The ACC faced a choice: Eat or be eaten. The league opted not just to grab something at the drive-thru but to dine in style. Only days ago we wondered if this conference could survive in a world powered by King Football. Today we hail John Swofford and his associates as the new monarchs of college basketball.
Bradley’s Rule: Better to be the king of something than the earl of everything.
The ACC’s grand football experiment hadn’t worked. Adding Virginia Tech, Miami and Boston College didn’t hoist the ACC above/alongside the SEC. Truth to tell, the 12-team ACC was no better than fourth-best at football among the six BCS leagues. Worse, the ACC’s time-honored stock in trade had eroded to the extent that Duke and North Carolina has risen further above the basketball pack — North Carolina State reference partially intended — than ever.
The Big East now played better basketball, and several conferences played better football. What was to keep schools tied to Tobacco Road when other leagues came calling?
Be advised that the SEC has great interest in adding schools that can be deemed “flagships” in states that don’t already feature an SEC outpost. That would include three ACC members of more than a half-century’s standing — North Carolina, Maryland and Virginia. The SEC would have been happy to take two of those three and add Missouri to Texas A&M and become a 16-team league.
SEC commissioner Mike Slive is often described as the smartest man in college athletics, but here the ACC’s Swofford stole a march. He increased the exit fee for a school looking to leave his league to $20 million, and with the poaching of two Big Easterners he has lifted his league back to the top of the second-biggest college sport. Pitt and Syracuse have been known to play good football — Pitt had Tony Dorsett and Hugh Green and Dan Marino; Syracuse had Jim Brown and Ernie Davis and Donovan McNabb — but they don’t really change the ACC’s grid profile. They do, however, offer two more basketball tent-poles to array alongside Carolina and Duke.
With this move, the ACC cannot be viewed as prey. It’s a predator. If that sounds unseemly, so be it. To suggest that any conference should sit politely while every other league is grabbing hand over fist is to deny reality. The SEC and Big Ten and Big East would surely have made runs at ACC schools. What was Swofford supposed to do, play his violin while his league went up in smoke?
The ACC cast a cold eye on its assets and liabilities and saw a way to get bigger without necessarily getting better at football. That’s not bad form. That’s good business. And it’s clear in hindsight that we on the periphery undervalued another ACC selling point: It actually has good schools. Five ACC institutions — Duke, Georgia Tech, Maryland, North Carolina and Virginia — are members of the prestigious Association of American Universities, and Pitt makes six. (The SEC, by way of contrast, has three, and that’s counting Texas A&M.)
If you’re a college president looking to conference-hop, the thought of allying yourself with a league that isn’t just a repository of football factories can make for a softer landing. Indeed, UConn is believed to be exploring the possibility of an ACC leap. Last month we wondered who’d stay in Swofford’s league. Today we ask: Who else wants to join?
As an old college basketball hand, I’m encouraged to be reminded that football isn’t the driving force in every single matter pertaining to collegiate sports. (As a pragmatist, I’m also more than a bit surprised.) And if I’m Swofford, I wouldn’t stop here: I’d go hard at UConn and Louisville or even Kansas and brand this conference in hoops as the SEC has in football — as the standard so golden everyone else is trading in bronze.
Oh, and I have a message for Dan Radakovich, the Tech AD. The next time your phone rings, it will be Brian Gregory. He hasn’t yet coached a basketball game for you, and already he wants a raise.
By Mark Bradley