Last September, the ACC’s addition of Syracuse and Pittsburgh was met with a collective “meh” from the league’s football schools. But despite the seemingly lackluster performances of the conference’s new members, their joining was generally interpreted as a sign that the ACC was stable and strong. While the Big East and the Big 12 were facing threats to their very existence, the ACC’s place was secure. It was a conference that people wanted to join, not one threatened by exodus.
Less than a year later, a fresh round of rumors would have us believe that the conference’s collapse is imminent. The football-first schools are supposedly on their way to the Big 12, setting the scene for four power conferences which would line up nicely with the impending four-team playoff. The Big Ten and the SEC might pick up some of the detritus, leaving the league’s weaker schools to fend for themselves.
The culprit is Tobacco Road, or at least the idea of Tobacco Road. The Big 12’s loss of Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska, and especially Texas A&M was driven by resentment at Texas’ dominance of the league. In a similar way, some ACC schools, especially Clemson and Florida State, begrudge the conference’s domination by the four North Carolina schools, especially Duke and UNC.
It’s no secret that Tobacco Road’s influence in ACC decision-making is disproportionate to the Carolina schools’ numbers. The ACC is a basketball-first conference, after all, and with flagship programs like Duke and North Carolina, numbers three and four on the all-time wins list, it’s understandable that their voices would be louder. ACC football has been an afterthought for most of the conference’s history, apart from brief national runs by Maryland in the 1950s and Clemson in the 1980s, and Florida State’s roughshod run over all competition during the 1990s.
The ACC’s response to the Butch Davis-era scandal in Chapel Hill was especially galling to Clemson fans. Part and parcel of the 1981 national championship story are the 1982 NCAA sanctions, handed down for serious recruiting violations. They were deserved, of course. But the ACC went even further, adding a year of probation to the NCAA’s punishment.
Clemson fans keenly remember that conference officials, led by North Carolina, called for a secret session to discuss additional penalties. To their credit, Maryland and Wake Forest walked out of the meeting, leaving the rest of the conference’s membership to hand down the additional punishment.
North Carolina’s infractions under Butch Davis were comparable to those that occurred under Charley Pell and Danny Ford. Yet an effort by some ACC members to fine the Tar Heels $100,000 on top of their relatively light NCAA penalties came up short. The vote was 7-4, with a two-thirds majority needed.
The narrative almost writes itself. The basketball-first schools run the league, ignoring the interests of the football-first schools. Conference leadership is unresponsive to the needs and interests of schools like Florida State and Clemson, who can point to biased officials, harmful scheduling (e.g. last year’s placement of Florida State at Clemson the week after the Seminoles’ game against Oklahoma, arguably the biggest regular season game for the ACC in several years), and political maneuvering. Academic snobbery adds to the resentment; to the elite schools, cheating at a “cow college” like Clemson reflected poorly on their reputation, leading to crippling sanctions at the height of the school’s football prominence.
It almost doesn’t matter that the basketball narrative isn’t true. Bringing in Florida State and the first round of Big East schools was clearly a football move. A conference including the Seminoles and the Hurricanes was set up to be a football powerhouse, and the ACC’s bizarre division structure was set up to reflect that. It’s not John Swofford’s fault that FSU and Miami chose 2004 to fall off the national stage, or that Virginia Tech can’t win a big game.
“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.’’
The Panthers and especially the Orange seem like much more valuable basketball programs. But given that ACC expansion had to happen, were there better football candidates available? Academics kept West Virginia, Louisville, and South Florida out. Penn State? Not coming. Notre Dame? In everyone’s dreams. Pitt and Syracuse bring national championships and Heisman winners, and each had more BCS appearances than Clemson. Pennsylvania high school football is no Florida or Texas, but the state puts out plenty of quality recruits. And Pittsburgh and New York are valuable TV markets. I met the news with cautious optimism; failing the Fighting Irish and the Nittany Lions, the Panthers and the Orange were my first choice for ACC expansion.
All of which is to say, conference leadership is better for football than many fans give it credit for. The perception is otherwise, though, and the trope of Tobacco Road is driving schools like Clemson and Florida State away from the ACC like Texas almost broke up the Big 12. If the conference were on top, dominance by UNC would be acceptable; the ACC shares revenue equally, unlike the Big 12, so there are no real systemic disadvantages. But with the league’s schools looking up at the fat TV deals of other conferences and their non-conference rivals, Tobacco Road is a convenient scapegoat, and the image of its dominance will persist at least as long as conference offices remain in Greensboro and John Swofford remains commissioner.
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