The Atlantic Coast Conference’s expansion to 14 teams with the inclusion of Pittsburgh and Syracuse from the Big East is being portrayed as a simple move to expand its footprint in the Northeast. Like almost all of the other moves in conference expansion over the past few years, it is also driven by the football-dominated television contracts — reaching into the billions of dollars — that have been negotiated with the Bowl Championship Series conferences.
And while ACC officials say that is the main reason for the expansion, there is also a strong sentiment that this was also a basketball decision.
According to sources in the Big East and ACC, the idea is to reestablish the ACC as the preeminent conference in college basketball and was a predatory strike at the Big East, which, while struggling to improve its BCS rankings in football, had established itself as the runaway leader in basketball.
The ACC’s action reestablished the conference’s power base in the Tobacco Road area of North Carolina, where Duke and North Carolina have reigned for years as its most influential forces. In this instance, it was the voices of Duke Hall of Fame basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski and athletic director Kevin White that rang the loudest.
It also demonstrated the growing influence of Boston College, if not as an athletic power, then as a strong character in a passion play of intrigue, negotiations, and power moves — one of which was to successfully block Connecticut’s potential membership in the ACC.
BC athletic director Gene DeFilippo, who was part of the 12-member ACC expansion committee, adamantly denied that the move was dictated by basketball interests, but he did concede that the effects of it may boost that sport more than football.
“It had nothing to do with basketball,’’ said DeFilippo. “It was football money which drove expansion. It was football money and securing our future.’’
DeFilippo said the move was dictated in part by the expansion of the Southeastern Conference to include Texas A&M, which prompted the Big 12 to inquire about Pittsburgh, which is in the Northeast, an area in which the ACC felt it necessary to expand.
“We wanted new playmates and we wanted Eastern playmates,’’ said DeFilippo. “When the Big 12 inquired about Pittsburgh, we asked, ‘Why let them come into our area?’ ’’
DeFilippo was also insistent that the Duke influence was minimal.
“Mike Krzyzewski didn’t stop expansion the last time and he was not going to start expansion this time,’’ said DeFilippo, who added that the mega-deals negotiated with the Big 12 and Pac-12 in recent months had caused an “unbelievable shift in the marketplace.’’
“Did [Richard] Brodhead [Duke president] help with this thing? Sure, he’s chair [of the expansion committee].’’
ACC commissioner John Swofford also emphasized that the expansion plans had many purposes, including elevating basketball.
“We wanted to do what is best for the conference,’’ he said, “in not only increasing our footprint in the Northeast but to help us competitively in all areas with schools who would also fit into what we wanted in the profile of our schools.
“Pittsburgh and Syracuse both are good fits, and they both have outstanding basketball programs. That’s definitely a plus.’’
The overwhelming force behind the move, DeFilippo insisted, was television money.
The ACC just signed a new deal with ESPN that will increase the revenue for each school to approximately $13 million. With the addition of Pittsburgh and Syracuse, said DeFilippo, another significant increase will come.
“We always keep our television partners close to us,’’ he said. “You don’t get extra money for basketball. It’s 85 percent football money. TV - ESPN - is the one who told us what to do. This was football; it had nothing to do with basketball.’’
Master plan devised
During that process, the loudest voices in the room against expansion were Duke and North Carolina, with their feeling being that the ACC was fine competing as a solid football conference but remained one of the elite conferences in basketball.
Eventually, Duke and Carolina acquiesced. But after seven years, the ACC had not improved significantly in football. Miami and Florida State took a downward spiral, and while Virginia Tech was a perennial top 10 program, it never made it to the BCS title game. The ACC was never able to place two teams into BCS games and reap the significant financial benefit from that routinely earned by the SEC, Big Ten, and Big 12.
Even more disturbing to Krzyzewski was the downward cycle in ACC basketball. While the conference remained strong at the top - Duke and North Carolina have won two of the last three national championships in men’s basketball - the bottom half had sagged very low. Last season, Krzyzewski & Co. could only look on in dismay when the ACC dropped to fifth in many power rankings of conferences.
Enough was enough, and a master plan was devised to bring ACC basketball back to the top. The only real target was the Big East, for geographical and competitive reasons.
The first target was Syracuse, which had been on the original ACC expansion list eight years ago. The Orangemen, like BC, were disappointed when they didn’t make the final cut, passed over for Virginia Tech and Miami.
Under coach Jim Boeheim, Syracuse was clearly one of the elite basketball teams in the country and would boost the ACC’s stature in that sport.
The second target was Connecticut, which was part of the Northeast footprint the ACC wanted, and was coming off the daily double of a BCS bid in football and a championship in men’s basketball (the third for Jim Calhoun).
In addition, the women’s basketball program under Geno Auriemma had established itself as the most dominant in the sport over the past 15 years.
With growing instability in the Big East, both schools were bound to accept any offers.
While Syracuse presented no problem, UConn did — to BC, which was still fuming over what it perceived to be vitriolic comments made when BC was finally invited to join the ACC and started competing in 2005. UConn and Pittsburgh filed a lawsuit against BC, and Calhoun made comments about never playing BC again.
DeFilippo does not deny that BC opposed the inclusion of UConn.
“We didn’t want them in,’’ he said. “It was a matter of turf. We wanted to be the New England team.’’
Turning to Pittsburgh
Although BC and UConn are the only FBS schools in New England, BC officials were reluctant to give UConn any more credence. Membership in the ACC would do that.
UConn had already reached milestones that BC had not - including national championships in men’s and women’s basketball and a BCS bid in football. And there was the lawsuit.
Duke and North Carolina, who have thrived as rivals and neighbors, didn’t quite understand the passion behind BC’s argument, but Pittsburgh seemed like a reasonable alternative. Under Jamie Dixon, Pittsburgh had established itself as a national power in men’s basketball, so the Tobacco Road contingent didn’t argue. Calls were made and invitations were accepted.
Veteran Big East observers could only shake their heads at the irony. Pittsburgh, led by president Mark Nordenberg, was one of BC’s strongest critics when it left the Big East. It blasted BC when it left after being rejected by the ACC the first time and then regrouping with the other Big East schools to formulate a battle plan for survival, with Nordenberg describing BC as the “fox in the henhouse.’’
What prompted the lawsuit by UConn and Pitt was not the jump to the ACC. All the schools involved, including UConn, conceded that if they had been called, they probably would have done the same thing. What caused the rage was the timing, which was after the initial rejection and during what Big East schools considered confidential strategy sessions.
Even more ironic this time was that Pittsburgh was a prime player in the Big East battle plans and Nordenberg had been one of the loudest voices against the Big East accepting the lucrative offer from ESPN, which would have nearly doubled the payoff to each school from $6 million to slightly more than $11 million per school.
It increases the television footprint in the Northeast. It gives BC some Eastern travel partners. And, as DeFilippo noted, it increases the football revenue significantly for all the ACC schools.
But it also does something that could very well be part of Krzyzewski’s legacy. It reestablishes the ACC among the elite of college basketball, and perhaps makes it the best conference.
It also strikes what could be a crushing blow to the ACC’s biggest rival. The Big East is now struggling to maintain its BCS status in football, although conference officials insist they will hold Pitt and Syracuse to the 27-month exit timetable.
Without Syracuse and Pittsburgh, Big East basketball is ready to implode; there is growing sentiment for the seven non-football Catholic schools to break away with Notre Dame and form a solid eight- or 10-team Catholic league.
If that happens, the ACC will be the leader in college basketball not only on the Atlantic Coast but nationally.
For BC, it could also mean a crippling blow to UConn, which could be reduced to Conference USA-type status unless it finds a new home.
DeFilippo, who was vilified in some areas for making the move to the ACC eight years ago, says with some justification, “We made the right move and we did what was best for BC.’’
And Coach K, the Dukies, and the Tar Heels will be back in a comfortable and familiar place, sitting atop a profitable and competitive conference that should rival in basketball what the SEC is in football.
Mark Blaudschun can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.