The University of Maryland's planned departure from the Atlantic Coast Conference has raised questions about the league's long-term survival, a sobering prospect for fans that grew up on games between the Terps and their Tobacco Road rivals.
The first notes of panic emerged Monday, after Maryland announced plans to leave for the Big Ten and its far greater television riches in 2014. "I think the ACC is vulnerable right now," said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski in taping his show Basketball and Beyond for Sirius XM Radio. "I'm concerned about our conference."
Speculation immediately followed that the Big Ten might also be wooing North Carolina, Georgia Tech and Virginia and that Florida State, Clemson and Miami would be tasty targets for the Southeastern Conference or the Big 12.
"I could see a number of things like that; the Big Ten is getting more proactive," said ESPN analyst and Duke graduate Jay Bilas. "Do you want to be in this or you don't. It's been building for quite a long time."
Former Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams said the ACC has too much pedigree to collapse but added that he wouldn't be surprised by more shake-ups.
"I think the shock value shouldn't be there anymore if anyone goes anywhere," Williams said. "Nothing is sacred anymore. I'm probably as big an ACC person as can be having played in it and coached in it and believe me, I have my memories and I have my great feelings about the ACC which I'll always have. But at the same time, Maryland is in a situation where this is in their best interest overall because of the financial situation and the fact that they're not downgrading at all academically in what they're doing."
It's another chapter in a story that has come to loom over college sports, with some analysts predicting an eventual landscape of four superconferences in which every other league is a mid-major.
"We're really happy in the ACC," said Notre Dame president Rev. John Jenkins in an interview this week with the Chronicle of Higher Education. "But I am concerned about continual instability of this conference situation."
John Swofford declined comment, but a source with knowledge of his reaction told The Baltimore Sun Wednesday night that the ACC commissioner has spoken to a majority of the presidents of the remaining schools — including those that have been mentioned as possible candidates to follow Maryland — "and they're more committed than ever to staying in the conference."
The source went on to say that the $50 million exit fee that was raised from $20 million when Notre Dame joined as a part-time member is "non-negotiable." As for the possibility of founding member North Carolina and Virginia following Maryland to the Big Ten, the source said "that is crazy." Since Syracuse and Pittsburgh announced that they were joining the ACC, other schools have made similar inquiries, the source said.
Bilas said the ACC should have been more proactive and gone beyond snatching Pittsburgh and Syracuse away from the crumbling Big East.
"I would have gone to the SEC and formed a 24-school superleague," Bilas said. "It would have been radical at the time. With all the natural rivalries you would have had, with the SEC in football, it made much more geographic sense. You'd better think boldly in this because it's not going to be good enough for your league to accept what's going to be left out there."
Maryland's move stunned ACC officials, who didn't know it was coming until news reports emerged Friday and Saturday. The league had raised its fee for exiting schools from $20 million to $50 million in September, believing that the new sum would be dissuasive. But Maryland president Wallace Loh, who had voted against the fee increase, spoke of it as a modest inconvenience in the face of the revenues projected to flow from the Big Ten.
The move also stunned Maryland students, alumni and boosters. Even those in Loh's inner circle reacted negatively when he first raised the possibility less than two weeks ago. But as cold reason began to sweep aside the initial emotions, powerful Maryland supporters cited the potential instability of the ACC as a reason for supporting the move.
"There is real concern that the ACC won't be around as a major player after the upcoming conference shuffle," said Richard L. Jaklitsch, a Prince George's County attorney and former president of the Terrapin Club. "Maryland is getting a great deal to make the move now before other schools abandon ship."
It was a sudden turnabout for the ACC, which hadn't lost a member since South Carolina departed in 1971. The conference had been predator rather than prey as the landscape of college athletics shifted in recent years, poaching Miami, Virginia Tech, Boston College, Notre Dame, Syracuse and Pittsburgh from the Big East. Those moves seemed to ensure the ACC's dominance of the East Coast and to guarantee its basketball pre-eminence for years to come.
But the conference's hidden weakness lay in football, the biggest revenue generator and thus the ultimate driver of conference realignment. Despite the presence of strong football schools such as Florida State, Virginia Tech and Clemson, the ACC cannot match the drawing power of Big Ten stalwarts Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State. The immense fan bases associated with those schools give the Big Ten leverage in negotiating national television deals and in charging carriage fees for its own regional network.
The ACC has lucrative television deals with networks such as ESPN but not its own cable network.
Maryland officials have said the projected difference in television money was too great for them to pass up, enough to wipe away the budget uncertainty of the school's athletic department, to allow the restoration of eliminated teams and to provide scholarship support outside of athletics.
"It's a very significant source of revenue," said university system chancellor William E. Kirwan.
Reports suggest that the ACC will move swiftly to fortify its ranks by pursuing Louisville and Connecticut, some of the last tasty morsels from a Big East carcass that was further stripped Tuesday by Rutgers' departure to the Big Ten.
Bilas suggested a merger with the remains of the Big East as another possibility but said the league must be cognizant of holding onto major media markets after losing its representative in the Baltimore-Washington area.
He and Williams both said the ACC must maintain its strength in basketball, the second most valuable college sport, and leverage that into keeping schools with at least solid football programs.
"I think the ACC will have to look at things a little differently because basketball is what made the ACC," Williams said. "I understand the football contracts and how the league feels about that, but the one thing that might happen is that they'll take a strong look at how they can maximize the basketball in the league, because it's still a great basketball league."
Maryland supporters note that for all the warm memories of basketball showdowns with North Carolina and Duke, the university's relationship with the ACC was not always cozy. Maryland officials often felt that the conference's power was too concentrated in North Carolina and that the university did not get the respect it was due for giving the ACC a foothold in the Baltimore-Washington television market.
"Maryland, although the most important school from a media impact perspective, was always an afterthought to a Carolina-dominated conference," Jaklitsch wrote in an e-mail. "Big Ten TV will revolutionize Maryland's reach and impact, will allow sports to be saved and will help with football recruiting and securing needed football facility improvement."
In reflecting on the move, Kirwan, who has spent most of his career in College Park but who also served as a Big Ten president at Ohio State, said the ACC as we know it was already gone. With expansion, Maryland no longer would have played annual home and away basketball games against Duke and North Carolina. Conference games against Syracuse and Pittsburgh would have felt just as foreign as the impending Big Ten contests against Indiana and Michigan State.
"People can continue to look back fondly," Kirwan said. "But that time is past, and it's not coming back."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun