How the ACC Botched Conference Expansion

Donald FincherAnalyst IMay 26, 2009

What could have been?  That must be what the AD's, presidents, and others at ACC schools are asking themselves when it comes to the conference expansion.

This upcoming season marks the fifth season of the "new and improved" 12 team Atlantic Coast Conference.  And it hasn't been what the grand poohbahs had hoped for by any metric.

The impetus behind the conference expansion was that the ACC saw that the SEC having expanded about a decade before and was doing very well, thank you very much. 
And, as one of the "BCS conferences" and the closest one to the SEC (therefore, the one most at risk for losing recruits from their own back yards to schools from the SEC), the ACC felt like it had to make a move.  And on this point, I can agree.

Obviously, from a geographic standpoint, it couldn't go out and get Pac-10, Big 12, or even Big Ten school.  And nobody in the conference realistically thought that an SEC school would leave the most powerful and lucrative conference to join the ACC.

 The conference power players at the time did give passing thought that a weaker SEC team such as Kentucky, Vanderbilt, or South Carolina (all on the eastern side of the conference) might want to be more competitive in the ACC. 

But just as they were honest with themselves that their conference was weaker than the SEC, they were also honest with themselves that it's not really about if a weaker SEC team can get more wins as much as it's about the sports revenue and nobody was going to leave the SEC for that reason.  And, again, I can agree with this logic.

In the end, the conference expansion proponents realized that they had three directions they could go.  They could shoot for the moon and try to get Notre Dame (which made no sense geographically for the conference or in any way for Notre Dame).

But even if they did, they didn't reach the magic number for a playoff (12) unless they added two more teams as well. 

Or they could go after independents (like they previously did with Florida State) or nearby non-BCS conference teams (such as Sun Belt or Conference USA teams) but in the end this really only satisfied the geography aspect and the "numbers" part of their equation of getting to a dozen so as to have a playoff but it didn't raise the conferences profile or put them in markets that were signficant. 

The only other option was that they could go north (as in the Big East).

In the end, heading north is exactly what they did.  And, man, did it get ugly!  The ACC wasn't just looking to take any three teams from the Big East.  They wanted the three best teams (based on recent history at the time).  

They chose Miami who was formerly a perennial national contender and already a rival of conference member Florida State.  This made sense geographically as the Canes were so far away from the rest of the Big East schools. 

They chose Virginia Tech who is always good under Frank Beamer and played in the BCS title game against Florida State a few years before.  Collectively, these two were the only Big East members ever (then or since) to play for the BCS title. 

And they chose Boston College.  The last one was after some wrangling with Syracuse where Syracuse decided to stay put.

The bad start due to the extremely bad press was just the beginning.  The ACC would compound their problems with bad decision making and poor planning.

One of the first mistakes made was the naming of the two divisions.  They saddled themselves with the monikers "Atlantic" and "Coastal." 

This was suicide from a public following standpoint.  Nobody knows who is where.  There is no way to make sense of this or keep it straight other than to memorize it.  People just aren't going to do that.  An east/west (like the SEC) or north/south (like the Big 12) would have made some sense.

But the reason they couldn't have such easy to remember names leads us to what was the next big mistake.  They didn't organize the conference in a way that made travel easier or that made forming rivalries natural.  People in Florida that root for Florida State are just not going to consider Virginia or Boston College (for instance) their rival.

I realize that they made decisions based on who was strong at the time but, in hindsight, as we can clearly see, that changes over time.  Florida State and Miami (the 2 teams that the whole system was shortsightedly set up to keep from being in the same division as each other) have been pretty mediocre in recent years.

Because this conference geographically is more of a north/south conference, the following divisions along those lines would have made sense and allowed the league to flourish.


Boston College, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Maryland, and two of the North Carolina teams


Florida State, Miami, Georgia Tech, Clemson, and the other two North Carolina teams.

Yes, on paper and based on tradition, the south bracket would have been much stronger.  That could have been offset to a small degree by putting the 2 stronger North Carolina teams (UNC, and NC State) in the north while putting the 2 historically weaker teams (Wake and Duke) in the south.

To make matters worse, the ACC put their championship game in Florida.  There were a couple of reasons for this.  In December, it's hard to count on good weather much further north. 

And, with Miami and Florida State seen as at least one if not both participants in the championship most years, it's easier for fans to travel to.  Beyond this, everyone wants to recruit Florida so playing the game there made some sense from a recruiting standpoint.

But from a geographic standpoint, it was not the best move.  There are NFL teams all up the eastern seaboard (Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New England) that play outdoors into December. 

Assuming FSU and Miami would be in it most years was a decent bet but short-sighted.  And from a recruiting angle, it seems like playing in Florida would not be as attractive to recruits as seeing empty stadiums would be unattractive.

In essence, the ACC had a case of trying to keep up with their neighbors (the SEC) and failed.  It's time to rethink this thing.  So what can they do?

First, they need to realign and rename their conference divisions.  I already mentioned a north/south split.  Schedules have been made into the future but those can be changed.  This should be done as soon as feasible.  It will take time but rivalries will develop and games will eventually have storylines and be at least a little bit compelling.

Secondly, the conference championship should be held in a central area.  When Boston College plays Virginia Tech, it just makes no sense to have that game in Jacksonville.  The game should be in Charlotte, NC or the DC area.

That's central to eight of the 12 current teams.  Casual Virginia Tech fans will go to that game if it's in Charlotte because one can drive to it.  But it takes hard core fans to fly to it in Jacksonville, FL.

There are other things, of course, but these would be good starting point.  Comments anyone?


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