The ACC Needs To Strike First in Expansion By Carving Up the Big East!

Gerald BallCorrespondent IMay 26, 2010

NEW YORK - APRIL 22:  Derrick Morgan from the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets poses with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell as they hold up a Tennessee Titans jersey after the Titans selected Morgan number 16 overall during the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall on April 22, 2010 in New York City.  (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

In the conference expansion mania, everyone is presuming that the Big 10 will act first and then allow everyone else to react to them.

That is idiotic.

First off, the SEC, which is No. 1 in football and as good as they care to be in basketball should not expand just because the Big 10 does. Adding more potential or current powerhouses like FSU, Virginia Tech, Miami or Texas to what the conference already has would make that conference too tough to win a national title out of, and other options wouldn't add enough TV viewers or revenue to make it worthwhile.

As for the Pac-10, they can't identify one school, let alone two, that makes for good academic, athletic and cultural fits and would add ratings and revenue to the conference over the long haul (i.e. when the novelty of the conference championship game has worn off). As for the Big 12, I think that there are a couple of teams that they should think long and hard about grabbing to increase their TV and recruiting reach (Cincinnati, Utah and Louisville) but it certainly shouldn't be in reaction to what the Big 10 is doing.

But the ACC? Another story entirely.

They need to go ahead and expand for their own reasons. They definitely shouldn't wait on the Big 10, because the Big 10 will likely take the teams that the ACC needs! So the ACC needs to make their move, gobble up 2 or 4 of the Big East teams, and become a 14 or 16 team league. Let the Big 10 get the ACC's leftovers instead of the other way around.

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Won't this kill off the Big East?

Yes, and that is a good thing. The Big East is no longer viable. The Big East is a basketball first conference whose attitudes toward football range from tolerance (for tradition's sake) to revulsion. They only added football to thwart the creation of a (north) eastern all sports conference that some of the major programs that were independent in football at the time wanted to create. The Big East feared not only losing some of their existing members to the new conference, but they didn't want to compete with the new conference for recruits and TV viewers in basketball. So, they invited some teams and began playing football, but only to keep the new conference from forming. Beyond that, they never had a plan or even a desire to excel in football, because they were a basketball league first. And it helped that most of the football schools in the Big East had limited ambitions and/or potential in the sport anyway.

But now, the game has changed. In order to survive, a college football league has to be competitive so that it can remain in the BCS (or succeed in a theoretical playoff), get TV contracts, and attract top coaches and recruits. That's never going to happen so long as the Big East is 8 schools who hate football and don't play it, and 8 more schools who have football but for the most part don't like it much and/or will never be particularly good at it. That may sound harsh, but I defy any Big East fan to tell me that the administrators and boosters at Syracuse, Rutgers and Pitt actually care about winning national titles. When you get through with that, tell me how programs to compete with Ohio State, Texas, Florida, USC etc. on a regular basis are going to South Florida, Cincinnati, Louisville, UConn and West Virginia anytime soon. It's not going to happen.

Instead, the Mountain West will become an automatic qualifier for the BCS within the next 5 years. And yes, that will affect the Big East, on the other side of the country.

You see, college football is in many respects a zero-sum game. There are only so many good coaches and recruits to go around. A bigger point: there are only so much TV money and so many TV time slots. When the MWC becomes a major conference, they will get a lot of the FEW national TV dates on ESPN, CBS and ABC that the Big East gets. And it is actually in the BCS' interests to elevate the Mountain West, because right now all but 10 of the major college football programs are east of Texas. So, it is in the media interests of college football to eliminate one of the THREE major conferences with teams on the east coast (the SEC, ACC and Big East) and stick Boise and Fresno into the Mountain West.

This move would result in a far more balanced situation with two eastern conferences (the ACC and SEC), two midwestern conferences (the Big 12 and Big 10) and two western conferences (the Pac-10 and Mountain West), which would set the stage for an 8 or 16 team playoff that would draw teams more or less equally from each region, and be able to field regional neutral site games (i.e. a first round that would be Pac-10/MWC, Big 10/Big 12, ACC/SEC).

So, it is going to happen. What the ACC needs to do is make sure that when it DOES happen, they are going to be in the strongest position, with the best Big East teams instead of the Big 10 leftovers. The ACC has to get Rutgers and UConn at minimum. UConn would be to please basketball interests, Rutgers would add a huge recruiting and TV market. The ACC would have New York/New Jersey (Rutgers), Boston (BC), Maryland/Virginia/DC (Virginia, Virginia Tech, Maryland), the Carolinas (UNC, NCSU, Duke, Wake Forest, Clemson), Georgia (GT) and Florida (FSU, Miami).

What about Syracuse? I say ... what about them? UConn has been a better basketball program than Syracuse for years, who apart from the 2003 national title and a 1996 Final Four hasn't done squat since the 1980s. And in moving up to FBS and building a brand new stadium, UConn has shown much more of a commitment to football than a Syracuse program that let Paul Pasqualoni hang on forever only to replace him with Doug Marrone because Lane Kiffin didn't want the job. Let Syracuse continue to drift into athletic irrelevance, which their administration and alumni are either more than glad to see happen, or don't care enough to do anything to stop it, which is six of one or half a dozen of the other.

A far bigger problem than the "Syracuse is a great football and and basketball program!" myth is that the ACC would lack a team in the huge Pennsylvania TV/recruiting market that would be dominated by Penn State and the Big 10. In order to form a TV network that would be competitive with the Big 10 Network, they would need Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh to go with Miami, Jacksonville, Atlanta, Baltimore, Charlotte, D.C., Boston, New York/New Jersey. So, might as well bite the bullet and add Temple and Pitt. Some would assert that adding South Florida or Syracuse would be better than Temple.

With Syracuse, again the ACC has to look at what that program will be like in football and basketball 20 years from now, rather than what they were in the past. And while South Florida does add the Tampa-Orlando market in theory, in practice those folks already watch FSU and Miami anyway. Plus for balance purposes it would be unwieldy to have a conference where 6 teams are within 200 miles of each other (the UNC, NCSU, Duke, Wake Forest, Clemson, Georgia Tech morass where they all compete against each other AND the SEC for talent and TV viewers) and 3 more are in Florida.

So, the best plan for the ACC would be a 16 team superconference where there is an 8 team "ACC North" and an 8 team "ACC South". The ACC North would be UConn, Rutgers, BC, Temple, Pitt, Virginia, Virginia Tech and Maryland. The ACC South would be Miami, FSU, Georgia Tech, Clemson, UNC, NCSU, Wake Forest and Duke.

It is tempting to say that with Miami, FSU, Clemson and Georgia Tech the conference would be unbalanced.

First, I am among those who thinks that Rutgers could be really good in football. Second, the ACC North would contribute where it counts: TV markets and media attention. Third, who says that the ACC championship game has to automatically include the division champions? A rule could be instituted where the conference championship game has to involve the best 2 teams. Also, even if it happens, so what? Does anyone care that the SEC East has a clear advantage over the SEC West in the SEC title game, or the Big 12 South enjoys the same over the Big 12 North.

What about the Big East leftovers? Well, that was certainly a source of outrage last time, and I was one of those livid at how the ACC was trying to solve their problems by killing off the Big East instead of hiring better coaches for their own conference. But now things have changed. First, the Big East should have reacted to the ACC's attempt to kill it off by getting as strong in football as it possibly could. Instead, Tranghese and the Big East replaced the exiting football schools Virginia Tech, BC and Miami with 2 traditional basketball powers (Louisville and Cincinnati) plus South Florida, and they kicked Temple football out. The Big East made PR spin about how they were strengthening football AND basketball, but the truth is that they were overselling Louisville's tradition and potential in football, they only added South Florida and UConn because they were already members in basketball, and Temple was pushed out largely because they played basketball in another conference.

In other words, same old Big East. Yet, they demanded to be allowed to keep their BCS bid because of "fairness", "tradition", and their large TV markets, when in truth all they were doing is benefiting from the revenue generated by conferences and schools that actually do care about football while contributing little to it themselves. This is why the Big East can't even hold onto their top coaches.

Bobby Petrino, Brian Kelly, Mark Dantonio, and Rich Rodriguez have all left for greener pastures, and Greg Schiano will join them when Joe Paterno retires at Penn State. And the individual Big East institutions haven't helped themselves: Syracuse is far from alone. Louisville made a horrible decision in hiring a shotgun-spread coach with no recruiting background in the areas that Louisville has to do well in with Craig Kragthorpe. The West Virginia situation is a mess because of an entrenched, longtime and out of touch athletics director. Pitt caved to their former players in forcing out Walt Harris and hiring Dave Wannstedt, and those former players now do their best to claim that Wannstedt is so much better than Walt Harris despite putting up the same record against an easier schedule. And South Florida took too long to realize that Jim Leavitt wasn't going to get them to the next level.

Plus, if the ACC doesn't kill off the Big East, the Big 10 will. Notice that there isn't nearly as much furor over the Big 10's plans to carve up the Big East now than the ACC's 10 years ago. Part of it is that the national media actually WANTS the Big 10 (which it actually likes) to become competitive with the SEC and Big 12 (which beyond Bob Stoops and maybe Gary Pinkel it actually doesn't like), but most of it is due to the fact that the national media has acceptedβ€” as have Iβ€” that the Big East will neverΒ  compete because as a basketball league that doesn't care about football, it doesn't want to or even recognize its need to.

This is in contrast with the SEC, Big 12 and Big 10 who have always wanted to compete in football. It is even in contrast with the ACC and Pac-10, who didn't want to compete in football but finally recognized that they needed to. So, we can all recognize that if the Big East has no interest in taking the steps that it needs to survive, it should just fall by the wayside rather than continue to allow the other conferences to subsidize its basketball programs. If the Big East wants to be a basketball league and keep pretending that St. John's, Georgetown, Villanova, Providence etc. will ever be as good or relevant as they were in the 1970s and 1980s, good luck.

As for the football programs remaining after the Big East collapses following the ACC raid ... they should acknowledge that they are no worse off now than they were before. How many national title games have Louisville, Cincinnati, West Virginia, Syracuse and USF played in the last 30 years? Sure, they have gone to some BCS games over the years, but they can still qualify for the BCS or for any future playoff as mid-majors just like Utah, TCU and Boise are doing now.Β 

Now it's possible that these schools could get TCU, Houston, UCF and East Carolina to join up with them to form a conference that would force the BCS to pay some attention to it. However, their best bet would be to find a mid-major conference. Syracuse could join Buffalo in the MAC, where Marshall is also waiting for West Virginia. Louisville and Cincinnati could go back to their old Metro Conference mates in Conference USA, as could USF, where they could finally begin their I-4 corridor rivalry with UCF. Also, the leftovers would be prime targets for expansion by the Big 10 or Big 12.

This begs a big question: why should Rutgers, Pitt, Temple, and UConn choose the ACC over the Big 10? For half the equation, it is relatively simple ... the Big 10 has little to no interest in UConn, Pitt and Temple beyond simply adding teams to get to 16. Their primary candidates are among Rutgers, Notre Dame, Missouri, Nebraska and Syracuse with others being fallback options who may never be asked at all if the Big 10 decides to stay at 14. So, the ACC could offer UConn, Pitt and Temple guaranteed admission into their league now as opposed to waiting for an offer from the Big 10 that may never come. As leverage, the ACC could state that while dominating the eastern seaboard's media markets would be their preference, they have other options (Louisville, South Florida, UCF, TCU, Houston, Syracuse, Buffalo). It would be in the interests of UConn and Pitt to jump now as opposed to waking up one day with the Big 10 taking what they want, the ACC getting the best of the leftovers, and the others not having a conference. UConn could convince themselves that they can use the ACC as a fallback option, but the ACC can reply that UConn makes no sense by itself. The ACC would like their basketball and doesn't need it, and UConn wouldn't be able to give the ACC a competitive position in a northeast dominated by the Big 10 (Penn State, Rutgers, and possibly 2 other schools).

And what of Rutgers?

The thinking is that with Temple, Pitt and UConn in the ACC, the ACC becomes more attractive to Rutgers than the Big 10 because where Rutgers would be joining a conference dominated by a bunch of mostly midwestern Rust Belt states whose populations are declining with the Big 10, while in the ACC they are joining a league with the booming southeast, which means better recruiting and exposure. Also, the cultural fit with institutions like UConn, Pitt, Virginia, Maryland, Duke, Miami, Boston College and North Carolina would be better than with Iowa, Wisconsin and Ohio State (and possibly Nebraska and Missouri). With the Big 10, Rutgers would be an east coast school in a midwestern conference. In the ACC, Rutgers would be an east coast school in an east coast conference. So, while the short term benefit would be to join the Big 10, the long term options favor joining the ACC.

What if Rutgers does the conservative thing and joins the Big 10? THAT is when you go after Syracuse, but only if Syracuse promises to start taking its football program seriously. But with Pitt and UConn in tow, there would be options, from rescinding the offer to Temple and staying at 14 teams to going with mid-majors like USF and UCF after all. But what the ACC needs is OPTIONS, not Big 10 leftovers.

So, the ACC needs to make its move. Even if the Big 10 never expands, the ACC is still going to need to compete with the SEC anyway.

After delusions that the ACC was gaining on the SEC in football in the 1990s based on the alleged dominance of FSU (who by the way went 0-2 against SEC teams in national title games!) that was oddly similar to delusions of Pac-10 fans in the last decade because of their champion USC (who wasn't even as good in the last decade as was FSU in the 1990s but that is neither here nore there), that is finally done. The ACC can no longer pretend that it is anywhere near as competitive as the SEC in football, and this would be the case even if Miami and FSU were still good. The truth is that the ACC isn't even as good in football as the SEC is in BASKETBALL. But creating a 14 or 16 team superconference and dominating nearly all the east coast recruiting and TV markets from New Jersey to Miami gives them a real shot at catching the SEC in football and becoming as dominant in basketball as they THINK that they are by adding UConn to Duke and North Carolina, so that is the shot that the ACC needs to take.

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