Ain't Life Grand?
by Will Stewart,, 7/29/05
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July of 2005 is nearly over. It was the month in which Boston College officially joined the ACC, bringing ACC membership to 12 after two long years of waiting, and it was the month in which the league held its multi-day Football Kickoff media event, adding two more bowl games along the way. I figure we've got time for one more "Isn't being in the ACC great?" article … and here it is.

It has been an interesting two years, to say the least. I will never forget sitting at my computer the night of Tuesday, June 24th, 2003, just before 11:00 p.m., when the news about Virginia Tech getting an ACC invitation broke. It was first reported by Fox 8 news in Greensboro, NC, and then it hit the Web in a Washington Post article just a few minutes later. I remember sitting stunned in amazement, feeling like a lottery winner who had just heard his winning numbers read over the television.

And like a lottery winner, I was a little paranoid for a while. My father always told me to be careful of things that sounded too good to be true, and I was worried that it might not really be true, or that something would happen to screw it up along the way, leaving VT abandoned by the road side yet again.

Suffice to say that a lot has come and gone since that fateful night, and I'll admit, even after Tech's football championship and fourth-place finish in men's basketball this past year, I'm still pinching myself with disbelief. I'm worried that I'm going to wake up, and the Hokies will be in the Big East, with a fall football schedule that includes Cincinnati, UConn, South Florida, Syracuse, Rutgers, Pittsburgh, and WVU.

But that's not going to happen, is it? It is true, the Hokies are in the ACC. To stay. No boogeyman is going to take that away.

The 12-team league is now reality. The ink is dried on all the TV contracts. The football teams have been split up into divisions with goofy names, and league opponents have been set for years to come. The site, date, and time of the football championship game have all been set. The Hokies have hosted ACC teams in Cassell Coliseum, even beating two of the most storied programs in the league (Duke and Maryland) in Blacksburg.

From this point on, everything new starts to become old. Last year was VT's first run through the ACC, but this year … this year is the first time VT and everyone else in the ACC will compete in one of those fancy wave-of-the-future 12-team conferences. This next year will be brand new for everyone. But after that, it will become the second time around, then the third. Only next year will be the first.

So, despite the number of articles that have been written here and elsewhere about Virginia Tech's fledgling membership in the ACC, I think it's acceptable to step back, take one more look around, and smile again, before the games are upon us and competition takes over.

Years ago, a friend of mine was going to a car dealership to pick up his first brand new car, a 1990 Honda Accord. I gave him a bit of advice that someone had given me back in December of 1987, when I picked up my first new car, a 1988 Mustang GT. "Drive it off the lot," I told him, "and then find the nearest parking lot, get out, and take a good, long look at it. Because it will never be that brand-new again, and you need to savor the moment."

So it is with the new 12-team ACC. For years, while the Hokies were in the Big East, I cast a jealous eye at the other big conferences, the rich, well-oiled machines like the SEC and the Big 12 and, yes, the ACC. I was jealous of their money, their tradition, their TV exposure, their football championship games (those that had them), and the way they always seemed to do things in grand style.

For example, take the Big East Football media day versus the various ACC Football Kickoff events over the years. Whereas the Big East would make reporters fly or drive to the Meadowlands in New Jersey to meet with coaches and a few players for about half a day, the ACC would invite the media to a resort setting (this year it was the Homestead in Hot Springs) for a few days of wining, dining, and golf. I used to think that it was no wonder why the ACC seemed to get better treatment and more attention from their media -- the ACC treated the media better than the Big East. I mean, we're talking the difference between this and this.

And I used to envy all the hoopla over the SEC and Big 12 football championship games. Heavily-hyped, prime time games with big-time sponsors. Big media build up, guys trying to throw footballs through a hole at half time for a million dollars … the whole deal.

Meanwhile, the Big East, always resistant to change and never of a mind to do what was best for it, stubbornly stayed at eight teams. Trying to guess which two would play for the de facto league championship, the conference would schedule Syracuse vs. Miami, VT vs. Miami, or Pittsburgh vs. Miami (oh, it was always Miami) on the last weekend of the season, a feeble attempt to draw ratings for CBS (which virtually ignored the league for years) or later, ABC (which got the league cheap when CBS wasn't interested in renewing).

I looked longingly at those 12-team conferences and wished the Hokies could be in one, leagues with more bowls than Corelle, more excitement than a kindergarten birthday party, and more pomp and circumstance than dinner at the Kluges.

Well, guess what, VT is there now. It started to sink in a little bit last year, but the articles on July 1st about BC's entrance into the league, plus the avalanche of regional and national coverage that came out of Hot Springs this week, made it even more real.

Two years ago, when the ACC was going through its painful expansion process, John Swofford talked about how the idea of expansion gained more urgency when a consultant's report outlined to the ACC how critical it was to expand to a 12-team configuration. If you don’t, the report warned, you risk becoming inconsequential in the NCAA landscape. If you want to be a player in decisions made about NCAA sports, you need to be bigger, the report said.

That notion hit home with ACC athletic directors and presidents. They had a good conference, but among the six BCS conferences, it was a solid fifth place, ahead of the Big East by a narrow margin but trailing the Big Ten, Big 12, SEC, and PAC 10. Swofford talked about how important expansion to 12 was because of the weight the league would carry in college athletics. It wasn't about the money, he said, it was about the prestige and not getting left behind.

Pffffttt! We all said. Suuuuure, it's not about the money. Tell me another one.

But two years later, we can see that although the money is nice, the prestige is just as nice.

Before expansion, the ACC was getting about $22 million a year for its football TV contract, and the Big East about $15 million. After expansion? $41 million a year for the ACC, and somewhere around $5-$8 million a year for the Big East. We can't be sure, because the figure's so small that member schools have a gag order from the conference not to talk about it. All we know is that the Big East football TV contract has been renegotiated; we just don't know for how much -- or in this case, how little.

While the ACC adds bowl bids, building to eight in 2006, the Big East scrambles to retain its tenuous hold on the Gator Bowl, and anything after that is just scraps.

So the money, as I said, is nice. But behind the dollar figures is the simple fact that the Big East is now irrelevant in football. Limited television appearances, no marquee team (Louisville is jockeying for position to fill the void left by Miami), no championship game, no press … and no interest. The Big East has become positively MAC-like in perception. A nice little league with a few tough teams, but … eh (shrug). They cling to their BCS bid, because it's all that differentiates them from, say, Conference USA.

The consultants were right on that point. As we get used to the dollar figures the ACC is now taking in, and as we get used to the bowl tie-ins and TV exposure, the one thing that will remain is the prestige and the punch of being in a 12-team league. The ACC has a ways to go before it will rival the SEC in football passion and tradition, but over the next decade, interest in the football side of the league will blossom and grow.

Through expansion, the ACC has joined the Big Ten, PAC 10, Big 12 and SEC in the top group of BCS conferences, leaving the Big East far behind in an odd class all by itself.

But this article isn't about the Big East versus the ACC. It's an article reminding you that before the games start in September, before you get caught up in how the Hokies are doing on the field and on the court, remember that through it all, the ACC will be in the forefront. Whether the Hokies win their division or not, you'll enjoy the ride, and you'll tune into that ACC Championship Game on December 3rd and watch with interest.

Don't forget to take a look around first, and think to yourself, when it comes to VT and the ACC … ain't life grand?

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