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.
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.
Maryland Athletic Director Debbie Yow does not expect a sudden financial windfall from conference expansion but rather a gradual increase. She views the financial gains as merely a byproduct of expansion.
"The purpose of expansion was as related to having an NCAA presence of significance as it was to any projection for additional income," Yow said. "When you're are a small conference and have nine institutions, talking about the position of the conference, all these years we've been going up against conferences that were much larger, the SEC, the Big Ten, the Big 12. There's obviously strength in numbers."
There also is strength in media markets. The East Coast is "where everyone lives, you know," Florida State Coach Bobby Bowden said. "I don't care what the SEC says, there's not that many people over in Starkville [Mississippi]."
The obvious plum in the expansion, the school without which none of this likely would have happened, was Miami. The Hurricanes, who have finished the past four seasons ranked among the top five schools in the country, bring not only a tradition of football strength but also another foothold in talent-rich Florida.
"When [Miami] moved from the Big East," Virginia Tech Coach Frank Beamer said, "you were hoping you could make the move with them. They bring strength to the league."
That strength ensures that whatever happens next, the ACC will be a leader, not a follower.
"I think eventually Division I-A will be all super conferences that are going to play conference championship games," Friedgen said. "And that'll probably be the first round of a playoff. I don't know if I'll be coaching when it happens, but I think that is eventually going to happen."
Pros and Cons
One of the primary aims of expansion was to follow the blueprint of the Big 12 and Southeastern Conference and stage a conference championship game, which is permitted in 12-member leagues. The game, which will be held in Jacksonville in December 2005, is expected to generate more than $6 million in revenue.
But those financial benefits have other repercussions. As a nine-team league, the ACC could play a round robin schedule in which each school played every other every season. That's not practical in the current world of super conferences. The league will split into two six-team divisions, with the division winners meeting in the title game.
That's great for television and for fans. For coaches, it's a mixed blessing.
"I'm probably like most coaches, I'd rather not have" a championship game, Bowden said. "You're 11-0 and get to play somebody that's 8-3. If they beat you, they go and you don't . . . but it's good for the league and it's the way our country is going, so we're going to have to have one to keep up with the Big 12 and SEC."
Countered Friedgen: "It's another bowl game, maybe more important than a bowl game because it's going to determine the big bowl you go to. It will definitely help recruiting."
Another ACC vision is to have two teams qualify for the BCS, which stages four high-revenue bowl games each year, including one that determines the national champion. The league, one of six that receive automatic BCS berths, has never received an at-large bid.
The ACC earns millions more when one of its teams earns a BCS berth compared to when it plays in another bowl game, money that will be shared evenly among the 12 member schools beginning in 2007-08, Boston College's third year. (Expansion teams will earn a smaller slice of the allotted revenue during their first two years in the ACC.) Miami and Florida State, two perennial top 10 programs, would appear as likely candidates each year to earn BCS berths, but a championship game could diminish the chances of both earning bids.
"It may be easier this year" Peach Bowl President Gary Stokan said, "because without a championship game, both, say Miami and Florida State, could win their last games, which could propel them, whereas with a championship game, one of those teams would lose its last game."
Another concern raised by several league coaches is that there might not be enough bowls to go around. Currently, six bowls -- the BCS berth, Gator, Peach, Tangerine, Continental Tire and MPC Computers -- are reserved for ACC teams. But if another ACC team is bowl eligible and another slot in an at-large bowl is not open, that team will be excluded.
Most of the ACC bowl contracts run through the 2005 season. After that, Swofford said, the ACC will "be taking a fresh look with our current bowl partners and any others that might have an interest in associating with our league."
He added, "I think we'll have some other opportunities that would not have been there without the expansion -- I don't think there's any question about that -- and I think that just comes with the quality depth that we'll have."
Football-wise, the ACC essentially has been a one-team showcase; Florida State won 29 consecutive ACC games in the early 1990s and has won 11 of the past 12 conference titles.
But the Seminoles' stranglehold was starting to loosen even before expansion. Clemson and North Carolina State have shown the ability to beat them. And Maryland won the 2001 title and is one of five teams nationally to have won 10 or more games the past three seasons.
This year, five ACC teams are ranked in the preseason top 25. Six of the past 12 BCS title game teams are represented in the ACC. As Maryland's C.J. Brooks said, "We're really becoming a football conference."
While new members Miami and Virginia Tech bring legacies of success, players at the ACC's incumbent schools are eager to show that they can play, too.
Miami and Tech "bring more athletes," North Carolina State's Tramain Hall said. But "there is no reason to go out and fear them. They had a good history. We want to go out and make history."
That's why Hall ran an extra four wind sprints every workout this summer -- because he knew his peers in Coral Gables, Fla., would be doing the same, if not more.
Said Virginia's Chris Canty, "I think it's going to be a big adjustment for them."
Coaches also face a tougher task. Last season, Bowden said, there was incessant talk radio chatter -- "Ol' Tommy must go!" Bowden recalled -- insinuating that Bowden's son Tommy, the Clemson coach, would be fired after starting the season 5-4. Tommy Bowden's Tigers dominated their final four games, and he's back in 2004.
A late-season, apparent job-saving rally such as Bowden's could be tougher now because of sheer competition. As many as nine teams could be bowl eligible, said Stokan. A sign of the depth: The Sporting News ranked Virginia Tech as the nation's 23rd-best team but in the bottom half (sixth) of the ACC.
"It's going to make it tougher for coaches to survive, sure," Friedgen said. "The bar has been raised. Everyone wants to win. But it wasn't like it was a cakewalk before."
Clemson quarterback Charlie Whitehurst also was quick to defend the old as well as the new and wanted to show that there was more to the league than the two schools in Florida.
"Let's call the two at the top the elite teams," Whitehurst said. "The teams below them have been a lot better football teams in the past couple years. I think it's going to be harder than they think."