Getting expansion right

Would Bill Stewart's Mountaineers be the logical replacement for Boston College if the Eagles left the ACC? (AP Photo/Jeff Gentner)

Would Bill Stewart's Mountaineers be the logical replacement for Boston College if the Eagles left the ACC? (AP Photo/Jeff Gentner)

This past summer, there was a rash of speculation over Boston College’s possible exit from the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Whispers among Big East officials led to a series of stories positing that Boston College could leave the ACC and crawl back home to its former conference. The N&O’s Caulton Tudor gave a nice rundown of the (admittedly tepid) case for BC to walk.

Caulton also gave us nice fodder for a little thought experiment. In the unlikely event that BC does leave, who should replace them?

One stipulation, before we begin: we’re only addressing revenue sports here. We love non-revs as much as anyone, but they’ll never drive conference affiliation decisions.

Jimmy: As my first nomination, I offer West Virginia (and I know this isn’t exactly virgin territory). In the tiers of BCS conferences where likely converts reside, no one offers a more complete athletic résumé than WVU.

Since the 2004 realignments, West Virginia’s gone 50-13 in football and been a more serious national contender than any ACC team. The ‘Neer spread (sounds like a New Zealand-ish dessert topper) has turned out two serious Heisman candidates in the last four years — quarterback Pat White and running back Steve Slaton. Bringing on a legitimately explosive offensive team would nicely round out the scoring-challenged ACC.

In basketball, the ‘Neers have made the NCAA Tournament four times since 2004, advancing to the second weekend three times. They famously made the Elite Eight in 2006, ousting Chris Paul and Wake Forest in the process. West Virginia basketball would also bring another big-name coach to the ACC fold, Bob Huggins. The man has a checkered past, but he’s a good coach. He won at Kansas State, for Pete’s sake.

WVU fits off the playing field, too. It would restore the ACC’s mid-Atlantic territorial integrity. West Virginia also has a rich recent history of scandal, giving its administrators an easy icebreaker at conference functions. N.C. State, Florida State — you should make splendid conversation partners.

As much as it pains me to urge the ACC toward Huggins’ flop-sweaty embrace, there’s no better candidate for ACC-ship than the ‘Neers.

Jeremy: Boston College always seemed like the worst fit of the three expansion teams for one simple reason — geography.

BC was attractive to the powers that be because it gave the conference a presence in the Northeast. But growing up, I always thought of the ACC as a Southern/Mid-Atlantic conference. Boston College just doesn’t have any natural rivals in the ACC because of the geographic makeup of the conference.

I can’t imagine BC would leave so soon after joining the conference. But if John Swofford asked me tomorrow to find a replacement, I’d look for a school that:

  • Has a geographic connection to the rest of the ACC
  • Enhances the conference in football
  • Does no harm in basketball

West Virginia fits all these criteria pretty well. For the sake of argument, though, here are a few other schools worth considering:

South Florida: In just 12 seasons, Jim Leavitt has built from scratch a solid football program that is contending for Big East titles. The Bulls would give the ACC a member on Florida’s west coast and an upstart rival for Florida State and Miami, further solidifying the conference’s presence in a football-crazy state. The biggest drawback with South Florida is its basketball program, which hasn’t won more than three conference games in four seasons in the Big East.

Pittsburgh: Another Big East school, Pitt has a lot of the same qualities that make West Virginia attractive. The Panthers have a good football tradition and, despite the handicap of having Dave Wannstedt as their head coach, are respectable again.

Unlike the other schools on my list, Jamie Dixon’s basketball program would actually make the conference stronger. Pennsylvania borders Maryland, so the geographic connection is theoretically there. But Pitt is in the western part of the state and doesn’t seem to have any natural rivals in the ACC.

South Carolina: It’s hard to imagine any SEC school bolting for the ACC. But keep in mind that South Carolina completed more seasons as an original member of the ACC (1953-1970) than it has as an SEC school (1992-2008). Though not exactly a powerhouse in football, the Gamecocks have one of the most passionate fan bases in the country. Add an intense rivalry with Clemson and the return of Steve Spurrier to the ACC, and you’ve got a great fit for at least one sport. Meanwhile, the basketball team is coming off an NCAA Tournament appearance, its first since 2004.

East Carolina: I feel compelled to at least mention East Carolina, which last year beat Jimmy’s preferred school (West Virginia) and the defending ACC champion (Virginia Tech). Despite a few rough seasons, the Pirates have had a pretty good run in football since 1991, and they were being talked about as a possible BCS buster until the Hokies Mountaineers avenged that loss.

That said, ECU has a couple of big strikes against it. The basketball program is abysmal (and no, I don’t need to be reminded about that fluke win over N.C. State a couple of years ago). And I doubt the non-North Carolina schools would be enthusiastic about adding a fifth team in a state that’s already dominated by the ACC.

Jimmy: When expansion became a possibility for the ACC six years ago, two teams that eventually got left out received nearly as much media attention as the three who joined the conference: Notre Dame and Syracuse.

I’ll leave Syracuse out of the current discussion. While the Orange nearly joined the ACC in 2004, their football program has declined steeply since then. Improving ACC football was the express reason for expansion — adding a basketball school with an awful football team would be counterproductive. One Duke is plenty, after all.

Notre Dame, however, remains an intriguing prospect. The Fighting Irish are 34-28 over the last five years, haven’t won a major bowl game in this decade and haven’t beaten a ranked team since early 2006. Still, Notre Dame boasts the most storied program in college football and, despite recent struggles, retains its ability to draw top-notch talent.

But let’s not pretend on-field matters are particularly important to the conferences that would court Notre Dame. What the Irish really offer any league is money. Their nationwide pigskin constituency ponies up for tickets, memorabilia and endowments with little regard for the team’s performance. That following gives Notre Dame the clout to negotiate a multi-multimillion-dollar TV contract with NBC and force its way into the BCS picture during the occasional decent season. No other school has a network television contract or its own stipulation in the BCS contract.

In the end, the question isn’t whether the ACC would welcome Notre Dame. It’s whether the Irish would ever benefit from joining a conference. There’s no evidence conference affiliation would give the Irish anything they don’t already have in football. The burgeoning Notre Dame basketball program is already part of the Big East, arguably the nation’s top basketball conference.

Until the Notre Dame-NBC and BCS contracts run out in 2015, a Notre Dame-ACC pairing is a non-starter. After 2015, it may still be a non-starter.

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4 Responses to Getting expansion right

  1. randy says:

    the hokies haven’t avenged any loss to ecu…yet…they play on nov. 5. WVU did, however.

  2. BCMike says:

    It boggles the mind how a program that’s sent two football teams to the championship game in subsequent years, is almost always ranked and winning bowls in football, has one of the best records in the ACC since joining, AND graduates the most players in the conference is constantly up for being booted out of the conference.

    Why not Miami? Miami’s further away from NCSU than BC is (814>743).

    • Jimmy Ryals says:

      I wouldn’t say it boggles the mind. Suggestions that BC shouldn’t be in the conference are tied to the ACC’s historically being a southern conference. Despite the quality of its programs, Boston College is a New England school. For that reason, it seems like less of a fit. I’d also say BC’s status as the last school brought into the conference makes it a logical candidate for a lot of people.

      I think BC’s been a good fit, although I believe West Virginia would have been a better one. But as you (and Jeremy) pointed out, BC clearly has one of the best football programs in the conference. It’s buoyed the ACC’s basketball slate, too.

      BC’s academic record is very good, but it’s not the best in the conference. According to the most recent NCAA numbers, BC’s all-athlete six-year graduation rate (92%) is tied with Wake’s for the second-highest in conference, behind Duke. The situation was the same in football. BC, Wake and — surprisingly — Florida State lead the way in basketball player graduation rates; each graduated 100% of players during the most recent six-year period.

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