Since the ACC essentially began the seismic shifts in the college sports landscape 10 years ago by expanding by three schools, Commissioner John Swofford had managed to keep his league one step ahead of the fray.
But Swofford was blindsided by ACC charter member Maryland’s move to the Big Ten, two people with direct knowledge of the situation said. ACC officials found out Maryland President Wallace D. Loh was in talks with Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany only through media reports Friday and Saturday, and Swofford never heard back from any officials in College Park despite repeated attempts to contact them throughout the weekend.
As a result, the ACC suddenly finds itself in a quandary. Duke men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski even called the league “vulnerable” in a radio interview.
The lack of communication rankled ACC officials, who are also preparing for a legal battle with Maryland over the league’s $50 million exit fee that could play a large role in the future stability of the conference.
Loh, one of two ACC university presidents to vote against raising the exit fee in September, indicated Monday he hoped to negotiate with the ACC. But two people with direct knowledge of the ACC’s thought process said the league will try to force Maryland to pay the full amount because its legal counsel is “very confident that the exit fee is legally binding.”
Last week, Swofford and Delany, both North Carolina graduates, completed an agreement in which the Big Ten would become part of the ACC’s opponent pool in the Orange Bowl beginning in the 2014-15 season. By Sunday, though, Swofford had convened a conference call with the ACC’s presidents to discuss the likelihood that Delany had convinced the Terrapins to become just the second school to ever leave the ACC (South Carolina, also a charter member, became an independent in 1971 before eventually joining the Southeastern Conference).
The question Swofford posed to his constituents was how to move forward and avoid getting poached again, especially when it comes to appeasing football-first schools such as Florida State, Clemson and Virginia Tech, each of which would be attractive to other conferences looking to expand further.
One person who was on the conference call said the league plans to act in a “deliberate and strategic” manner. The ACC was aware of some potential options, including Connecticut and Louisville, because, as Swofford noted, “a number of schools” expressed interest in joining the league last September, when it added Syracuse and Pittsburgh.
Both Louisville President Jim Ramsey and men’s basketball coach Rick Pitino have begun to campaign publicly for inclusion into the ACC on behalf of the Cardinals, although Louisville’s academics would make it the lowest-ranked school in the league according to the U.S. News rankings.
But if Maryland’s decision proved anything, it’s that the history of the ACC doesn’t mean what it used to in the ever-changing landscape of college sports.
“It’d be like when the Model T came out and you were pining for horse and buggies. It’s over, and you better start facing the new reality,” said ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas, a former player and coach at Duke. “Fans can think what they want, but [the ACC] needs to think boldly rather than hold on to some notion of tradition. The ground underneath them has been shifting for a long time now.”
Alex Prewitt contributed to this report.