BLACKSBURG, Va. — As he sat in a Charlottesville meeting room along with the 11 other ACC athletic directors earlier this month, Virginia’s Craig Littlepage decided to introduce a discussion on the conference’s two-division format with a football analogy.
Last month, the ACC announced it would be adding Pittsburgh and Syracuse to solidify its standing as a major conference. Littlepage, the chairman of the ACC’s athletic director’s council this academic year, wanted to gauge how the rest of his colleagues felt the conference should be configured in the future.
Over three days of talks, two trains of thought emerged: Keep the current two-division format that has been in place for football since 2005 or go to a geographically oriented north-south format to reflect the conference’s expansion along the Eastern Seaboard.
“Our goal was to move the ball into the red zone, so we would at least know what the issues were, what the different possibilities were in terms of scheduling all the different sports,” Littlepage said. “We didn’t go any further than that.”
The reason the talks haven’t moved past the preliminary stage is that the ACC’s sudden expansion has caused its pre-existing members to jockey for position in an attempt to preserve long-standing rivalries.
ACC Commissioner John Swofford told reporters last week about a potential north-south divisional set-up with a north division that would include Boston College, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Maryland, Virginia, Virginia Tech and one North Carolina school.
That, though, drew concerns from at least three athletic directors earlier this month when the league met in Charlottesville.
“I think it puts too much of yesteryear together in half of the division,” Virginia Tech Athletic Director Jim Weaver said, referencing the 12 seasons (1992-2003) the Hokies spent as a member of the Big East. “We would prefer to keep the Atlantic and Coastal divisions as they now are. There’s seven years of brand identification with that.”
Littlepage said Virginia is also in favor of the ACC maintaining its current divisional format — with the conference simply putting Syracuse in one division and Pittsburgh in the other — because of the competitive balance that has been struck between the Atlantic and Coastal divisions. Entering the 2011 season, the Atlantic Division was 59-55 against Coastal Division foes in football.
More important, though, Littlepage is wary of the Cavaliers losing one of their principal rivalries. In the proposed northern division, Virginia would face rivals Virginia Tech and Maryland every year in football, but Littlepage would also like to preserve Virginia’s annual matchup with North Carolina, considered the longest-running rivalry in the South (the teams have met 116 times).
As it stands now, Maryland, Boston College, North Carolina State, Florida State, Wake Forest and Clemson compete in the Atlantic Division, and Virginia, Virginia Tech, Miami, Georgia Tech, Duke and North Carolina comprise the Coastal Division. Each ACC football team plays every member of its division annually and has a crossover rival in the other division that it also faces every year. In addition, each team also plays two cross-division games that are determined on a rotational basis.
That’s why, if the league votes to implement north and south divisions, the biggest issue will be figuring out which North Carolina school separates from the other three. Wake Forest Athletic Director Ron Wellman said all of the North Carolina schools — Duke, North Carolina, North Carolina State and Wake Forest — have been mentioned as possibilities. It’s unlikely, though, that the first three will be separated because their campuses are within 25 miles of one another.
“The one thing that we are most interested in any new set-up is our ability to play the North Carolina schools every year in football, and as often as possible — even in a double round robin — in basketball,” Wellman said. “The question becomes: What school is the most logical school to move to the north, and I don’t know if Wake Forest is. We haven’t had that conversation yet, to tell you the truth.”
Wellman does, however, see the benefit of splitting the teams among geographic lines. He says from a branding standpoint, it makes sense because “quite a few of our fans still have difficulty [with] who’s in the Atlantic, who’s in the Coastal.” Wellman, though, said the need to preserve his own school’s rivalries would drive his vote.
“We all have those games that we feel are sacred,” Littlepage said. “The important thing is to make sure those rivalries are two-way rivalries and not just it’s important for one school and not as important to the other.”
And though there is no set date for when Syracuse and Pittsburgh will officially join the ACC, Littlepage says a decision on divisions can’t be made “until the time Pittsburgh and Syracuse are a part of the conversations.”
Syracuse Athletic Director Daryl Gross said in a statement the school is “working with the leadership within the conference in the best interest of the league and the membership with regard to divisions and all conference matters.” Pittsburgh Athletic Director Steve Pederson declined to comment through a university spokesman.
The ACC’s athletic directors meet again in February for the league’s winter meetings, where divisions are sure to come up again. Littlepage says he hopes the divisional format is decided upon before the conference learns when, exactly, Syracuse and Pittsburgh will leave the Big East, which has said it will hold the teams to the conference-mandated 27-month waiting period.
Coming to a consensus, though, can be much harder than making a good analogy.
“There’s things we’re gonna agree on and probably things we’re gonna disagree on,” Littlepage said. “We have the ball in the red zone right now and we’re gonna have a number of discussions or plays that we’re going to call to eventually get the ball over the goal line. But we haven’t gotten over the goal line.”