Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Unraveling of the Atlantic Coast Conference

Once upon a time, there was a small, but exclusive gated community of college programs that extended from suburban Washington down to Atlanta. It prided itself on superior basketball, competent football, and a sense of superiority that comes from allegedly higher educational standards than others (i.e. no 2.0 students need apply.) The community issued an invitation to Florida State many years ago, causing consternation among traditionalists. FSU is too pedestrian, too common, too football oriented, some said. But Florida State came in anyway, bringing football power and its "free shoes university" scandal with it.

Then came the superconference. With wild visions in their heads of competing with the Southeastern Conference, they pillaged and plundered the Big East. Again, traditionalists groaned as Virginia Tech, Boston College, and Miami entered their club. Here came Rodney Dangerfield to mix with the elite. Miami was still tagged as a "bad boy" school. Boston College had the pedigree and the snobbery, but was too far away. And Virginia Tech, well, these were the University of Virginia's country cousins. What good could come of this?

Almost a decade later, the dream that was ACC football dominance has devolved into a state of ludicrousness. They have won way fewer BCS bowl games than the conference that they supposedly had killed, our Big East. The conference flagship, FSU, hit the reef because its captain remained at the helm a little too long. Georgia Tech, who won a national title in the 1990s (seriously, they did. I'm not joking) has become one of the most consistent teams in the conference. They win eight games a year using an offense that is closer to Knute Rockne than the spread. Virginia Tech regularly dominates and wins the conference, but has a history of losing to teams such as Temple and James Madison in such seasons. And the vaunted conference title game has produced dismal attendance numbers for most of its existence. Meanwhile the Big East continues to gradually strengthen its brand and the SEC sets the standard for football excellence. When pundits actively discuss the possibility that Big Ten reject Rich Rodriguez could help the conference by joining Clemson's staff, one sees how bad the situation has gotten. The ACC has even declined in basketball prowess.

Even worse have been the scandals. North Carolina last year had to get rid of a large number of players to satisfy the NCAA. Most recently has emerged the possibility that the "U" is through. The University of Miami was plagued for a decade by a rogue criminal booster who violated many of the most profoundly important NCAA rules, possibly with the knowledge of coaches. Players, allegedly, were paid in money, food, parties, prostitutes, and other favors. This happened in an era when Miami slipped into absolute mediocrity. Southern Methodist University in the 1980s only exceeded these allegations by continuing to make payoffs after being on probation. They lost their program for three years and never recovered. Almost certainly this weakened the old Southwestern Conference and helped to perpetuate its downfall.

Expansion rumors have swirled around the ACC, but this time they are the prey, not the predator. The Big East has cozied up to Maryland while the SEC initially began to look for expansion possibilities there as well. Maybe it is reflective of the weakness of the ACC that West Virginia University is seen as an increasingly strong prospect for SEC admission relative to any ACC programs.

The Atlantic Coast Conference has experienced, perhaps, one of the worst ten year disasters of any major college sports conference in recent memory. It does not look to improve for them any time soon.

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