The latest hostile looting of the Big East by the Atlantic Coast Conference has prompted yet another wistful bout of nostalgia.
The first whispers that ACC commissioner John Swofford wasn’t finished with his ongoing campaign to destroy his supposed BCS ally came early Saturday morning while killing time in the press box at Clemson, hours before kickoff against Auburn.
Within 24 hours it was official. Syracuse and Pittsburgh have ditched their longtime associates in the Big East and rejoined three former conference colleagues in the ever-expanding Atlantic Seaboard conference. Swofford left the door wide open to upping the fold to 16 teams before he’s done pillaging, meaning you can pretty much bet that Connecticut and Rutgers (though Louisville makes more sense) will join the footprint, possibly before the week is over.
As you read this, the wheels are turning to add a four-team Texas-Oklahoma outpost to the soon-to-be Pac-16. The Southeastern Conference will undoubtedly add somebody (Kansas or Missouri?) to its pending baker’s dozen to keep Texas A&M company. The misnomered Big Ten is still leaving the light on for Notre Dame, will likely want to round things out with more free agents in this rush to create superconferences.
Where it all ends is anybody’s guess (and everybody is guessing). Personally, this sad chapter has me thinking more about where this began. Hearing the news that Pitt and Syracuse would further dilute the collegiate traditions I grew up with took me back to the good ol’ days of 1990.
Back then, before Florida State joined the ACC and signaled the conference’s intent to attempt to be more competitive with the SEC in football, the conference had this charming tradition. It was called the ACC Football Tour, and it was a media bus road trip to all eight ACC schools and preseason camps. The tour always started in Greensboro, N.C., at the conference headquarters and typically ended at a motel outside of Clemson.
My first and only tour was 1990, and the most memorable part was sitting around the motel pool in Clemson with just-exiled coach Danny Ford, who didn’t let getting fired keep him from joining us to cook out, drink beer and determine our “official” preseason predictions. The assembled reporters went through every single game on the schedule, picking winners. When Ford didn’t agree with the consensus, he’d shake his head and overrule the verdict.
That remains my lingering feeling about ACC football. It was a casual alliance of friendly rivals who filled the weekends with football until basketball season led to the conference’s greatest showcase event – the ACC Tournament. Students and fans could drive to every school for every game if they wanted. Georgia Tech was two-and-a-half hours from Clemson, which was three hours from Wake Forest, which was less than two hours from the Tobacco Road cluster of North Carolina, Duke and N.C. State, which were all a couple of hours from Virginia, which was two-and-a-half hours from Maryland.
Someone born in 1990 would now be of drinking age and ready to toast their pending status as alums, and they wouldn’t recognize the ACC of their birth. Those days are ancient history now. The ACC lost all of its charm when it first raided the Big East in 2003 to stretch its range from Boston to Miami. Nobody drives to those outposts for games, and it takes longer now to fly between many schools than it used to by bus.
It’s 960 miles to drive from Georgia Tech to Syracuse. It’s 765 miles to drive from Clemson to Miami. It’s 1,430 miles from end to end of the “new” ACC that stretches from the doorstep of Canada to the gateway to Cuba.
And that pales to the scope of what the rumored Pac-16 will look like, with more than 2,000 miles dividing Texas from Washington. Or the desperate association of the leftovers from the Big 12 and Big East should they form their own conference.
Remember all this the next time these university presidents and athletics directors try to use the well-being of its “student-athletes” and fans as an excuse for not creating a true playoff system for football (which could have generated all the money they clearly desire without destroying the traditions and rivalries of the current conferences).
They’ve long argued that a playoff game or two more would pull their student-athletes away from class too often. Obviously traveling halfway across the country to visit conference foes won’t have any effect on players in volleyball or track and field.
And they argued that it wouldn’t be fair to fans to ask them to travel long distances for playoff games. Which choice do you think the diehard fans would make: travel once or twice on the occasions when your team is fortunate enough to be playing a meaningful playoff game or travel multiple times every single year to far-flung regular-season meetings with nontraditional rivals like Pitt or UConn? Which requires more of an investment in time and money?
Well, the emperors of big-time football schools have no clothes. They’ve sold their souls and our traditions for money and exposure. Swofford gets credit for potentially securing the future of the ACC in this fear-scape of realignment, but he disgraced himself and a once-proud union of close-knit schools in the process.
Something tells me Danny Ford is sitting by a pool somewhere shaking his head. But like the rest of us, he’s powerless to change the upheaval that’s overtaken reason.