Jacobs: Fans getting to know the new ACC

October 3, 2013 

The wails and gnashing of teeth have dissipated. Serious ACC fans know the names of all the teams in the conference, including who’s coming and going, and when. Perhaps they’ve even ventured a reference to “The Pete” (the Petersen Events Center at the University of Pittsburgh) or the ’Cuse (Syracuse), much as folks who’ve never traversed the Atlantic Ocean pretentiously fling off casual mention of “crossing the pond.”

But, now that practice is under way for the 2013-14 basketball season, and the Pitt football team already has visited the Triangle to win a shootout at Duke, a 15-member ACC seems increasingly real. This presents a bit of a quandary for wary fans – knowing change is coming to a familiar landscape, and feeling comfortable once it arrives, are two very different things.

Many of us confront analogous situations in our personal lives as development transforms communities.

Think for a moment of a field or stand of trees that abuts your home or graces your passage to work or school. Perhaps you enjoy watching deer graze in the field, the rise of autumn color in the woods, or just knowing there’s open space nearby.

Over time you integrate those features into your sense of place. You know intellectually you have no claim to someone else’s land and little or no say in what happens to it. But that doesn’t negate your wish that the field or woods remain unchanged.

Land use planners have a term for privately owned properties that command this sort of attachment by interested neighbors. They call them borrowed space.

“It’s a public good that’s privately owned that you may benefit from in the short term, but for which you have no guarantee of long-term continuance,” explains Ben Hitchings, planning director for the Town of Morrisville and president of the North Carolina chapter of the American Planning Association. “I see this all the time when people develop strong feelings for something and then people are upset when it changes or is threatened with change.”

The change may be as localized as awakening one morning to find the trees down the road have vanished, or as regionally significant as a reconfigured collegiate athletic conference. What follows may be fine in its own way, but that doesn’t preclude experiencing a ripple of dismay or an urge to defend what you value.

Hitchings, raised in Cambridge, Mass., observed this sort of devotion in fans’ impassioned efforts to protect Boston’s Fenway Park. Living in North Carolina, he saw a parallel in public reaction to ACC expansion. “There’s almost a culture that develops around access to that private amenity, but yet it’s still privately owned and its fate is at the wishes of the private property owner,” Hitchings said.

The ACC is, after all, an unincorporated entity, a private nonprofit with tax-exempt status. The league’s books and meetings are not open to the public. If conference decision-makers want to legally transform the ACC, that’s their prerogative.

And so membership increased by two-thirds in barely a decade’s time. “There is a much better understanding that the additions have been very strategic and necessary for the ACC to remain nationally prominent in today’s world,” Commissioner John Swofford said in an e-mail this week.

All seven newcomers are refugees from the old Big East, creating both a richer TV market and an interesting collection of former competitive rivals. Private institutions now comprise 40 percent of the ACC’s members – Boston College, Duke, Miami, Notre Dame, Syracuse, and Wake Forest. That’s a significantly higher percentage than any other power conference.

Unfortunately the ACC couldn’t hold onto one of its original programs during the transformation from a generally tightknit group to an entity with outposts in 10 states. Next year Maryland leaves for the Big 10, “a move that caught all of us by surprise,” Swofford said.

Having the Terrapins spend an academic year with one foot out the door is disconcerting, to say the least. Should an ACC fan take pleasure in Maryland’s 4-0 football start in its final conference season? Will we miss the singsong of students at Cameron Indoor Stadium chanting “Not our rival!” after February, when Mark Turgeon’s Terps make what’s likely their last visit to Duke for quite some time?

Certainly players who came to an ACC school expecting to play occasionally at College Park find the situation disappointing. “Now we don’t get to go home. That’s messed up,” said Duke point guard Quinn Cook, who grew up in Washington, D.C. Not having an ACC presence in that basketball-rich area “is definitely weird,” he said.

At least the improved quality of ACC basketball figures to salve the pain of transition.

“One of the certainties in life is there’s always going to be change,” Swofford said. “I can greatly appreciate history and tradition, particularly having been a part of this league for 40 years, but it’s important to be committed to staying vibrant and competitive.”

So, like it or not, staying an ACC fan means seeing more than tree stumps where once there were lovely woods.

Start with the Grant brothers at Notre Dame (Jerian) and Syracuse (Jerami) – sons of Harvey Grant, who began his playing career at Clemson, where his twin, Horace Grant, became 1987 ACC Player of the Year.

Note a faint ACC flavor in measuring the early sideline success of Jamie Dixon. The Pitt coach had more wins in his first 10 seasons (262) than all but three men in NCAA Division I history. Topping that list is North Carolina’s Roy Williams with 282 victories earned at Kansas. Second, with 265 wins from 1947 through 1956, was N.C. State’s Everett Case.

Speaking of Williams, this will be his last season regularly facing Maryland’s Turgeon, his former assistant. For Mike Krzyzewski, this will be his first season regularly facing Notre Dame’s Mike Brey, once his assistant at Duke.

Just one big, happy ACC neighborhood.

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