CLEMSON — At every step of its most recent expansion process, the ACC has received criticism – and sometimes, rightfully so.
Commissioner John Swofford and ACC leadership have been accused of short-sightedness, of valuing academics over sports and basketball over cash-cow football.
Sometimes, it’s fair: sometimes, however, you’d think fans expected Swofford to reel in Alabama or the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the newest league member, given the hue and cry.
Hopefully, most, if not all, of those fans can admit: Swofford and Co. got it right this week.
Following last week’s surprising departure of charter member Maryland to the Big 10, the ACC added Louisville – a program which doesn’t necessarily meet the league’s high academic standards but enhances its athletic profile in every way that matters. It was a stark change from last fall, when the league passed on West Virginia, which boasted a solid athletic but weaker academic profile.
In the last five years, the Cardinals have made a BCS bowl game, a Final Four and a College World Series. Louisville will make another BCS game with a win over Rutgers tonight, and the Cardinals are a favorite to make a second consecutive Final Four appearance under legendary head coach Rick Pitino; they’re currently ranked No.5 nationally. They boast a $68.8 million operating budget.
They’re the kind of addition that makes football-first Clemson and Florida State happy.
“When you look at Louisville, you see a university and an athletic program that has all the arrows pointed up – a tremendous uptick there, tremendous energy,” ACC commissioner John Swofford said. “It’s always an overall fit in every respect and I think that’s what we found.
“Louisville is committed in its approach to doing everything at the highest level, and as we've seen, especially in recent years, their success has been well documented and their facilities are truly outstanding.”
In reality, they were the only realistic option to keep the ACC stable. Imagine what would’ve happened had the league added UConn or Navy or even Cincinnati, all bandied about as options to replace Maryland.
UConn was likely the No.2 option behind Louisville. While the Huskies’ basketball program, like Pitt and Syracuse, is national-caliber, their football program is uninspiring.
Navy has excellent academics, but when was the last time you tuned into a Navy game where the opponent wasn’t Army or Notre Dame? Exactly.
Cincinnati might make a solid travel partner for Louisville when and if the ACC goes to 16 teams, but that’s about it.
If any of those three were the choice, imagine the scene in Bob Bowlsby’s Big 12 offices:
“Commissioner, you’ve got Dan Radakovich from Clemson on line 1.”
“And you’ve got Randy Spetman from Florida State on line 2.”
Louisville adds to the ACC across-the-board, and by adding the Cardinals in just over a week, Swofford shows the league remains an attractive destination.
Is the ACC completely secure? No. The Big 10’s poaching of Maryland and Rutgers set off the latest round of realignment, with the ripples going from the ACC all the way to the Sun Belt and the WAC, which just added something called “Grand Canyon State” to its lineup.
Before long, someone will scoop up DeVry and the University of Phoenix. Just you wait.
In all seriousness, anxious months remain ahead for Swofford and the ACC. The ACC vows that Maryland will pay every penny of the $50 million exit fee league members agreed to when Syracuse and Pitt joined the league last fall and has already sued Maryland in order to do so.
If the Terrapins are successful, the ACC will be seen as weak, and a whole new exodus could begin, forcing league members to consider their options.
Swofford insists the league is as stable as ever – in the past week, core members North Carolina and Virginia have pledged fealty to the ACC. Notre Dame’s partial football addition helps, although getting the Irish on board full-time would be ideal (although unlikely, given this season’s run to the BCS title game as an independent).
For now, however, Louisville’s addition was the right move – and the only move.