedings of 2003 over the consequences a realignment might produce for the conference's basketball vitality. ACC basketball programs have won 10 national titles since the league was formed in 1953.

Clemson men's basketball coach Oliver Purnell shared the same anxiety. He grew up in Berlin, Md., surrounded by the aura of ACC basketball. After seeing the sport serve as the driving force behind the ACC for 50 years, Purnell wanted to ensure the treatment of the sport by conference officials would not diminish in the wake of a football-focused expansion.

"All of the sudden, we were in a different ACC," Purnell said. "We continued to bring that up at conference meetings, and I think eventually the conference office responded."

Following the Money

As a direct result of its expansion, the ACC was in position to accomplish two of its most critical objectives. The conference signed a seven-year, $258 million deal with ABC and ESPN in May 2004, nearly doubling the per year average payout of its previous contract.

The conference also has increased the average revenue payout to member institutions by over $2 million since the realignment. Following the 2001-02 school year, the ACC paid out an average of $9.5 million to its nine members, according to an ACC official. As reported in the ACC's 2006-07 tax forms -- the most recent available on public record -- the conference doled out an average of $11.7 million to its 11 full-sharing institutions.

All three new members received a two-thirds payout in their first two ACC seasons before becoming full-sharing members in their third years.

"In the Big East, you generate revenue based on how you did in football," Virginia Tech Athletic Director Jim Weaver said. "In our best year in the Big East, the year we played in the national championship game [1999], we pulled in $5.1 million." According to Weaver, Virginia Tech gained almost double that amount in ACC revenue payout this past year.

Miami was viewed as the key to augmenting the ACC's appeal. Situated in a major media market and boasting five national championships, Miami served as the conference's most valuable bargaining chip when it came time to renegotiate its television contract.

Several Miami sources said that despite the Hurricanes' 12-13 record over the past two football seasons, the program did what it was brought in to do. "The ACC got their TV contract when we were still good," said a former Miami official. "We easily delivered on the TV contract."

Still, Miami's on-field performance has prevented it from bolstering the marketability of the new ACC conference championship game. Before expansion, the conference did not contain the 12 members necessary to hold a league title game.

Florida State outlasted Virginia Tech, 27-22, at the inaugural ACC championship game in 2005 in front of 72,749 at the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla. The following year, Wake Forest beat Georgia Tech, 9-6, and attendance fell by nearly 10,000. "Wake Forest and Georgia Tech -- those aren't exactly marquee programs," said William S. Kern, professor of economics at Western Michigan. "The buzz outside of the region has not been as big as it might have been in the past."

Attendance dropped again in 2007. Virginia Tech knocked off Boston College, 30-16, before nearly 20,000 fewer fans than when it played in the inaugural contest.

Hitting the Books

Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College all were schools with athletic tradition and prowess; concern during the expansion process derived from the change those schools might bring to the scholastic reputation of a conference known for its academic prestige.

However, realignment provided impetus for the ACC Inter-Institutional Academic Collaborative, a consortium that organizes global research, leadership conferences and extensive study abroad programs. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the ACCIAC's development has been the eager participation of the conference's newest members.

There is no commonly accepted, objective way to measure an institution's academic development. But the more involved the imported schools became in the collaborative, the easier it was for the ACC's veteran institutions to shelve their apprehensions.

"As you have years and years of informal networking among the original eight institutions and Florida State, there is a natural collaboration over the years," said David Brown, former Wake Forest provost and current ACCIAC coordinator. "When you have a new group come in, they have to work a little harder, in a sense, to get into the network. Now, each has become an integral part of the network."

According to Brown, Miami President Donna Shalala submitted the motion that designated $400,000 of the revenue generated from the conference football championship game toward funding the ACCIAC. The ACC presidents voted to increase that revenue portion to $450,000 a year and a half ago, Brown said.

John E. Dooley, Virginia Tech's vice president for outreach and international affairs, is leading a group of conference officials in determining the ACCIAC's future endeavors.

"When we came in, we didn't know what to expect," Boston College Athletic Director Gene DeFilippo said, "but the way we've been accepted by the other schools and by the conference . . . in our mind, it was a very smooth transition."

In the minds of many university officials contacted for this story, the expansion was a necessary component in keeping the ACC a viable contender for BCS supremacy. It had to grow more competitive. It had to reap more financial benefits. It had to retain its standing among the academic elites.

"I think there is much validity to the fact that if we didn't expand, if we became reactionary to what the evolution of conference alignment was becoming, we would not have had as much of an opportunity to do what we wanted to do," said former Florida State Athletic Director Dave Hart, who stepped down Dec. 31.

Five years after attaining what were believed to be the catalysts for unbridled development, the ACC waits for its growing pains to bear out.

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