Syracuse, Pitt add possibilities to ACC

Staff writerSeptember 18, 2011 

Pittsburgh and Syracuse are leaving the Big East for the Atlantic Coast Conference in a move that ACC commissioner John Swofford said will strengthen the conference as its membership grows to 14 schools.

Big East bylaws call for Pittsburgh and Syracuse each to pay a $5 million exit fee and wait 27 months before departing. In a teleconference this morning arranged by the ACC, Pittsburgh chancellor Mark Nordenberg said his university plans to comply with those bylaws, but is open to an earlier, negotiated departure that wouldn’t leave Pitt with an extended lame duck status in the Big East.

“I would think that in the weeks ahead, everyone will be looking at the transition period and trying to determine whether the 27-month notice period really serves everyone’s best interests,” Nordenberg said today.

Swofford said the move bridges the ACC’s geographic footprint from Maryland to Massachusetts so that the conference’s reach extends over the entire Eastern Seaboard, from Boston College to Miami.

Adding Pittsburgh and Syracuse also opens up new possibilities for the ACC. Expanding membership by two schools allows the ACC to reopen negotiations with current TV rights holder ESPN in a move Swofford predicted will more than pay for the additional two schools. The ACC is in the first year of a 12-year contract worth a reported $1.86 billion to the conference.

Getting two more schools in the Northeast also creates the possibility of including New York City’s Madison Square Garden - the longtime home of the Big East basketball tournament - as part of the rotation for the ACC men’s basketball tournament, Swofford said.

“I don’t think there’s any question that taking a look at New York and Madison Square Garden would be very appealing for ACC basketball fans,” Swofford said, “and more so now with teams in closer proximity and 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.”

The move follows the ACC’s addition of Miami and Virginia Tech in 2004 and Boston College in 2005 to expand to 12 members. A question left unanswered is whether ACC presidents ultimately would like to have 16 members in the conference as Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC expansion have the college athletic world buzzing over the concept of “superconferences.”

Swofford said the changing college athletic landscape makes it certain that stronger conferences will continue to be approached by schools hoping to join. He said the ACC has received inquiries from a double-digit number of schools aspiring to become members but declined to name the specific schools.

“We’re very comfortable with this 14,” he said. “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’s an excellent group.”

Although the Palm Beach Post reported last week that Florida State will establish a committee to assess its long-term conference options, Swofford said he believes the current membership of the ACC is unified.

Last week, ACC presidents unanimously voted to increase the conference’s exit fee to about $20 million; it had been about $12 million to $14 million. Swofford acknowledged that it’s possible that the ACC could lose schools but said he is confident in the commitment the current schools have to one another.

“In all of our conversations about this, both individually and collectively, and any conversations I’ve had with any of our presidents and/or athletic directors, I have never once received any indication of anything other than that they are fully committed to the Atlantic Coast Conference,” Swofford said.

Developing a scheduling strategy and evaluating the divisional breakdown of the ACC in football will be one of the many tasks ahead as Pittsburgh and Syracuse prepare to enter. In football, the Atlantic Division currently is home to N.C. State, Wake Forest, Clemson, Boston College, Florida State and Maryland. The Coastal Division consists of Duke, North Carolina, Georgia Tech, Miami, Virginia and Virginia Tech.

Swofford said ACC officials haven’t yet discussed future options for divisions.

Wake Forest athletic director Ron Wellman said Saturday that the conference has talked at length about strengthening the relationship between ACC schools Wake Forest, Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State from a scheduling standpoint.

Before the expansion to 12 members in 2004-05 changed the scheduling format, ACC schools played each conference opponent twice each season in men’s basketball and once a year in football.

“All four of us were charter members of the conference,” Wellman said of the North Carolina schools, “and for us to have the opportunity to play a double round-robin in basketball would really excite our fans. And to play everyone in football every year would be wonderful.

“Whether that can be achieved or not remains to be seen.”

Swofford declined to comment on any possible talks with Texas in the wake of reports last week that the Big 12 school was considering joining either the ACC or the Pac-12 or to operate as an independent.

One stumbling block for Texas’ entry to the ACC could be the existence of the newly created Longhorn Network, which is solely devoted to Texas sports. ACC administrators hold sacred the principle of equal revenue sharing among all members that extends to TV rights.

“We really haven’t sat down and analyzed how that could be made to work in our particular situation, but the fundamental principle is one that’s important to us,” Swofford said. “There are rights that are released by our television rights holder at times, but ESPN is so extensive in what they show, there aren’t a lot of those rights left.”

Swofford said Pittsburgh and Syracuse strengthen the rich tradition of academic and athletic success in the ACC. Both schools have been NCAA tournament staples in men’s basketball. Pittsburgh has made three consecutive bowl trips, eight in 11 years; Syracuse played in a bowl in 2010 for the first time in six seasons. In the current U.S. News & World Report rankings of universities nationwide, Pittsburgh ranks 58th and Syracuse 62nd.

Officials at each school said joining the ACC gives their athletic departments stability.

“This is really a wonderful day for Syracuse,” said Syracuse chancellor Nancy Cantor. “We believe it’s a tremendous opportunity, and the fit academically and athletically is tremendously important to us.”

ktysiac@charlotteobserver.com or 919-829-8942

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