Back in those distant days of September, the ACC believed it had fortified itself against all assaults. It had added Notre Dame, albeit with an asterisk, and by imposing a $50 million exit fee it had surely given any any member institution with wandering eyes cause for pause. But here it’s not yet December and the same proactive conference is having to scramble to play catch-up ball.
Last week Maryland, thumbing its nose at 60 years of tradition and that $50 million penalty, bolted for the Big Ten. If Maryland, which isn’t much good at football and has become ordinary in basketball, could be lured by the promise of bigger money elsewhere, what happens when some other league pitches serious woo at Florida State and/or Clemson?
By raiding the Big East for Syracuse and Pittsburgh, the ACC enhanced its already-exalted hoops profile, but basketball doesn’t pay the bills the way football does. Television money for ACC football pales alongside the packages of most of the other big leagues. (If it didn’t, Maryland wouldn’t have leaped.) This only underscores the ironclad law of supply and demand: ACC football has been pretty putrid — the league went 0-for-4 against SEC opposition last weekend, and the conference’s Orange Bowl representative could be 7-6 Georgia Tech — and nobody is clamoring to air more installments of Boston College-Wake Forest.
Losing Maryland was such a shock to the ACC system that the league had to respond just to prove it could. On Tuesday it filed a lawsuit in the effort to make Maryland pay every penny of that $50 million. On Wednesday it moved to add Louisville, which is great at basketball and good at football, and who cares if the only coast the Cardinals occupy is that of the Ohio River? Louisville was the best athletic program available, but U of L doesn’t quite fit the ACC’s high-falutin’ academic image. (Full disclosure: My dad was a graduate of Louisville’s dental school, and I was accepted by its law school.) Which tells us that the ACC is getting antsy.
It’s unclear who’ll be left when the Cardinals arrive in 2014. Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher railed against the inequities of the BCS, saying it was ludicrous that his once-beaten Seminoles were ranked only 10th last week, below five SEC schools. That was yet another warning flare that Florida State might not be long for the ACC. (On cue, FSU then lost at home to Florida. Memo to Jimbo: Beat somebody good before you pop off.)
And if FSU (or Clemson) goes, what will become of ACC football? Notre Dame has agreed to play five games a year against conference opponents while remaining an independent. If the ACC can persuade the Irish to join the league in football, too, its problems would be solved, or at least lessened. But Notre Dame is about to play for the BCS title, rendering that case exponentially harder to make.
ESPN reports that the ACC considered both UConn and Cincinnati, two more schools desperate to bail out of the capsized Big East, but decided to go with Louisville first because, writes Brett McMurphy, “there is a sense among league presidents that the ACC can add more schools at a later date if (it) lost any other schools.” Not three months after enfranchising Notre Dame (with that major asterisk), the conference is already working on Plans B and C.
But Louisville won’t, and UConn and Cincinnati wouldn’t, do what the ACC needs most. None of those programs would bolster football in the way it needs bolstering, which brings us to the greater point: There’s no football power apt to leave its current home — not Texas, not Oklahoma — for the prospects of making less money to play in a lesser conference. With the Big East in tatters, the Big Six of BCS leagues has been reduced to five. Unless/until the ACC convinces Notre Dame to come fully aboard, it can never hope to be more than the fifth-best conference in the the sport that matters most, and a distant fifth at that.
By Mark Bradley