As ACC struggles, an uncertain future ahead

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski

The ACC is down -- in more ways than one. Will the conference find salvation, or is it doomed to crumble?

Every once in a while a crowd shot from a televised sporting event will really catch your eye. No, I'm not talking about the BCS championship game and that controversial flirtation with Katherine Webb that got Brent Musburger in hot water.

The two I've got in mind were crowd shots from Atlantic Coast Conference basketball games in the past week. One was a North Carolina State fan in a wheelchair. The other was a Maryland fan in a T-shirt on a mission.

Maryland won't be celebrating victories like this in the ACC much longer.

Not quite as smokin' as a Musburger moment, but bear with me.

Let's start with the guy in the T-shirt, screaming his head off at the Comcast Center Wednesday night as Maryland upset No. 14 North Carolina State 51-50. It's a black shirt with white and red lettering that reads "Too B1G For the ACC." Of course, "Big" is actually that hybrid Big Ten logo with the B in white and the other two digits in "Maryland" red.

Of course, all of this is a reference to the decision two months ago by Maryland's Board of Regents to accept an invitation to join the Big Ten. The Terps are scheduled to move for the 2014-15 season, which means in just two years we could be watching Maryland play Rutgers in one of those classic Big Ten games. Rutgers, remember, is bolting the Big East for the Big Ten, bringing the conference's membership to 14.

But, hey, what's in a name? For that matter, where do tradition and geography factor into college athletics these days?

The ACC is down. Only No. 3 Duke and North Carolina State are currently in the AP top 25. Only six teams are in the top 100 of the latest RPI rankings. It remains to be seen how or if the coming changes will help the ACC -- a conference betting on basketball in a football world.

Obviously, some Maryland fans are excited about the departure from the ACC, even though the school is a charter member from 1953. There are fans at Syracuse and Pittsburgh (and maybe Notre Dame too), who are equally pumped about leaving the Big East for the ACC. But there are those on the other side as well, those who appreciate the traditions and rivalries that made the ACC the premier basketball conference for so many years -- at least until the Big East was formed in 1979.

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And we all know the Big East is on life support. Not only are schools leaving for other conferences, the so-called Catholic 7 are heading off on their own and prepared to form a new league with other schools that choose not to play big-time football. The realignment shuffle creates strange bedfellows and sometimes the relationships end before anyone actually jumps into bed -- TCU, Boise State and San Diego State with the Big East, for example.

When Maryland decided to leave, the ACC went out and plucked Louisville away from the Big East. That sent Connecticut fans into a state of despair and panic. The Huskies and Cincinnati are currently in no-man's land, waiting for the music to start again with the hope they will find a chair for future sitting. UConn has virtually begged for a key to the ACC's front door but the Huskies remain locked out.

Is the ACC truly the promised land of college athletics? All the movement in that direction would indicate that is the case. Maryland's exit and some other disturbing developments would indicate otherwise. Who can be sure of anything in this environment?

Jim Boeheim and Syracuse are charter members of the Big East. He recently said if the Big East was the same and "we were leaving, I wouldn't leave. I would have just retired. ... It's not the same. The ACC is a very stable league, I think -- knock on wood, knock on some president's head. We hope it's stable."

North Carolina State's win over Duke produced another great moment in an old ACC rivalry.

Stability is hard to define these days. It could cost Maryland as much as $52 million to leave the ACC. Yet Maryland President Wallace D. Loh, while explaining the move, told The Washington Post, "It's money versus tradition." That's because the Big Ten lured Maryland away with future media revenue projections. With the Big Ten Network redefining television coverage, each school's revenue is projected to rise to more than $40 million by 2020 -- compared to $24 million in the ACC.

What if Maryland negotiates a more reasonable exit fee? Would that give Florida State the green light to move to the Big 12? What other moves would be triggered? Would those results be good for the ACC?

Now the ACC has formed a committee to research the financial benefits of launching its own conference network. The conference's media rights are already tied up with ESPN for the next 15 years and ESPN is in the planning stage to launch an SEC channel in August 2014, according to Sports Business Journal. The market overlap for those conferences would make two channels problematic.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, in an exclusive interview in that same issue of Sports Business Journal, says, "What upsets me about realignment is that there's not a goal. If somebody were running college athletics, you'd have a vision for an end. There's not a vision for an end."

Earlier this week, on his SiriusXM radio show, Krzyzewski essentially bashed Maryland for walking away from the ACC. But when you strip that element away from his comments, Coach K went on to say what a lot of people have been saying in recent months. He said decisions are being made without any knowledge of what is being given up in exchange for what will be made.

"A lot of these decisions are based on college presidents, chancellors and athletic directors who do not have a depth of understanding of the tradition of the institutions that they are leading, the athletic programs of the institutions that they are leading," he said, according to the Washington Post.

You've got to wonder if Krzyzewski has ever said that to his president, or to ACC commissioner John Swofford, the czar of realignment since 2003.

Everyone, including Krzyzewski, knows the decisions are based on money and football. And let's face it -- the ACC's football brand is not strong. Notre Dame's scheduling with ACC teams isn't going to improve that because the Irish won't be a full member with any conference. Louisville may help some -- about as much as the Cardinals helped the Big East. But as the BCS moves on into its future form, the ACC will be at the bottom of the pecking order behind the SEC, the Big Ten, the Big 12 and the Pac-12.

How's that basketball thing going this year, ACC? Duke and North Carolina State are outstanding teams. Where do you go from there? North Carolina is in danger of missing the NCAA Tournament. Joe Lunardi, who does his Bracketology for ESPN practically 365 days a year now, currently has four ACC teams in the NCAA field -- Duke, Miami, North Carolina State and North Carolina (Carolina as an 11 seed).

That puts the ACC behind the Big Ten and Big East (seven teams each) and the Mountain West and Big 12 (six teams each). The ACC is tied with the SEC and Pac-12 with four teams -- and we all know the perception of the SEC and Pac-12.

This week's RPI includes 14 Big East teams among the top 100, eight more than the ACC's six. The Mountain West has six in the top 37. The RPI, in my opinion, is an overused tool at tournament selection time but those numbers are still staggering. Of course, when the ACC steals away Louisville, Syracuse, Notre Dame and Pitt, the power will shift -- at least in basketball.

And that brings us back to our second crowd shot, the well-publicized story of Will Privette, a wheelchair-bound student who stormed the floor with other North Carolina State fans after Saturday's huge win over No. 1 Duke. It was dangerous. It was crazy, but Privette was rescued by Wolfpack player C.J. Leslie and all ended well.

It may not have been the smartest thing for Privette to do. Maybe someone should have stopped him. But that was ACC basketball. That was tradition. That was all about the rivalry. And those are the things realignment will strip away from the game.

Is it really worth it? Is that really the promised land?

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