Five years ago today, Virginia Tech was invited to join the ACC. The Hokies didn't sign on the dotted line until July 1, 2003, and Tech didn't become a full member of the conference until a year later, but June 24, 2003 is the day to mark on your calendar and to celebrate, because that's the day the ACC head honchos finally caved and voted to offer admission to the Hokies.
Five years. It's hard to believe. The process was shrouded in secrecy and mystery back then, and half a decade later, it still is. As monumental an occurrence as ACC expansion was, the world is still waiting on the definitive tell-all book, a chronicle of what really happened. Alas, if we don't have it by now, I would think we're never going to get it.
There's nothing wrong with that. In the information age, when anything you want to know is as close as a web browser logged on to Wikipedia, it's refreshing to have an event that is still shrouded in mystery. At 43 years of age, I remember a time when information wasn't at your fingertips, when "I donít know" was still an acceptable answer, and when, for example, you could never quite remember the name of that actor that played that guy in that movie ... and you had no way of looking it up, either.
Granted, ACC expansion isn't a complete mystery. We know a lot about what went on. But we don't know everything. As the years go by, that will add to the romance of the event, as our remembrances become faded in blurry sepia tones.
Even the Internet isn't an infallible resource. Our "Hokie News" Daily Newslink is an awesome resource for archived articles and information resources. You can access archived articles on a daily basis, selecting any day in the past to see what articles we linked to that day. But by the summer of 2005, just two years after ACC expansion, almost half the ACC expansion articles we linked to in the spring and summer of 2003 had disappeared or been deleted, victims of online newspapers' notoriously bad archiving of past material.
Then, in September of 2005, a horrendous month-long crash of the TechSideline.com web site caused (among other things) all Hokie News data prior to June 1, 2005 to be deleted. Not only are the valuable links from April 2003 to July 2003 which chronicled ACC expansion gone, we can't even access the headlines via Hokie News.
Even at mighty Wikipedia.org, if you search on "ACC expansion", they have no entry dedicated to it. For crying out loud, Carrot Top has his own Wikipedia entry, but not ACC expansion.
So as the years slip by, ACC expansion becomes not clearer, but instead murkier, more and more cloaked in secrecy.
In the next week or so, you'll read and hear a lot of retrospectives on ACC expansion. The Newport News Daily Press got things off to a rousing start Sunday with David Teel's excellent special report, that included two long articles and a bevy of stats (some of which I'll get to in a moment).
Before you embark on reading all that stuff, take a moment to reflect on where you were when you first heard the news. I remember it was late at night, probably some time between ten and eleven o'clock, when Josh Barr of the Washington Post broke the news on the Post web site that the ACC had voted to extend invitations to the Hokies and Miami.
I was sitting in my basement office at home, which was home to the operations of HokieCentral.com and TechSideline.com for over five years. I was on the phone with a friend, and we were trying to figure out if the ACC's interest in Tech was real. Four days earlier, on June 19, 2003, the ACC presidents had decided to "reconsider the Hokies for admission" into the conference. The proposed mix of Miami, Syracuse, and BC had stalled for nearly a month, through a handful of conference calls, and the presidents voted to throw Tech back into the mix, making it a 13-team affair. There were even heavy rumors that Notre Dame was being considered as well, making 14 teams a possibility.
That was a lot to discuss, and that's what my buddy and I were doing that night. We were trying to figure out how things would work, and most importantly, we were trying to figure out if the inclusion of VT back into the mix was just a ruse to dupe UVa president John Casteen into voting yes to expansion, only to have the voting take a twist at the end, leaving the Hokies, to put it bluntly, screwed. After all, the Hokies had been screwed more than once in their 50 years of nomadic conference life, since the formation of the ACC in 1953.
I had a hard heart for all this stuff, and I wasn't willing to let myself believe that ACC membership was a real possibility for VT.
Then, around 10:30, things changed. As I talked on the phone, a post appeared at the top of the TSL message board. I donít remember exactly what it said, but it was probably of the nature, "THE WASHINGTON POST SAYS WE'RE IN!!!!"
Inside was the link to a brief article by Josh Barr of the Post, saying that Virginia Tech and Miami were going to receive formal invitations from the conference. Today, the article appears in the Post's pay archives with the headline "ACC Invites Miami, Virginia Tech; Big East's Boston College, Syracuse Are Excluded." It's dated 6/25/03, but that's because it was intended for that day's print edition. It actually came out the night of June 24, 2003.
As I looked at the headline and brief article online that night, my cynical belief that the decades-long conference wars would never go VT's way started to melt away. I remember my rational thoughts thrashing back and forth for a few seconds. First I believed. The article sounded so sure. Then I cautioned myself that misinformation was common on the Internet. Then I looked again at the banner at the top: The Washington Post, one of the most respected names in journalism. They wouldn't say it if it weren't true, I thought, and I started to truly believe: the Hokies were getting into the ACC.
The next few days were a little tense, as the ACC paid a mandated site visit, the invitation became official, Virginia Tech's acceptance became official, and the two parties signed on the dotted line on July 1, 2003. But a sense of euphoria overwhelmed the tension, and the mood for that week or so was positive, to say the least.
And the Hokies were going home, after all those years.
The Five Years Since
I could wax poetic about the Hokies "coming home" to the ACC, but for the rest of this column, I wanted to reflect more on the last five years, instead of the event of getting in. I think two major things have happened since the Hokies were invited into the conference in 2003: (1) Virginia Tech has been much more competitive, much faster, than anyone expected; and (2) the "myth of the ACC," for lack of a better term, was debunked.
Let's take item #1, competitiveness. As chronicled often in the last couple of weeks, the Hokies have won nine ACC championships, fifth most in the conference, since the ACC officially expanded four years ago. The conference championships have come across four sports (football, softball, golf and women's track). That's a broad-based measure of unexpected Hokie success in the ACC.
The football success hasn't been a complete surprise, but I didn't foresee two ACC championships and a runner-up in the first four seasons. I thought that the combination of Miami, FSU, Clemson and the hurdle of a championship game would make it tough for the Hokies to win more than one ACC championship about every four years.
But the shocker, hands down, has been Tech's success in men's basketball. The Hokies have won the fourth-most league games since expansion (31), have the fifth-best winning percentage (.484), and have been a top-four seed in the ACC tournament three out of four times.
No one saw that coming. Not even The Amazing Kreskin.
Tech's success in ACC men's basketball, more than football success or Olympic sports success, has contributed to item #2, the "debunking of the ACC myth." What is the ACC myth? The perception, pre-ACC membership, that ACC schools would crush Virginia Tech in everything but football, and especially in men's basketball.
We're all proud of Virginia Tech and its athletics program, but for decades, the schools in the ACC held one huge advantage over VT that couldn't be countered: money. As the Hokies traveled from conference to conference, often getting a raw deal in the process (cough! -- Big East! -- cough!), ACC member schools enjoyed stable conference membership that kept the cash flowing and the coffers full. Prior to expansion, ACC member schools enjoyed an average payout of almost $11 million a year. The Hokies, according to Athletic Director Jim Weaver, never received more than $5.1 million from the Big East, and averaged about $2.5 million a year.
Every men's basketball program in the ACC made money, while Virginia Tech's basketball program lost money throughout its Atlantic 10 and Big East membership years.
ACC schools had been well-funded for years and years, and they had better facilities, larger athletic endowments (which equates to more scholarships, which equates to better recruits), better-paid coaches, you name it.
All that money for all those years meant, in my mind at least, that the ACC's athletic programs were much more powerful and well-rounded than anything Virginia Tech could offer, outside the football program. It was going to be a long haul for the Hokies to be competitive.
Men's basketball was the very symbol of that challenge. Remember Tech's first-ever ACC game, against mighty UNC in Cassell Coliseum on December 19, 2004? With 7:46 to go in the first half, Zabian Dowdell hit a three-pointer to put the Hokies up 20-19.
Then UNC blew up, outscoring the Hokies 66-31 the rest of the way, coasting to an 85-51 victory. I remember the message board discussions after that game. TSL'ers discussed how an 0-16 ACC record was a real possibility.
Instead, the Hokies have gone almost .500 (31-33) in four years of ACC membership, and after four years, we realize that the programs in the mighty ACC are just like any other programs. They have their weaknesses and their warts, and if you bring your best, you can knock 'em off. Duke has fallen twice to the Hokies, as has UNC, including a Tar Heel team that was ranked #1.
None of this is meant to denigrate what the ACC was, or is. We love the ACC. It's a great, highly competitive conference. ACC men's basketball is the best thing to happen to Hokie sports, from a fan standpoint, in a long time. But the conference isn't full of fire-breathing dragons that can never be conquered. When you get up close and take a good look at them, ACC schools are human, too.
Where Tech and the ACC Stand Now
Since expansion, many articles have focused on whether or not it was a success. The conclusion drawn by cynical sportswriters the world around is that expansion was a failure. The ACC is losing its luster in men's basketball, barely scraping above .500 in the NCAA Tournament since expansion, and football ... well, football isn't exactly a juggernaut. (Thanks, FSU and Miami.)
That stuff is cyclical, and to my recollection, the conference never said that expansion was about increased competitiveness. Expansion was about protecting and improving the conference's revenue flow, and continuing to have a seat at the table of college athletics, where things seemed to be tilting in favor of 12-team conferences.
One of the biggest debates going on at the time of expansion was its effect on the ACC's per-team payout. In 2003-04, the league's last year as a 9-team conference, it paid out $10.88 million per team. Its first year as a 12-team conference, 2005-06, the payout was an average of $10.85 million, basically unchanged.
In 2006-07, their first year as a full revenue-sharing member, the Hokies (according to the Daily Press) received an $11.7 million payout. That figure is probably high because BC is not receiving a full share yet, and won't until 2007-08. Once the Eagles are full revenue-sharing members, I look for the payout to be around $11 million.
From a financial standpoint, ACC expansion was a success. It increased the ACC's power base and influence, while protecting its revenue.
For the Hokies, the financial picture is bright, which means that the athletic picture is bright, as well. The most stunning fact in the Daily Press's report, to me, is this: Virginia Tech's athletic revenue of $65.5 million for 2006-07 was tops in the ACC, as was their profit of $9.5 million. Not only have the Hokies competed well on the fields of play, but they have come out on top in the financial competition, as well.
Academically, although we have chronicled that Virginia Tech's APR scores need to improve to catch up to the rest of the conference, the Hokies boasted a 76 percent graduation rate for athletes entering the school in the fall of 2000, third best in the ACC.
In retrospect, ACC expansion happened quickly. It started with Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese going to the press on April 16th, 2003, blasting the ACC for trying to poach Big East teams, and it ended just two and a half months later, with Miami and Virginia Tech signing on the dotted line.
Virginia Tech's rise in athletic, financial and academic competitiveness within the ACC was equally rapid. Five years ago, there was no disputing that Virginia Tech belonged in the ACC, geographically and culturally. Today, there is no disputing that the Hokies belong in the ACC, period, in all measurable phases.
Membership in a stable, respected, competitive conference took 50 years for Virginia Tech to establish, and with solid ground to stand on, Virginia Tech's athletic programs are finally becoming everything we thought they could ever be, from the financial ledgers to the classroom to the fields of play.
Here's to the next five years ... and beyond.