Monday, May 21, 2012

weekend review, sort of

Advance warning: This is going to be entirely about conference realignment.  Stuff happened over the weekend, so it's fair.  I'll have a postmortem for the lacrosse season later this week.  It's a little bit of an odd week because we're leaving the spring rhythm behind.  We'll hit baseball on Wednesday; the ACC tournament starts then, and for us it starts Thursday, so Wednesday is the perfect day for a preview.  Recruiting board update bumped to Thursday, lacrosse thing on Friday.  Nothing on Tuesday.  Sorry.  Busy.  First day of the sailing season.

So I was a little freaked out yesterday.  A little depressed, too.  I try to be a voice of reason, see, on conference realignment armageddon.  Specifically, ACC-mageddon.  Most of the time this works out pretty well for me.  The Big Ten did not raid the ACC in a bid to gain 16 teams, and neither did the SEC, despite all sorts of panicky reports to that effect.

It's very unnerving, though, when a particular site has a thoroughly well-reasoned argument detailing why Florida State isn't going to the Big 12 period, and you rely on that argument and then a week later they turn around and say "guess what bitches, done deal!" and ohbytheway Clemson too.  That doesn't inspire confidence.  It inspires freakouts.  For a couple hours there, I became exactly what I try to keep others from becoming.  I had visions of needing a Big Ten bailout and a future of games against Illinois and Minnesota, and watching Michigan and Ohio State take turns marching into Scott Stadium and having their way and then watching them march over to Bayside High School and drinking our milkshake there, too.  It wasn't pretty.

Fortunately, I'm off the ledge.  Mostly.  I no longer pooh-pooh the idea of FSU making that leap.  But it's far from "inevitable," too.  For example, there's this report from a media-type out in Tulsa (Dave Sittler) that the Big 12 is divided on the idea.  Well, there's a shocker.  The Big 12 not getting along with each other.  These reports aren't mutually exclusive, by the way.  The FSU source quoted by might well believe the Big 12 acceptance is nothing more than a rubber stamp.

Now, Sittler divides the Big 12 up four ways: four schools "OK with it" (that is, OK with adding FSU and Clemson), four schools that need convincing, and two schools pushing hard in opposite directions.  It'd be helpful to know who's who, and I think we can make a pretty educated stab.  Iowa State doesn't "push."  Heavyweights push.  The Big 12 heavyweights are Oklahoma and Texas.  And from there, it's also easy to guess who's pushing in what direction.  Sittler calls Texas AD DeLoss Dodds "the real Big 12 commish" and he's not wrong.  Dodds is an egomaniac.  OU knows this.  Egomaniacs don't brook any challenge to their power, which FSU represents.  Then you add the fact that OU and FSU have a decent working relationship of late, having completed a home-and-home series.  You get where I'm going with this: Oklahoma wants FSU and Clemson in the Big 12 to help them balance the scales against Texas.  Texas, naturally, does not, preferring to surround themselves with pushovers. 

(And is it not the height of ridiculous irony that FSU cites the overbearing presence of Tobacco Road in the ACC and would solve this problem by fleeing to a conference with Texas?  Sure, at least FSU shares a football focus with Texas, but then again, it's not UNC's ego that started the entire conference realignment mess in the first place.)

So which four teams might also be in favor - that is, on OU's side?  West Virginia is a good start - they'd want to have some fellow Eastern Time Zoners in the league.  Iowa State probably thinks anything that balances Texas is a good thing, considering that it's UT's bullying that chased off most of the northern wing of the conference and cut them off geographically.  I would guess that Oklahoma State reflexively does not agree with Oklahoma, and so the likely other two are Kansas and Kansas State.

That leaves as fence sitters the other three Texas schools (Tech, Baylor, TCU) and Oklahoma State. These are the ones Oklahoma has to convince.  A 5-5 split won't get FSU in the door.  And my guess is it depends on how sick of Texas's shit everyone is.  Texas can probably pull the old "you owe us a big one" on TCU.  OU and OkSt. probably don't get along enough to agree on this.  Remember, OkSt. is feeling their oats at the moment and they want to be the next prime time team in the Big 12, not FSU.  T. Boone Pickens didn't spend all that money Oregonizing his alma mater so that he could throw another FSU-sized roadblock in the way.  Assuming they need a two-thirds vote, which is likely for a momentous thing like this, OU must convince two of the fence-sitters, so if I'm right about TCU and OkSt., they need both of TTU and Baylor.  It might happen.  It very well might not.


What that really leaves us with, though, is the question of what happens to UVA?  Because that's what we give a damn about, right?  Our future lies down one of four paths, and none other:

-- Residence in the Big Ten.
-- Residence in the SEC.
-- Residence in a strong ACC.
-- Residence in a weak, emaciated ACC.

Let's examine them each one by one.  All but case #3 assume FSU and Clemson do depart.  If they don't, obviously the ACC sticks together.

-- The Big Ten.

I have gone on record saying I hate this idea.  I don't remember when that post was and I don't want to dig it up, but the Cliff's Notes go like this:

- We wouldn't be able to recruit well in football because the Big Ten schools like Michigan, OSU, and PSU would get their claws into our state and drain all the talent.
- We wouldn't be able to recruit well in basketball because one of the best things we have going for us is the ACC name.
- We would basically lose our baseball program, because the Big Ten is a baseball mid-major and there's no way we could keep Brian O'Connor around.
- We would be forced to help create a Big Ten lacrosse conference, and you don't come to Virginia so you can play yearly lacrosse games against Penn State and Ohio State.

The basketball is the least of the concerns; the death of the baseball program nauseates me even as I remind myself how unlikely it is the Big Ten would expand.  See, the Big Ten has got themselves to the point where nobody they can realistically add, would add any value.  It's true; the BTN is such a money machine, who can top it?  Unless your name is Notre Dame, you can't.  They're going to be very content to sit at 12 teams unless Notre Dame deigns to allow themselves to be absorbed, and even then they might even be happy with 13.  After all, they were 11 for the longest time.

People like to say they could add Maryland or UVA or even GT and add a relatively large TV market, but - why?  Especially not Maryland - not with the financial state of their athletic department.  And we don't have a very big fanbase, not as compared to the massive colossus-sized schools in the Big Ten.  We would be the second-smallest school, and the third-smallest would be more than twice our size.  And people who say Georgia Tech forget how insistent the Big Ten is on geography.  It's a very old-school conference.  So while some see the Big Ten as a very attractive lifeboat, I don't see it.  If the ACC turns into the Titanic, the Big Ten is the Californian, not the Carpathia.

-- The SEC.

Believe it or not, I think we'd be an attractive option for the SEC.  Keep in mind, they're not big on adding teams in states where they already exist, which rules out GT, Miami, FSU, and Clemson as expansion options (though in our imaginary world where we're examining SEC membership, FSU and Clemson are midwestern Big 12 schools.)

That leaves the schools in NC, VA, and possibly MD.  In the SEC, you have to play good football, so VT would look awfully good to them.  MD is probably out as a geographical outlier and not a very good football team.  Wake is a terrible fit.  Duke plays football only because it's required, and doesn't care about it.  UNC isn't likely to go anywhere without Duke.  That leaves UVA and NC State.  (This is assuming the SEC does want to go to 16, and can't get, like, Oklahoma State.)

Now, NC State has a decent football program, and has been reported to have made eyes at the SEC in the past.  But we have academics going for us, and the SEC is, believe it or not, interested in improving its academic reputation.  Not at the expense of improving its football reputation, of course, but then, we have an up-and-coming football team.  We certainly wouldn't improve the SEC, but we're slowly getting to the point we wouldn't embarrass ourselves, either, and waving the SEC name in front of instate recruits would certainly hurry that process along.  Anyway, if I'm right about this stuff, we wouldn't have to be all that good.  We'd just have to be respectable most of the time and lend our academic reputation to their purposes, like a slightly-better-at-football Vanderbilt.

So I wouldn't exactly scoff at the idea the SEC might have an interest.  No doubt, though, the faculty would find the idea abhorrent.  John Casteen would've pulled out a switchblade and stabbed you if you'd suggested it, and it would've been justifiable homicide in the Charlottesville courts.  Teresa Sullivan is a little more in tune with what athletics can do for a university, but I'm not sure she'd want to take that step, either.

Even so, if forced to choose between the Big Ten and SEC, I would, in fact, swallow hard, try to ignore the greasy reputation of SEC recruiters, and pick the south.  We're a southern school.  I like our baseball team.  I don't think our football team would fare any better in the Big Ten - even though the SEC teams are the titans of the nation, there are balancing factors in play, like being in a talent-rich state which recruits would no longer have to leave if they had SEC stars in their eyes.

-- The ACC, strong.

However, I wouldn't be all that happy in the SEC or Big Ten.  By far the best scenario is an intact, strong ACC with all of its teams.  Or even more than all of its teams, if we can recruit Notre Dame.

-- The ACC, weak.

This encompasses a really wide range of possibilities.  If it's only FSU and Clemson leaving, well, that's survivable.  It's not good, but it's survivable.  I don't think it would force the ACC to replace them.  Not that action wouldn't be required - the conference leadership would need to reinforce the walls and see to it that the rest of the membership is happy.

I'm not a big believer in the domino theory, but I still think it's at least plausible that if FSU and Clemson leave, others will look to as well.  Let's examine a world in which four or even six teams have bolted, and none of them is us.  In that case, the conference derby will be, for all intents and purposes, over, and we will be the losers.  But there would be some steps we could take to avoid being completely Big Eastified.

We'd have to get back up to 12 teams.  Priority one would be Notre Dame; even with such reduced influence we'd have to try.  I think UConn and Louisville would start to look attractive.  Beyond those two, though, anything else is just flailing about.  South Florida and Rutgers would probably also be considered, and the ACC leadership might well go that direction.  I think that'd be a loser move, though; we can't expect to morph into the Big East of 2000 or 2006 and expect it to be sustainable.

No, outside the box thinking would be required, and fast.  And that's where revenge is served: I think the Big 12 would be riper picking grounds for pilfering than it'd seem.  I hate the geographical insanity, of course, but we're talking the direst of situations here, and you gotta do what you gotta do.  If we wanted to try and pillage the Big 12, we'd have to overcome the TV-money gap that drove FSU that direction in the first place.  But we could offer something that some of those teams have been wanting and nobody else has given them: getting the hell away from Texas.  You think, for example, Kansas and K-State would appreciate that chance?  I do.  Oklahoma State might.  Texas Tech might.  Is this making a disgusting mockery of the words "Atlantic Coast"?  Yup.  Is it better than the idea of muddling around in a conference filled with all the Big East teams that nobody else wanted?  Yup.


You'll notice that option five, "being left behind to fend for ourselves while everyone else in the conference gets invites to other parties" is not on the plate.  Let's make believe the 4x16 superconferences model (which is never happening) does happen, and the ACC is not one of them, but most of its 14 teams are.  That would mean four teams going to the Big Ten, two to the SEC, and six to the Big 12.  Even if Notre Dame is one of those teams, UVA is not the 12th-most attractive team of the ACC's 14.  There'd be a home somewhere.

This talk of the superconferences, though, leads us to the final section of this manifesto: mythbusting.  Here are some commonly (or semi-commonly) held beliefs, all of which are crap:

-- Four 16-team superconferences are inevitable.

Small-minded thinking coming from people who like things neat, tidy, and orderly.  I like things neat and orderly, too, but I also like them realistic.  It's the same kind of imagination that produces a promotion-relegation system for college football.  It's cute to pretend, but totally unrealistic.  The problem with the 4x16 model is that it requires a central organizing authority, sort of like how dictatorship governments come up with grand schemes like Mao's Five-Year Plans and force the whole population to comply.  The NCAA is not that authority.  The conferences aren't just going to neatly sort themselves out that way.  People who promote the idea have inane ideas like Fresno State joining the Pac-12, never stopping to ask themselves why the fuck the Pac-12 would do that.  At least two of the proposed superconferences appear perfectly content with the 12 teams they have, with almost literally zero reason to expand.

And even if I'm wrong and there do, at some point in the future, exist four conferences of 16 teams each, we'll just see how long that lasts.  With that many teams you have a lot of disagreement and a lot of clashing perspectives.  Sustainability would be a major issue and it's likely that at least one of those conferences would break up before too long.

-- The UVA president has ties to the Big Ten, making an invite possible if not likely.

Yes, Teresa Sullivan came to us from Michigan, where she spent three-plus years as the provost.  This was after twenty-seven at Texas.  If anything her ties are with the Big 12.

-- The SEC-Big 12 bowl agreement dooms the ACC to a game with the Big East, which in turn dooms us to, uh, doom.

Nowhere is it written that our champion must play the Big East champion.  Or any conference champion.  If the conference leadership is smart, they'll hook up with the SEC's 2nd or 3rd team in the Orange Bowl.

-- UVA and VT are tied at the hip thanks to the VA legislature.

Because of how VT got into the ACC in the first place - essentially, the VA legislature and Mark Warner blackmailed the Board of Visitors with John Casteen's tacit (if not explicit) approval - many are under the impression that now you can't have one without the other.  That was a unique and lucky (for VT) situation.  We were the sixth vote out of nine.  If there had been one other nay vote against VT and in favor of Syracuse instead, there would've been nothing the lawmakers could've done.

Likewise, they have no power over any new conference either VT or UVA might care to join.  They can't force the SEC to take both in the same way they forced the ACC to take VT.  The only way they might is to prevent VT from moving.  (And if the ACC does crumble but UVA and VT find good homes in separate conferences, they won't intervene.)  They can keep someone out of a conference, but this time, they can't force anyone into one.  Besides, there's no guarantee they would.

-- The ACC is finished.

Like I said - it can survive, and probably wouldn't even have to expand, if only two teams leave.  If four teams leave it would still survive.  If there's one thing the Big East has taught us, it's that conferences will do anything to stay around and relevant.  We might very well not like our new position in the pecking order four years from now, and we might now like what teams have joined up, and we might be Big Eastified, but anyone who tells you the ACC will disintegrate and cease to exist is delusional.  And we'll still be stronger than the Big East was, post-2005 - the schools that constitute this conference are not chopped liver.  Whether or not there's a storm ahead, don't panic - things are not as bad as you think.


Anonymous said...

Well reasoned look Brendan.


I think the ACC's main hope right now is to keep Florida State and ... to win in 2012-2013 with Florida State at the helm. It's really Florida State's big chance - VA Tech is rebuilding. If that happens, Florida State likely feels more comfortable, and the ACC can be aggressive in trying to pick off other schools in an effort to add to the TV pie, since, if I'm not mistaken, they can renegotiate if the membership changes.


I'd like to see the ACC aggressively court Notre Dame right now. Maybe that means bending a bit on Notre Dame's TV rights. If so, then you swallow hard and find a middle ground. For the Domers, if they are left on the outside and need to join a conference, they won't be able to bargain from a position of strength. If the ACC can add say, Notre Dame and one, and get some of Notre Dame's TV rights, however limited, then they could go to ESPN and try to renegotiate.


Failing Notre Dame, I'm not so averse to the Big 12 gambit sooner than later. It seems doubtful that anyone would bolt, but you never know without trying. All the Big 12 teams essentially had a gun held to their head on the latest contract. Certainly, it seems tough to get around the fact that the Big 12 will have a bigger TV return than the ACC, but it's not the worst idea.

If you can damage the Big 12 before they can damage you ... that might change things, even if you end up prying, say, the Kansas schools away.


All in all, I'm not worried about UVA's future. We'll find a home. Boston College? Maybe not. But UVA will find a home. I do love the ACC as is, though, and would love to see it stay strong.

I'm not too troubled if Clemson and Georgia Tech leave. We can replace them with ease. Maybe we swallow hard academcially and take a lesser academic school, but replacing those guys isn't an issue. The one team I want to keep is Florida State, if at all possible, as much as they have become an annoying pain in the ass who caused these problems for the ACC to begin with, since they started to suck in football.


I imagine a weak ACC, in your scenario, might look to a Central or South Florida to add another team to the Florida market.

Anonymous said...

It's a long way from Tallahasee to Ames, Iowa for a volley ball game or a softball game. There are many schools where football is the tail that wags the dog but most of them are not in the ACC. I think there is a solid core of geographically proximate, like minded institutions that will continue to support the ACC through all of the madness that is going on now. Would be nice to pick up ND and another respectable institution for a little protection but this is not the time to panic or make foolish choices.