- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 18, 2003

Virginia Gov. Mark Warner is using his political muscle to block the Atlantic Coast Conference expansion to ensure that Virginia Tech isn’t left alone in a depleted Big East conference.

Virginia Tech was not invited last month to participate in the ACC’s expansion plans. Since then, Mr. Warner and other state leaders have been urging the University of Virginia, which is operated by the state, to reject the expansion because the move would be detrimental to the state.

UVa. voted last month to support expansion talks, but must vote again before any plans are finalized.

“I believe very strongly that any realignment of the Big East or the ACC needs to include Virginia Tech in a major conference,” Mr. Warner said when expansion talks began last month. “If the ACC chooses to expand — particularly if they choose to expand by three members — it should include Virginia Tech. I am going to do all that I can to make that happen.”

Delegate David A. Nutter, Radford Republican, agreed. “UVa. regularly has bills in the General Assembly, so their actions will be watched very closely,” said Mr. Nutter, who also serves as Virginia Tech’s director of marketing and strategic communications. “Their ability to be successful [in Richmond] could be undercut by this.”

While it is unusual for governors to become involved in collegiate disputes, state lawmakers yesterday praised Mr. Warner, a Democrat, for his intervention in the matter.

The General Assembly has 19 Virginia Tech graduates, including Senate Finance Committee Chairman John H. Chichester, and 22 UVa. graduates, including House Speaker William J. Howell. Mr. Chichester and Mr. Howell are Fredericksburg Republicans.

“The governor is under a lot of cross pressure for what he is trying to do, and that is to do right for the entire state of Virginia,” said Mr. Nutter, a Virginia Tech alumnus. “I give him a lot of credit. … This is not an easy battle to get in the middle of.”

State Sen. John C. Watkins, Henrico Republican and a Virginia Tech alumnus, echoed Mr. Nutter’s sentiments. “UVa. needs to realize there is a lot at stake here. I think Governor Warner has that insight. He understands there is a lot at stake here.”

Earlier this month, Mr. Warner called on the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) or another independent mediator to hold talks with both the ACC and the Big East to help settle the matter.

“The dispute over the proposed expansion of the Atlantic Coast Conference and its expected impact on other major athletic conferences has now spilled into the legal arena,” Mr. Warner said. His comments came after the five would-be remaining Big East football schools sued the ACC, University of Miami and Boston College, claiming a conspiracy to destroy the Big East.

The pressure seems to be working. In the last week, three separate conference calls concerning the ACC expansion ended without a vote. Observers viewed the move as a sign that UVa. might have decided to vote against the measure.

After yesterday’s unsuccessful conference call, the ACC said it would revisit the matter later this month, before the June 30 deadline. Potential solutions include inviting only Miami — which would hurt the Big East, but still keep it viable with Syracuse University and Boston College — or changing ACC bylaws and requiring only six schools to approve expansion.

The ACC, which is now comprised of nine schools including UVa., wants to expand its membership to 12 schools so it can hold a football championship. The expansion would bring millions of dollars to the schools in the conference, regardless of whether they played in the championship game.

College athletics, particularly football, annually bring millions of dollars to schools. The Bowl Championship Series (BCS), which is the pinnacle of college football, brings an estimated $20 million in revenue to conferences through television contracts and other media exposure. The Big East, which includes Virginia Tech, receives an automatic berth to a BCS game.

The ACC on May 16 voted to begin expansion talks with Miami, Syracuse and Boston College, all of which now play in the Big East.

A perennial BCS contender, Miami is the main reason the Big East has an automatic bid. If that school and the other two joined the ACC, Virginia Tech would be left in a depleted conference. Observers believe the Big East then would likely lose its BCS bid and a substantial amount in revenue.

“Big-time football is a big business … and Virginia Tech is a major player in the economy of southwest Virginia,” said state Sen. John S. Edwards, Roanoke Democrat, whose district includes Virginia Tech. “The ramifications of this are huge. Some you can anticipate, some you can’t.”

Under its current makeup, the Big East for football also includes the University of Pittsburgh, Temple University, West Virginia University and Rutgers University. The University of Connecticut recently poured more than $90 million of state funds into upgrading its football program and plans on joining the Big East for football in 2005, replacing Temple.

Located in Blacksburg, Virginia Tech has a $2 million coaching staff and has spent an estimated $40 million to expand Lane Stadium, where the school’s team plays football.

Under ACC rules, seven of the nine teams in the conference need to approve the expansion. UVa. on May 16 joined the University of Maryland, Florida State University, Wake Forest University, Clemson University, Georgia Institute of Technology and North Carolina State University in approving talks with the Big East schools. Duke University and the University of North Carolina opposed the deal.

If UVa. switches its vote, it would deny the ACC the seven votes it needs to expand.

ACC’s current plan requires schools to accept the invitation by June 30 and join the conference in the 2004-05 academic year. The schools will have to pay $1 million fines to the Big East if they leave. The fine jumps to $2 million if the schools decide to leave after June 30.

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