Contrasting commissioner John Swofford’s cautious optimism, Duke athletic director Kevin White is unabashedly bullish on the oft-discussed potential of a cable television channel dedicated to ACC sports.
I interviewed White earlier this week for a column on the Blue Devils’ resurgent football program, and our conversation branched in several directions, including the ACC channel, Swofford’s leadership and the possibility of taking the conference’s men’s basketball tournament to New York.
While Swofford has offered a vague “several years” timetable for the conference and media partner ESPN to explore and perhaps create an ACC channel, White was more specific.
“Should we realize the objective in 2016, should we realize the channel objective, we’re going to be in an incredibly strong position for the next 15-20 years,” he said. “In my opinion, I think it will happen, and I think it will be wildly successful.”
Given the depth and quality of the ACC’s product — football has emerged this season, while other sports remain national forces — and the league’s post-expansion demographics, a channel seems a natural.
“For all the reasons that are really obvious,” said White, who serves on the ACC’s television subcommittee along with Clemson AD Dan Radakovich and North Carolina’s Bubba Cunningham. “We have an interesting mix of schools academically and athletically. A bunch of institutions that are highly aspirational with a terrific following.”
As the Raleigh New & Observer’s Andrew Carter detailed in August, conference channels or networks face significant hurdles, but the Big Ten’s has proven lucrative, and the Southeastern Conference’s is set to debut next year.
The Big Ten “clearly became McDonald’s in our industry, and anyone that would argue with that doesn’t know what they’re talking about,” White said. “I think unfortunately there was a time 3-4 years ago where, I don’t know who we were. We weren’t Whataburger, but we were between Whataburger and Wendy’s. We had fallen into that position. And I think the SEC was clearly Burger King.
“And I think we’re kind of snuggling back up into the Burger King position with the grant of rights [the ACC’s 15 schools signed one in April] everybody’s renewed solidarity and our new market position. It’s amazing how quickly we’ve regained what had been our historic position. We were in a bit of a free fall, but we’re right back, and … I attribute all of it and more to John’s leadership.
“We were there once upon a time, and unfortunately we kind of faded. You can quantify that, and people might disagree with that, but I think it’s true, and there’s enough empirical evidence to suggest that we kind of lost a little bit of our juice, and boy, we came roaring back. Now we are emerging.”
The ACC’s commish since 1997, Swofford was the point man as the league added Syracuse and Pittsburgh for all sports, Notre Dame for sports other than football, and Louisville to replace Big Ten-bound Maryland. Moreover, he convinced his 15 presidents to sign the grant of media rights, which binds the membership.
But Swofford, his North Carolina playing days long since done, can’t win football games. The conference’s teams have won enough of the right ones this season to keep undefeated Florida State and once-beaten Clemson in the national conversation since August.
“Invaluable,” White said of the football uptick. “I really thought it could happen. I’d bet my life that it would happen, that we would cycle back. But then to see it happen takes all emotion to yet another level.”
On his own campus, White has seen David Cutcliffe coach Duke to unforeseen heights. The Blue Devils (8-2, 4-2) are ranked 25th nationally and are two victories away from playing No. 2 Florida State in the ACC championship game.
“This is a seasoned football coach who chose to come to Duke,” White said. “Joe Alleva, who was my predecessor, and (Duke president) Dick Broadhead made a brilliant, brilliant hire. … What he’s done here is as good a coaching job as I’ve ever seen, and … I’ve been around a whole lot of really good ones.”
I suggested to White that Duke’s administration has helped Cutcliffe with facility upgrades and other resources.
“I would give you this,” White said. “Dick Broadhead did a lot of really cool things at the beginning to help him and get him launched well. But David’s taken this thing, and this is a one-man band. … You have to live it to really understand it. Our kids really believe.”
And so, apparently, does the student body after last week’s home upset of Miami.
“I don’t think our kids on campus have come down to Earth yet,” White said. “Football has that ability to make students and fans and alumni crazy. Not unlike Duke basketball (at Cameron Indoor Stadium). … Wallace Wade Stadium on Saturday night was a little Cameron-like in my opinion, and that was pretty cool.
“What Mike Krzyzewski has done in Cameron — he set the standard not just at Duke but nationally in terms of exciting people and doing it the right way. I know David has done everything he can to emulate just what Coach K has done.”
Since White mentioned basketball, and the ACC’s broader footprint, I asked him about taking the basketball tournament north of the Mason-Dixon Line for the first time, to New York. The event is scheduled for Greensboro, N.C., in 2014 and ’15, Washington, D.C., in 2016.
“We have a great history and tradition here,” White said, “particularly in Greensboro. That’s been the heart and soul of the ACC. So I think there’s a whole bunch of folks within our league that would like the tournament to retain some kind of association with Greensboro.
“But at the same time, there’s a whole bunch of us that would love it, I don’t know how it all plays out, but I would like the ACC to have a very strong relationship with New York City. I’d be much less than honest if I didn’t say that. That’s the biggest media market in the world, great opportunity, and every one of our schools does LOTS of business up there, and I use that in the broadest context. … It’s right in the midst of our footprint, so to do something up there with some level of frequency is important. But to retain our historical roots in Greensboro is also important to me.”