A strike in pre-emptive fashion to stave off threats more speculative than real. Operating behind a cloak of uncommon secrecy. Further concentrating wealth in the hands of a few. Extending influence in new directions over the fervent protests of outsiders and internal critics alike. Placing financial considerations ahead of long-espoused principles. Creating hard feelings and dislocations that will take years to remedy.
No, this is not a summary of Bush administration policies. Well, OK, this is not solely a summary of Bush administration policies.
This is the course recently pursued by the North Carolina-based Atlantic Coast Conference, which as of late mid-June sought to expand from nine to 12 schools.
But here the parallel with the president ends. While George Bush's administration is astute, fortunate and ruthless in getting its way, the ACC's surreptitious strike devolved into very public embarrassment and misadventure.
"Obviously we haven't distinguished ourselves in how we've gone about this," Duke men's basketball Coach Mike Krzyzewski said as ACC leaders floundered. "That's sad."
The league unexpectedly wound up with 11 members, only one of them an original target, resolved few of its long-term concerns, wounded its premier sport, and in the process peeled one more illusion from the reeking onion of college athletic hypocrisy. The new schools, Virginia Tech and Florida's University of Miami, join the ACC for the 2004-05 academic year.
Expansion figured to permanently shift the ACC's internal balance in favor of football, continuing an identity struggle as old as the league, founded by football men in 1953 yet known almost since its inception for its basketball prowess.
Until the end, arguments for expansion were strikingly lacking in mention of academic compatibility of institutions, the welfare of student-athletes, or other supposed purposes undergirding intercollegiate athletics. Leading the betrayal of values was Wake Forest, whose eager support of expansion belied the words of its president, Thomas Hearn, a supposed reform leader who recently decried the "athletic arms race" as "a form of collective madness" that is "not sustainable" financially.
So much for the ACC's proud, if tainted, heritage of trying to stand for something more than business-as-usual in college athletics. The standards of modern American commerce rule the roost, if ever there was a doubt.
"All last year, all year long, we're celebrating the ACC as a great example of how to conduct intercollegiate sports," said William Friday, retired president of the University of North Carolina system and a leading advocate of athletic reform for more than 40 years. "What was going on while that was happening, in secrecy? Here we were ... operating in a hostile takeover manner, with greed as the single manifestation of it, and nobody was telling anybody anything."
Advocates of principled, academically grounded college athletic competition have fought corruption for a century, since threatened intervention by President Theodore Roosevelt led to creation of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). But maintaining the tenuous link between academic integrity and big-time sports is increasingly a rear-guard action, about as successful as efforts by coastal communities to replenish their ever-eroding shorelines.
So-called revenue enhancement is central to modern college sports because athletic departments have grown into semi-autonomous corporations with budgets in the tens of millions of dollars and huge, expensive physical plants. Recently, to remain competitive in football with behemoth Florida State, the ACC's Triangle members (Duke, UNC-Chapel Hill, N.C. State) spent some $130 million simply to improve their football facilities.
Only football and men's basketball earn substantial revenues. That income, coupled with booster contributions and various state and federal subsidies (scholarships, facility maintenance funds, tax deductions for gifts for educational purposes), supports as many as several dozen sports programs for women and men at many schools.
Minions in the ACC office, and others like them throughout the intercollegiate landscape, dismiss qualms about commercialization as unrealistic and anachronistic. The logic of corporate success regards grotesqueries such as Nike paying coaches more than their schools do, or having TV networks determine the days and starting times for games, as collateral damage in the war for profitability.
"It's an overwhelming mistake to think that you can adapt corporate structure and operational patterns in a university," Friday protests. "They never work that way. They're not profit-making organizations, never were intended to be." Try telling that to faculty members who rent out to the highest bidder or commit academic fraud, presidents hired for their fundraising prowess, and schools that raid each other's faculties.
A business mentality isn't all that's at work in the search for new athletic funding. Many men in sports gripe--usually privately--that they're forced to chase money due to the impact of Title IX, a 1972 federal law that mandates equal opportunity in educational realms, sports included. Rather than cut football's 85 scholarships, other men's sports are sacrificed and bigger paydays are pursued.
Fostering equal opportunity has never been an ACC trademark. The conference was 20 years old before its by-laws changed to permit the awarding of scholarships to women, and nearly that old before every basketball program had an African-American player. So far the league has had a single female athletics director, Debbie Yow of Maryland, and a single black AD, Virginia's Craig Littlepage. Several ACC schools have rarely, if ever, had an African-American head coach in any sport.
The expansion camp's arguments are suspect even on the business side, based on a tenuous status quo in postseason football and on the current size of TV rights fees. The Bowl Championship Series, which concentrates the lion's share of revenue in the hands of a few elite conferences, is not an NCAA construct and may fall prey to a much-discussed football playoff system. Ratings for most televised league sports are declining, and forecasts for new rights agreements are mixed.
"At best, it appears to be borderline that they could realize the revenues projected by the ACC," said Rudy Martzke, who covers the sports TV beat for USA Today.
Even if revenues are robust, given more tills to fill, the ACC may not surpass or even match the $9.7 million that each school presently receives, better than any league payout in the country. By contrast, the Southeastern Conference's 12 members each realize $8.5 million annually from their conference.
A league enlarged to 11 schools means the end of the home-and-home basketball series that are an ACC trademark and among league founders' key requirements. Fewer tickets will be available for each school at the ACC Tournament, potentially decreasing gifts from boosters eager to buy the privilege of attending. Pressure will build to find a larger host arena beyond Atlanta's Georgia Dome, perhaps requiring a new facility funded by hapless taxpayers somewhere else in the region.
There are intangible costs to expansion as well. The unabashed coveting of capital, the strong-arm tactics, maladroit maneuvering, and hurried, abstract decision-making during five teleconferences left wounds in the league's much-vaunted familial relations that won't soon heal. Fears of dissolution will persist; associations reliant on financial self-interest are perpetually up for sale to the highest bidder. And betrayal of core values has its own price.
"You also have to look at principles, values, tradition," Krzyzewski said. "This isn't about big business swooping in and getting another company. If that's what it's about, the hidden cost there is the destruction of, in essence, what intercollegiate sports should be about."
Commissioner John Swofford, a former UNC football player, started the ACC's 51st year by attempting to plunder the neighboring Big East Conference. He nobly explained that the ACC needed to make more money and that, when it comes to expansion, everybody steals from everybody else.
The plan was to take private schools Boston College, Syracuse University and Miami, three of the Big East's best football programs, as a means of defending against similar, imagined raids directed at the ACC by the Southeastern Conference (SEC) and others. Greater football income was forecast from an enhanced television posture and bigger markets, higher-profile bowl appearances, and a regular-season league championship game achieved by having a required 12 football-playing members.
"This process is about ensuring the ACC's role in the future of college athletics and providing our student-athletes and institutions with the best possible opportunities going forward," Swofford said once word of expansion leaked out.
Swofford's scheme, prepared with the support of a Denver sports marketing firm, nearly unraveled as the blatantly commercial nature of expansion became clear.
Challenges to the move were mounted, with faculty support, by the leaders of Duke and UNC, traditionally the ACC's most vigorous defenders of academic integrity in sports. Concerns were voiced about travel time required of athletes in a league doubled in size to cover 1,500 miles. Questions also arose about speculative financial scenarios, the effects of expansion on traditional rivalries, and other matters.
"If you're going to err, err on the side of being a little bit more restrictive to maintain the values that, once you lose them, you're not going to get back," Krzyzewski said.
The University of Virginia also opposed expansion as political pressure was applied by Mark Warner, the state's governor, on behalf of Virginia Tech. Other politicians weighed in, too, along with numerous observers and a new nationwide faculty organization, the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics. Most disapproved of the ACC's methods, plans and motivations.
"The ACC has the huge opportunity in this particular situation to say, 'Well, we've looked at this, but enough is enough,'" Friday lamented. "Somebody has got to say it's time to stop. It's time to turn our backs on where we're headed. We're rapidly becoming America's number one entertainment network. We're already there. Commercial television has made us that. But one person, one president, one vote, could turn this whole process around and say to the American public, 'No, we aren't going to let this happen any further to our academic institutions.'"
Friday's pleas for leadership fell upon deaf ears. Certainly he got no support from Hearn, expansion enthusiast Marye Anne Fox of N.C. State, or passive Molly Broad, head of the UNC system. Instead, there was talk of changing ACC bylaws to make it easier to approve expansion.
UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor James Moeser and Duke President Nan Keohane led a late effort to settle for 10 members, taking only Miami, among college football's great modern powers but currently on NCAA probation in baseball. The countermove was a scenario apparently never previously considered--an 11-school league with Miami and Virginia Tech, the latter accepted in order to secure the vote of UVA president John Casteen.
True to the dubious principles demonstrated throughout, Virginia Tech withdrew from a Big East lawsuit against the ACC and rushed to grab a place at a table toward which it had long cast covetous eyes. The Hokies had been rejected four times by the ACC, as recently as a month earlier and as long ago as the league's 1953 outset.
For all the huffing and puffing, the 11-member conglomeration only partially achieved the originally stated purposes of expansion. The change also wounded basketball, the ACC's signature sport, and left the prospect of further additions dangling like an awkward participle.
"I don't know why they're doing it," one longtime ACC insider said of expansion advocates. "They want to make a mark. To me, it makes no sense."
The rush to judgment became breathtakingly comical.
ACC bylaws require that a fact-finding group visit the campus of any school considered for admission to the league. That process is usually executed well in advance of extending a formal offer, as was the case with BC, Miami, and Syracuse. Not so for Virginia Tech. A legitimizing contingent scrambled to reach Blacksburg, Va., the same day the school was offered, and voted to accept, ACC membership.
"How stupid do they think we are?" asked Sue Estroff, head of UNC-CH's faculty.
Miami and Virginia Tech are the weakest academically of the four schools considered, and bring only the nation's No. 17 and No. 67 TV markets, respectively. The ACC still fails to qualify for a football playoff, a key argument for expansion. Basketball will be altered substantially, quite likely for the worse, as Miami and Virginia Tech have combined for eight NCAA tournament victories in their respective histories. That win total matches Clemson, the ACC's single least-accomplished basketball program.
Virginia Tech is geographically proximate with numerous alumni in the region, and has participated in 10 straight bowl games. But if you care about such things, the school doesn't enhance the league's image with its low football graduation rates, off-field problems, and an athletics department that ranked 112th in the 2003 Sears Cup competition for the best all-around collegiate sports program. The lowest-rated athletic program from the pre-expansion ACC was Georgia Tech at 53.
No wonder Donna Shalala, Miami's president, called "bizarre, strange, goofy" a process that left the often-envied ACC crowing about its football prowess even as it became a poster child for avarice, ineptitude and hypocrisy.
The expansion effort "epitomizes what's wrong with college athletics," Estroff said. "I agree with Mike Krzyzewski. I think we embarrassed ourselves. I'm embarrassed by the way this whole thing has unfolded. I can't find anything good to say about it except that it's over."
Not that the blemishes of college athletics are exclusively the province of any single conference or group of leaders.
At St. Bonaventure's in New York, the president and athletics director approved using a transfer basketball player with nothing more to his academic credit than a welding certificate. California's Fresno State was slapped with probation for violating NCAA rules under basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian, hired despite being a notorious and previously punished cheat. At the University of Georgia, where the president intervened to assure the hiring of shady basketball coach Jim Harrick, the coach's son, an assistant coach, was caught fraudulently improving the grades of team members.
The football coach at Alabama was fired after misusing a credit card while enjoying alcohol and the company of exotic dancers. The Washington football coach, previously a cheat at Colorado, was dismissed for participating in a sports wager, then lying about it to superiors. The Iowa State basketball coach was fired for consuming alcohol while partying with coeds some 30 years his junior.
Florida State is in the process of reining in athletics after the department, run by Dave Hart, a leading ACC expansion proponent and former Alabama footballer, either indifferently investigated or studiously ignored allegations of betting on games by a quarterback since dismissed from the football squad and prosecuted in court.
And that's just stuff that hit the fan within the past six months.
The ACC's expansion machinations were greeted with especial opprobrium because the conference long claimed to embrace a principled mix of academic and athletic values. Those included athlete-students making significant progress toward a degree, muscular admissions standards and substantial punishment for programs that broke NCAA or ACC rules. In its lust for dollars, the ACC forfeited a claim to high moral ground.
"The ACC is proving for everyone how it really works," said Gary Williams, the Maryland men's basketball coach who, like Krzyzewski, commands around $1 million annually in various salary and consultation fees.
Maryland and Duke, now basketball heavyweights, were major national football powers when the ACC was founded as an offshoot of the Southern Conference. At 17 members, the Southern was unwieldy and deeply divided in athletic philosophy and commitment.
The ACC was founded as a football league. Every AD in the new, seven-member ACC was either a current or former football coach. By the time Virginia became the eighth member, trying vainly to bring Virginia Tech along too, the ACC had signed a lucrative five-year deal with the Orange Bowl.
Then, in 1957, Frank McGuire's North Carolina basketball team went 32-0 and won the national championship by surviving consecutive triple-overtime games in the Final Four. The decisive battle came against Kansas and 7-footer Wilt Chamberlain in Kansas City. The title run was televised back to North Carolina by entrepreneur C.D. Chesley, who hit instant ratings paydirt.
So, for the next quarter-century, while the NCAA controlled televised football, limiting the mediocre ACC to minimal exposure, ACC basketball enjoyed its own regional TV network and burgeoning national prominence.
League basketball teams reached the Final Four seven times during the 1960s, with 11 squads finishing in the top 10 in the Associated Press poll. During the 1970s, N.C. State won an NCAA title (1974), three more ACC squads reached the Final Four, and 16 ACC teams recorded top 10 finishes.
By contrast, no ACC football squad cracked the top 10 in the final polls from 1961 through 1975. ACC teams got only four bowl bids during the decade of the sixties, and none won a national title between Maryland in 1953 and Clemson in 1981. What's more, Clemson cheated in recruiting, and incurred probation immediately after it won.
Already in a catch-up mode in relation to basketball, ACC football also endured 23 straight losses against schools from the nearby SEC.
As a result, when the league expanded in 1979, it spurned suitors Virginia Tech and East Carolina in favor of Georgia Tech, which boasted a rich football tradition and the lucrative Atlanta TV market. Expansion fever struck college sports a little more than a decade later, and the ACC again thought football first, adding perennially powerful Florida State, which finished in the top 10 every year from 1987 through 2000.
Miami was considered and rejected at the time, its outlaw football image too much for ACC presidents to stomach. But with five football titles to their credit, most recently in 2001, the Hurricanes were too tasty a plum to resist.
Florida State has faltered lately under head coach Bobby Bowden, who will be 74 this November, but football programs at Maryland, N.C. State, Virginia and Wake are resurgent. In basketball, although the ACC's representation in the lucrative NCAA men's tournament has diminished over previous levels, the conference won two of the past three titles (Duke in 2001 and Maryland in 2002). Prospects are bright for 2003-04, especially now that highly respected Roy Williams is head coach at Chapel Hill.
But the aftertaste of expansion lingers, raising a wealth of questions: How long can the unabashed commercialism of college sports continue before the Internal Revenue Service yanks tax exemptions for gifts of dubious educational value, a benefit enjoyed by athletic boosters and subsidized by the rest of us?
While others continue to cash in, why are athletes denied the protections clearly due them as workers, from long-term compensation for injury to the freedom to change schools without penalty?
Will new scheduling quirks allow Clemson to avoid playing men's basketball in Chapel Hill, where it has never won a game in a series dating to the 1920s?
Will fattening up on Hokies and Hurricanes help ACC basketball teams make the tournament, or hurt by lowering the conference's overall strength?
Has the ACC solved the problem of being a potential target for hostile takeovers? Is loyalty ever enhanced by encouraging others to abandon theirs?
Will the ACC succeed in lobbying to change the NCAA requirement of 12 members to qualify for a league football title game? Why didn't league leaders try that route before seeking expansion?
Will an odd-numbered ACC hold out for Notre Dame, the holy grail of football expansion? Will it raid yet another league? Will it wait for improvements in diplomatic relations with Cuba, then capitalize by adding the University of Havana, starting a Miami-Havana baseball rivalry that should become a money-making proposition and open an 11 million-person market for ACC advertisers?
And will we ever be fooled into taking the ACC quite so seriously again?