BLACKSBURG -- Virginia Tech is Whit Babcock’s sixth job in college sports administration, his first in the ACC. But the Hokies’ new athletic director grew up an ACC fan in Harrisonburg, knows all his league colleagues and re-established connections with them last month at the conference’s winter meetings.
With April’s grant of rights securing ACC membership long-term, Babcock arrives in the league of his youth at a time of stability, great promise and competitive challenges offered by newcomers Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Notre Dame and Louisville, the latter replacing Big Ten-bound Maryland in 2014-15.
This second part of my interview transcript with Babcock focuses on ACC and national matters.
Question: As the AD at Cincinnati, were you, after Maryland left, in a horse race with Louisville to get into the ACC?
Answer: Well, I was at West Virginia in 2003, 2004 when (alignment) first started. And then I was at Missouri when we thought we were into the Big Ten, and then Nebraska jumped in. And the day I took the Cincinnati job was the day all the formalities were over and the SEC offer (to Missouri) came, and I walked into my boss’s office, and he said, ‘We finally did it. It’s over.’ And I said, ‘Hey, I’ve got something to tell you, Boss.’
It showed me, and he was great, Mike Alden at Missouri, and I was right there beside him for the Big Ten stuff and the SEC. So I learned some things to do. But I also learned that a lot of it is out of your control. It’s university presidents and the conference making those decisions. I got to Cincinnati a little late in the game, and we tried to play catch up. But what (athletic director) Tom Jurich did (at Louisville) is the model that we tried to follow, Tom Jurich just had a 15-year head start. The stuff he did at Louisville, I believe they expanded the football stadium after they went 2-10. He got the Yum Center built. All their facilities. He was just on down the road, way ahead of his time.
And I don’t fault anyone at Cincinnati for it, but they just weren’t as progressive on that front, and by the time we realized it, when I got there, we were playing catch-up. And now you see $86 million worth of work on (the) football (stadium), and I think you will soon see at Cincinnati that either the downtown will build an arena, or (the university) will figure out a way to do that. I hope for their sake that it’s not too late, but who knows, the door may be closed on (another conference).
But that process, you can politic on that to a certain extent, and I called (then-Virginia Tech AD) Jim Weaver a few times and talked to him. But in conference realignment, they do their homework. They know more about your school practically than you do. And then at the end of the day you realize, I better control what I can control. At least at Cincinnati, the way I went about it was we just need to build the best athletic department we can in the quickest manner because if there was realignment, we’ll be well-positioned for it, and if there’s not, we’d better darn sure be the preeminent program in the American Athletic Conference.
That’s what we were working toward, and either way, the recipe was the same: Build the best, most sound, most attractive athletic department, elevate your school’s academics. … I wish them well and I hope one day Cincinnati’s in a (power) conference. But I’m not worried about Cincinnati anymore. I love ‘em, but this is my new family and I’m much more interested in Virginia Tech. But it is nice to be on this side of the fence.
Q: What is your sense with realignment and the various grants of rights that have been signed? Do you think we’re in a lull?
A: I do think it’s a lull. I think the ACC is very stable and comfortable with their number, and I don’t disagree with that. Again, I root for Cincinnati, but I understand the ACC’s position. Everything could change tomorrow, but I think everything is on hold. I really think the college football playoff will dictate everything.
I’ll use this as an example: You have the Big 12 — they only have 10 teams and no championship game. If they get left out (of the playoff) several years, then they could (make a move). And television and money could drive it. If you have more conference teams you have more inventory of games. But for right now, I think there’s a lull. Do I think it’s over forever? Probably not, but if the door is cracked, I don’t think it’s cracked very much. I think everybody has hit the pause button on that a little bit. … I think the days of people thinking there will be four 16-team mega-conferences, thanks to (ACC commissioner) John Swofford, I don’t see that happening.
Q: You talk about not being able to control things. Virginia Tech was not getting into the ACC until, this is a bizarre story.
A: The state of Virginia (intervened). … John Swofford and I have talked about it. He’s thrilled with Virginia Tech. It’s a great fit. … Virginia Tech has a really good name in this league, and I do think if we handle business right, we can be the preeminent school in this league. I really do believe that.
Q: In terms of the ACC, and you mentioned going on a listening tour when you went down to Lauderdale for the winter meetings, do you think we’re moving toward a nine-game conference football schedule? Is that something you have an opinion on?
A: We talked about that, but I was the rookie at the table and just kept my mouth shut and listened to them, and we’re going to revisit it again, I believe, at our May meetings. So there was a lot of dialogue about eight games versus nine games.
The thing that makes it tough, two things. On the year that you have Notre Dame, it’s like having eight-and-a-half conference games, right? Really nine. So if you have eight conference games and then Notre Dame and then a ninth conference game, you’ve got 10 really difficult games.
And I’ll tell you, I’m excited, but I also shake my head a little bit, the scheduling that’s been done here. We’ve got Wisconsin home-and-home, we’ve got Michigan home-and-home, we’ve got West Virginia. …
Q: And Ohio State.
A: Goodness gracious. I’m all for playing really tough teams, and our fans love it, but the same fans that love seeing us play them would like to see us beat them, too.
So nine games I think has some merit. But the people in the Big 12 will tell you this. When you have a nine-game schedule, every other year you have five road games, and that fifth road game. It’s hard enough to win on the road, but that fifth road game, if you go back and look, it’s knocked two Big 12 teams out of the national title picture. I think Oklahoma State lost at like Iowa State a couple years ago, and it was the fifth road (conference) game of the year. And there was one before that. …
(Babcock is correct. In 2011, Oklahoma State was 10-0 and ranked No. 2 before losing in double-overtime at Iowa State, the Cowboys’ fifth Big 12 road game of the season. One year later, Kansas State was 10-0 and No. 1 in Bowl Championship Series standings before losing at Baylor in its fifth league road game.)
So the nine conference games are good for the fans, it’s good for TV revenue, but if you schedule really well out of conference, I think that’s sexy to your fans as well. Let’s say your Clemson, and you have nine conference games and Notre Dame and South Carolina.
And everybody’s talking strength of schedule, but strength of schedule doesn’t matter if you’re 6-6. So there’s a fine line of scheduling. I don’t think you can dumb down scheduling, but I don’t have any problem with playing William and Mary or Richmond or Old Dominion as a home opener.
Q: Sounds like you lean against nine games.
A: Yeah, I guess it did come across that way. Put it this way, I’ll go with whatever the conference commissioner tells me we’re going to do. I’ll put it this way, I just think the natural inclination of fans and maybe media is to say nine is good. And it is, but there’s a lot of other ways to look at it, and it’s not as simple as snapping your fingers.
You know, the other thing that’s been thrown about out there that I think … is interesting. What if it was eight conference games and a series with an SEC opponent. An eight-plus-one model. You still have nine really good opponents, but you bring in some new blood.
Q: The way I’ve looked at eight is, the notion of a young man coming in here, and even if he plays five years, he might never play Florida State.
A: I do agree with you there. That’s an excellent point. That’s a result of having a 14-team league. What we did look at some is some different models of playing within your division and out, so that the cycle could be shortened, and I don’t know that anybody had the perfect answer to it. But we as ADs are very well aware of that fact, that even a young man who comes in for football and plays five years may not play every conference opponent. So that was absolutely on our radar screen, and that may be what eventually pushes us to nine. I don’t know.
Q: You mentioned some models of remaining at eight but playing people more frequently. That would necessitate not playing everyone in your division every year, correct?
A: Right. I don’t know. If you get it figured out, just send me an email. … If it was easy, we would have solved it.
Q: Do you get the sense, no matter the different models, that the ACC is set on the divisions as they are?
A: Yeah, I believe so, yes. …
Q: ACC channel. Optimistic? Going to happen?
A: I hope so. There was some conversation about that, and ESPN was there, too. … I think everybody likes the thought of it, but ESPN’s not going to do it unless it’s a revenue-producer, and I think some people have learned some hard lessons from the Longhorn Network, so I don’t think we want the ACC channel to become an albatross around our neck like that. So the good news is, sometimes by pausing and watching, you can learn a lot. … I hope it gets there. I think it would be great for our Olympic sports.
Q: ACC basketball tournament going to New York?
A: Oh, man. That’s a good question. The only reason I’m pausing on you is I really like New York from the Big East days (at Cincinnati). But I know the heritage and tradition of the ACC (tournament in Greensboro). … I see the merits to both. I love the biggest city in the world and the biggest stage for basketball, but I’ve yet to go to a tournament in Greensboro, this will be my first one. Tradition and heritage is a big deal, but taking your brand on the biggest stage is pretty big, too.
I don’t envy John Swofford there. If he pulls it out of Greensboro too often, the traditionalists will wear him out. But he’s proven to be pretty progressive.
Q: I think sometimes people sell him short.
A: Yeah I’m real impressed with him, and I’m not saying that because in one way he’s my dotted-line boss now. He’s classy, he’s a gentleman, he doesn’t beat his chest and try to be out front all the time. I think he’s really sharp. The whole Notre Dame piece was well-played. Holding the league together. I don’t think he gets enough credit. He’s settled it down pretty quick with the grant of rights. …
It’s a great league. Even though it’s one I never worked in, it’s all I knew growing up and I know every AD in the ACC, and some other leagues I don’t. So I feel like it’s a good fit for me, and I know it’s a good fit for Virginia Tech, and again, I think we have handle business right, why shouldn’t we shoot to be the preeminent program in the league?
Q: How would you measure that? Are Directors Cup standings a component?
A: That’s one way to do it. I think it’s a good (measure), as good as there is. Is it wins and losses, and is it football and basketball? Absolutely. But to have a comprehensive athletic department. But also, Virginia Tech has led the league, I believe, in graduation success rate. So yes, it’s wins and losses, but if you can also run a clean program and graduate your kids, that’s what I define as being the preeminent program.
Because there’s a number of schools that can win but maybe they get in a bind on NCAA compliance or graduation rates. And there’s others that graduate them all but don’t win enough. When you truly have it, and that’s the hardest part of this job, to bring it all together, but that’s what excites me.
So there you have it. As you probably noticed, Babcock speaks in paragraphs and is engaged locally and globally. He’s been described to me as a new-aged AD who will thrive at Tech and bring much-needed energy.
My first impression concurs.
I can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at email@example.com. Follow me at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP
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