Conference Realignment: A Clemson Fan’s Rant

Should Clemson Leave the ACC for the Big 12? One Tigers Fan is Unsure

Rumors of the imminent departure of Florida State and Clemson for the Big 12 have reached a fever pitch in the last few days, and this embarrassed Clemson fan will admit to Googling “Clemson Big 12″ every hour to check the latest message board rumors or statements by university officials taken out of context. While it seems unlikely that anything will happen until late June, when the playoff format has been decided, new Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby has taken office, and West Virginia and TCU get full voting rights, Tiger fans all over the country have been salivating over the chance to join the “big boys” and leave the ACC behind.

Clemson has had a love-hate relationship with the ACC since its foundation. Although the Tigers were a charter member, they’ve always felt out of place in a basketball league. By most standards, Clemson would fit better in the SEC than the ACC. But association with prestigious schools like Georgia Tech, Duke, and North Carolina is a boon to the university’s continuing quest to become a top-20 public school, the primary goal of president Jim Barker’s tenure.

Estimates of how much money a move to the Big 12 would gain Clemson are about as well-founded as rumors claiming that the move has already been agreed to. But there’s no question that a transfer of conference membership would net the athletic department a significant upgrade in revenue, probably enough to make up for the increase in travel costs that would result from switching trips to Winston-Salem, N.C. for Lubbock, Tex.

Money isn’t everything. Not that long ago, the ACC received the most television revenue of any conference. But that didn’t translate into wins for the conference. At the start of the SEC’s run of national titles, the league wasn’t making the most money. Money tends to follow success rather than produce it–look at Boise State, for instance.

But at a certain level, an athletic department’s decisions have to take money into account.  Clemson fans have watched the recent success of their bitter rivals across the state in Columbia. The Gamecocks have beaten Clemson football three years in a row, basketball two years in a row, and won the national title in baseball for two successive seasons. Surely the significant revenue advantage South Carolina derives from membership in the SEC has been part of the school’s ability to hire a basketball coach away from Kansas State, while Clemson’s most recent hire came from Wright State. The disparity is most evident on the football field, where SC can afford certain Hall-of-Famer Steve Spurrier, who has the school playing its best football in history. Clemson, by contrast, is coached by a guy named Dabo. For the foreseeable future, South Carolina will be a stronger program than Clemson, a galling thought for Clemson fans used to looking down at their “little brother.”

Is all of this justification for abandoning sixty years of tradition and any semblance of regional affiliation for a league based in the Great Plains? That’s a tough question to answer. In my wildest dreams, a $25 million per team contract for the ACC would descend from on high, leaving no financial motivation to leave, and the Big East would return from irrelevance, leaving six major conferences and forcing a six-team conference-champions playoff rather than a four-team one that leaves the ACC on the outside looking in. Penn State and Notre Dame would suddenly decide that the ACC looks pretty good, and the league would be set forever.

None of that is going to happen, though. I hate the destruction of regional college football that’s been going on for the last twenty years, and I hate that it’s driven by TV money. I know the ACC is in large part responsible for it with the Big East raid of 2003, but at least that move made geographic sense. Virginia Tech and Miami belonged in the ACC more than they belonged in the Big East. In no sense whatsoever can it be said that Clemson or Florida State “belong” in the Big 12. The regional, schematic and cultural differences between leagues are what make college football fun and distinguish it from the cookie-cutter NFL. A Clemson move to the Big 12 would be another step toward college football becoming nothing more than a feeder league to the pros.

My diatribe ultimately has no real conclusion. I want Clemson football to be the best it can be, and have the greatest access to national championships, and I think (although it’s certainly debatable) that the Tigers would be in a better position for that in the Big 12. I can’t find it in myself to argue against a Clemson move, and I would honestly breathe a sigh of relief if it happened. That’s one of the drawbacks of having a non-conference rival; the Tigers have to keep up with the Joneses, and that’s a big problem when your Joneses play in the most profitable league in college football. But I can’t find it in myself to advocate a move, either; we’ve had sixty years of interaction with NC State and Virginia, and that’s not something to give up lightly. Even the conference’s dead weight like Wake Forest has a special place in my heart — I don’t want to abandon them to obscurity.

But in the cutthroat world where coaches get only three years (or maybe it’s become two, if you consider Turner Gill), it’s not surprising that it’s come to this. Texas-Texas A&M is dead; Mizzou-Kansas is finished, too. Clemson-North Carolina or FSU-Wake aren’t nearly as meaningful as those storied games; with their chief rivals playing in another conference, there’s even less binding the Tigers and the Seminoles to the ACC than the Aggies or Tigers attachements to the old Big 12. Whatever happens, I’ll meet it with a detached “meh.” This isn’t what college football is supposed to be about, and it’s sucking all the fun out of it.

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15 thoughts on “Conference Realignment: A Clemson Fan’s Rant

  1. Thanks for sharing these comments, John. I’ve felt many of the same frustrations. A friend recently asked me what my first choice would be for the Seminoles in realignment and I responded with exactly the same thought you voiced above: I want them to stay put and see ACC schools get $25M per school every year in media money. It doesn’t appear that the league can pull that rabbit out of its hat now. The Nielsen ratings and lucrative footprint still suggest that the ACC is way undervalued, but ESPN makes the rules and the college sports landscape is being shaped by its investments.

    In time things will change. The goose of TV football revenue won’t always lay golden eggs. Other sports and other events will in time catch viewers’ imaginations. And who knows? A combination of bad news, safety concerns and overexposure may yet prompt widespread reform of college athletics. I’d welcome a day in which all college football is run like Ivy League football. Let the only scholarships be for Olympic sports. Let the NFL has to fund its own farm system.

    If that is where things do go, though, we have no reason to expect that day soon. Serious money stands to be made from this new post-season format. Schools need money and will position themselves accordingly.

    Thanks again for sharing. Here’s a toast to the continued success of your Tigers.

    • Thanks, Abiaka. Though all credit here has to go to Joel, who authored this great piece.

      Doubt there will ever be NCAA reforms to the point where college football’s irrelevant, so unfortunately, don’t know if it’s really prudent to currently mange things with such a future in mind. Rivalries are not important anymore, which is a damn shame. TV dollars rule the roost, but perhaps an eventual break-away by the power conference teams creates a landscape that groups regional rivalries together again. A pipe-dream, I’m sure. But at this point, it seems like every rumor or opinion is.

    • I think once the initial reaction to a shiny new conference has worn off, people are starting to realize what a huge transition this would be. And, as Heather Dinich pointed out, (http://espn.go.com/blog/acc/post/_/id/39216/new-champions-bowl-wont-freeze-out-acc) the SEC-Big 12 deal is really nothing more than a glorified Cotton Bowl–in no real sense except public perception is the ACC “left out,” so there’s no urgent need to bail on it. Once that’s had time to sink in, we’ve been able to think more rationally.

  2. This would be a huge decision, “the biggest Clemson’s athletic department has made since hiring John Heisman,” according to somebody I unfortunately don’t remember so can’t credit. It all seems so rushed. It was only a year ago that the Big 12 was on its last legs.
    Top to bottom, I would take the ACC against the Big 12. No single program can match Texas and Oklahoma in prestige or value, but those two and TCU are the only national title-winning programs in the conference. The ACC has Florida State, Miami, Clemson, Georgia Tech, and Maryland, and is picking up Pitt and Syracuse. That’s half the conference which can claim a national title–pretty damn impressive–and at least the first three on that list, plus Virginia Tech, have as good a chance as any school not named Alabama or Texas of winning another in the next decade. And Wake Forest or Duke are no worse than Iowa State or Baylor, Heisman winners aside.
    Timing is everything, though, and this TV deal comes at the end of a four-year slide for the conference. I see a lot of practical benefits in a move to the Big 12, but I hope Clemson isn’t shortsighted in its decision. Looking at the long term can make you see $8 million less than South Carolina every year, and that’s scary, but it can also show you a conference with a lot of potential, media markets that entirely cover the country’s eastern seaboard, and a chance to renegotiate in five years.
    The biggest gut-reaction scare is playoff access, but I don’t think that will be any harder than finishing in the top 2 is now. Unless the playoff results in a split in the FBS, leaving the ACC in the lower level, an undefeated Clemson will still get into the playoff over a one-loss Oregon and will still finish behind an undefeated Alabama.

    • Agreeing completely with those sentiments. I spent a lot of time arguing with people about the playoff on SB Nation when the news was first floated. As you correctly point out, an undefeated ACC team still finishes behind an 13-0 Alabama, but above a 12-1 Oregon. Further, I’d argue there’s a bigger conversation around B1G and Pac-12 teams with the same record as an ACC squad, than most allude to. Beyond USC and Oregon, the Pac-12’s completely devoid of perennial contenders (we’ll see what happens with Stanford’s recent run of success, now that Andrew Luck’s gone). If there’d been a playoff in place this whole time, the B1G would’ve placed the same amount of teams as the ACC over the past five season (one). The two leagues also have the same number of champs overall (again, one). So the perceived disparity between the two continues to perplex me.

  3. FWIW (and FYI I’m a Terps fan) my general thought is that the ACC is a better conference for Clemson to be in, in part because of traditional rivalries, academics, and potential for on-field success.

    I think Clemson has a better chance at on-field success in the ACC than it does in the Big 12 or SEC. Clemson has access to great recruiting grouds in NC, SC, GA & FL (as well as MD & VA). I think being a strong team (10+ wins) that wins conference championship will give a team the best chance to make any postseason playoff tournament, and I think Clemson has a better shot to do that in the ACC than they do in the Big 12.

    I also think that some folks have made way too much out of the Big 12 / SEC bowl agreement. It’s an agreement for one bowl; it’s not as if the two conferences are merging or anything.

    Having said that though, I think the ACC needs to make several changes (some minor, some major) to “fix things” and get the conference moving in the right direction, for the sake of Clemson, FSU, and everyone else in the conference. I’ll summarize quickly:

    (1) Create an actual ACC television network. I think if the Big Ten (that has less of a population base in its states than the ACC) can make a TV network succeed, the ACC can do it. Each Big Ten school is getting $7.2 million from its TV network from 2011. I don’t know if the ACC would make that much (especially with more schools) but they should still be able to make a good profit long-term. Partnering with ESPN could allow them to show some basketball and football games on the network. It’s inexcusable that the conference leadership hasn’t pursued this.

    (2) End the dominance of the state North Carolina. This means several things, including moving more neutral-site conference championships (for Olympic sports) out of North Carolina, moving the men’s basketball tournament out of Greensboro permanently, and finding a conference commissioner who is not so connected to NC (I do like some of the things Swofford has done over the years, but he is not the one to lead a conference that is attempting to be less NC-dominated). I do think that the ACC is in a better position to be less “Tobacco-road dominated” than it has been in the past. 10 of the 14 teams will not be in North Carolina moving forward. (A side note: Texas is still Texas, and is still going to attempt to bully the Big 12 into whatever it wants.)

    (3) Keep the football conference schedule at eight games instead of nine. I think that it benefits all teams to have the flexibility of four out-of-conference games (either to strengthen or weaken the overall schedule as they see fit), and also makes it more attractive for Notre Dame, should they ever decide to join the conference.

    One thing that is the fault of nearly all of the conference schools themselves is that they simply have not performed up to what they’re capable of. FSU, Clemson, Miami and Virginia Tech should be in the Top 25 every year (or nearly every year), ideally with two in the top 10. Maryland, UNC, NCSU, GT and occasionally BC & Virginia should be competitive, and should also spend time in the top 25 during their best years. All of the teams need to perform better during bowl season. Ugh.

    A lot of Maryland fans want to move to the Big Ten, and I personally want nothing to do with that. Maryland belongs in an east coast conference, not a midwestern conference. I hope Clemson and FSU both remain in the ACC, and hope that the conference does what it needs to get more money to its members and become a stronger, healthier conference.

    • I guess my question to most Maryland fans (not yourself) is ‘where do the B1G thoughts come from?’ UM’s never been particularly dominant in football, and lack the enormous fan bases and stadiums of the Big Ten, so why make the switch? Is it just for the money? Have we gotten to that point where it’s just about jumping ship, all for a few dollars? Yes, I get it’s a big part of all this, but I’m just shocked people are willing to toss aside so much tradition and academic prestige, all for a chance to go 4-8 every season (at best).

      • I think for some, it’s all about $$ (granted, a lot of $$), both in athletics and academics (i.e. the CIC). Some hate the dominance that Tobacco Road has over the ACC. Some (e.g. the guy who runs Testudo Times) live in the midwest.

        Maryland has been a bit of an “outpost” in its history, being the northernmost ACC school until BC came along. Now that it’s finally going to have a few more neighbors to the north in the conference, folks want to abandon it and move to become an outpost in another conference. It kind of boggles my mind sometimes. I think Maryland fits ok in the Big Ten as far as academics and overall athletic program strength, but would have a very tough time in football and is a cultural and geographic mismatch.

  4. wow, not much objectivity here! Why does the clemson fan feel besieged and have to defend and justify the status quo, because you obviously have no issue with the tobacco road conference raiding the big east (not once, but twice). by defending the big east raid and then condeming potential big 12 r it’s called equivocation

    • Since when do blog posts need to be objective? Especially when he calls out being a Clemson fan in the post’s title.

      The Big East raids and FSU/Clemson defections would be two different things entirely. Big East at both junctures refused to make any adds of substance to protect the league’s longterm interests and prevent future departures. The ACC, on the other hand, has added schools with an eye toward the league’s future growth — both in 1992, 2004/05 and with Syracuse and Pitt — and pushed to be more important across the eastern seaboard. In turn, the past seven years of ACC football haven’t been the best, and that onus falls on all 12 current schools, not just one or another.

      Should Clemson and/or FSU jump to the Big 12 it would be more of an impulse action than a raid. Both schools are getting panicky due to their current TV revenue-driven environment, and fans are quick to try and pursue other options. If the ACC fields a national title contender this season, the inferiority discussions end. If they increase their level of play over a four- or five-year span, they can go back to the negotiating table and get the money they (at that point) deserve.

    • I certainly make no claim to objectivity. And I really do think raiding the Big East and raiding the ACC are on two different levels. The Big East was more of an island of misfit toys than an athletic conference. There was the basketball/football divide, and the fact that the football schools’ membership consisted of “the schools that happened to be independent when everyone suddenly decided to join a conference in the early 90s” rather than any culturally, athletically, or geographically coherent group—at least that’s this outsider’s perspective.
      And if Miami and VPI want to feel bad for relegating UConn to an inferior conference, they certainly can. The only conference whose lower tier I feel any loyalty to is the ACC.

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