The Atlantic Coast Conference has extended its northern reach, adding Pittsburgh and Syracuse. Now the question becomes, will the league stop there _ or keep growing to 16?
The ACC announced Sunday that its council of presidents unanimously voted to accept those two schools, a move that increases its membership to 14 and sends the Big East scrambling _ again _ to replace two of its cornerstone programs.
“We are constantly evaluating the competitive landscape to ensure the conference’s viability for years to come, and this, I believe, has staying power,” ACC Commissioner John Swofford said on a conference call.
“First of all, we are very comfortable with this 14,” he added. “The only thing I would add to that is that we are not philosophically opposed to 16. But for now we are very pleased with this 14. We think it is just an excellent group.”
The announcement caps a turbulent week of reshuffling for the ACC. It likely will lead to another dramatic shift in college athletics and could mark the next step toward the era of 16-team superconferences.
“I can say that in all my years of collegiate athletics administration, I’ve never seen this level of uncertainty and potential fluidity in schools and conferences,” Swofford said. “Schools, they’re looking for stability, and when that stability doesn’t exist, for whatever reason, as long as that’s going on, I think the conferences that appear to be stable moving forward are going to receive inquiries from schools that are desirous of having that kind of stability.”
Swofford said “double-digit numbers of schools” recently expressed interest in possibly joining the ACC, but declined to identify them. When asked if any other Big East members could be targets for further expansion _ published reports indicate Connecticut and Rutgers could be under consideration _ Swofford said “I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to go there.”
University of Connecticut President Susan Herbst said in a statement that realignment speculation “is not close to being over, so we need to have some patience.
“UConn is a proud charter member of the BIG EAST and we have taken a lead role in the league’s success over the years,” she said. “However, it is my responsibility as President that we stay in constant communication and be actively involved in discussions with our counterparts from around the country to ensure the successful long-term future of our university’s athletic program.”
Texas A&M already has announced its intention to join the Southeastern Conference, leaving the future of the Big 12 in doubt. And the board of regents at Oklahoma and Texas are meeting Monday to discuss the possibility of the universities leaving that conference.
The ACC said its invitations were issued after Pittsburgh and Syracuse submitted letters of application to join the league. It is unclear when the schools will begin competing in the league, with Swofford saying “we will fully respect the bylaws of the Big East Conference” and that “whatever fits within those bylaws is when we would expect them to join the Atlantic Coast Conference.”
The Big East’s exit fee is $5 million, and schools wanting to leave must provide 27 months’ notice.
“The Big East has been Pitt’s conference home for nearly 30 years. It has been a good home that we will leave with many fond memories and many strong friendships,” Pitt chancellor Mark Nordenberg said on the call. “All of us are committed to working with (Big East commissioner John Marinatto) to make this a smooth transition.”
Swofford said adding two schools allows the league to renegotiate its 12-year, $1.86 billion television contract that began this season, “and we’re confident that will have a positive impact.”
The moves also raise the possibility that the ACC basketball tournament could add to its rotation Madison Square Garden, the longtime site of the Big East’s tournament. Atlanta is hosting the tournament this season before it is scheduled to return to Greensboro, N.C., from 2013-15.
“I don’t think there’s any question that taking a look at New York and Madison Square Garden would be very appealing for Atlantic Coast Conference basketball fans _ and even moreso now with even more teams in closer proximity,” Swofford said. “With that being the media center of the world, so to speak, we’d probably be remiss if we didn’t think of it in those terms.”
Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski called the moves “a real coup for the ACC,” and Duke athletic director Kevin White said Pitt and Syracuse “provide the best fit _ at the right time _ for the ACC.”
Swofford confirmed that the ACC unanimously approved raising the exit fee to approximately $20 million _ up from $12 million to $14 million _ for any member leaving the conference, a maneuver seemingly designed to keep the remaining ACC schools in the fold.
“I look at that, as I think our presidents do, as actually a show of solidarity and confidence in each other,” Swofford said, “but it’s also set in terms of what we think, in losing a member, the various tangible and intangible costs may be.”
The latest moves are sure to create even more bad blood between two conferences that became embroiled in a nasty lawsuit the last time the ACC expanded by adding schools from the Big East. A multibillion dollar settlement reached in 2005 included the scheduling of nine interconference football games.
“I think we certainly expect that there will be collegial treatment,” Syracuse Chancellor and President Nancy Cantor said.
Pitt and Syracuse bring the number of programs making the Big East-to-ACC jump in the past decade to five. Syracuse was one of the original targets of a previous round of expansion by the ACC along with Miami and Boston College in 2003. The ACC ultimately added the Hurricanes and Virginia Tech for the 2004 season and brought in BC for the following season as its 12th member.
Now the question is how the ACC’s latest round of expansion will affect the rest of the college sports landscape.
Until now, the focus of this most recent round of realignment had centered on the Big 12. Oklahoma could be leaving for the Pac-12 and taking Oklahoma State with it. Texas has stated its desire to keep the Big 12 together, but the Pac-12 could be an option as well as football independence, a la Notre Dame, which competes in the Big East in all other sports.
In addition to the reports of interest in Rutgers and UConn, there also have been reports linking Texas to the ACC, a move that could include Texas Tech. Swofford declined to discuss specifics about Texas except to say that “it’s an outstanding institution with a tremendous athletic program.”
There already has been speculation that West Virginia would be a target for the SEC to balance out that conference and grow to 14 members if and when Texas A&M finally joins. Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany has said his league is set with 12, but could reconsider if other conferences make additions.
When the Big Ten was looking to expand last summer, there was plenty of speculation about Big East schools on the Big Ten’s target list. But the Big Ten added only Nebraska from the Big 12, and a few months later the Big East announced TCU from the Mountain West Conference was joining the league next year.
Complicating matters for the Big East, different numbers of its schools play football and basketball, and they often have different agendas. The nonfootball members _ which include Georgetown, Marquette and Villanova _ help make it one of the nation’s strongest basketball conferences. The other football-playing members are West Virginia, Rutgers, Connecticut, Louisville, South Florida and Cincinnati.
AP College Football Writer Ralph D. Russo in Tallahassee, Fla., contributed to this report.
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