The ACC has long been the nation’s most prestigious basketball league, but at a time when college football grows ever larger, basketball counts for less. The almighty SEC figures to try and poach a team or two from the ACC and the Big East and the Big Ten likewise could make entreaties. Is it possible that the ACC could, in the not-so-distant future, cease not just to matter but to exist?
It was in 2003 that the ACC snatched Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech from the Big East, which appeared bound for oblivion. But the Big East, in a deft bit of damage control, grew to 16 teams and became the nation’s best — as opposed to the most prestigious — basketball league. The ACC, by way of contrast, has reaped next to nothing from its expansion.
Since the ACC expanded to a dozen, only Virginia Tech has finished a season ranked in the top 10 of the final USA Today coaches’ poll, and in that span the Hokies haven’t cracked the season-ending top five. The SEC has won the past five BCS titles; the last ACC team even to play in the national championship game was Florida State in January 2001, which was so long ago Mark Richt, now the dean of SEC coaches, was the Seminoles’ offensive coordinator.
The ACC’s ballyhooed basketball has suffered, too. It has become a two-team enterprise: North Carolina and Duke have won three NCAA titles between them since expansion, but the last ACC school to reach the Final Four other than the Big Two was Georgia Tech in 2004. Even more distressing, seven of the 12 programs have changed coaches in the past 17 months.
Duke and Carolina stand as the two best basketball programs in the land — Kansas and UConn and Michigan State and Kentucky might quibble — but the balance of the league, once its regionally televised Thacker & Packer hallmark, no longer exists. Also gone are those days where every league game brought a full house at every arena. Five ACC schools saw decreases in home attendance last season, and three more had average increases of fewer than 100 per game
The question, then: If football tepid and basketball is top-heavy, what’s the lure of the ACC? Tradition, yes. Seven of these 12 have graced the conference since 1953, the year it was formed. Academics, sure. In scholastic terms, this is considered the most serious of the six BCS leagues. But are history and academics enough in a business where millions of dollars flow to the schools that play the best football?
The ACC is in trouble. Its image — and the ACC cares about image — has been sullied. Georgia Tech had to forfeit the 2009 conference title and was placed on four years’ probation by the NCAA. North Carolina has been hit with nine rules violations ranging from impermissible benefits to academic fraud. Miami could well get the death penalty in the wake of Nevin Shapiro’s jailhouse accusations.
If you’re Florida State … if you’re Clemson … if you’re Virginia Tech … if you’re North Carolina State … do you want to stay in the ACC and play Class AAA football if you have big-league options? (And surely some among those will.) Are ACC matters apt to improve anytime soon? Is John Swofford the man to save his conference in the way Mike Tranghese did the Big East? And if Swofford seeks to raid some other league before his gets raided, where does he turn? Nobody’s leaving the SEC, and who in the football-playing Big East might be amenable? Louisville? West Virginia? South Florida?
The ACC was a lovely idea more than a half-century ago: Schools of common interest in a tight geographic area. Over time, the conference has sought to broaden its base, which is necessary in a zero-sum marketplace. The reality, alas, is that the base hasn’t grown but thinned. This has become a strange-looking league with one toe in Boston Harbor and another in the sands of South Beach, and the football it plays isn’t very good. And football matters above all else.
By Mark Bradley