One Year Later: A Look at UNC Conference Realignment Emails

For the past year, I’ve been pointing out that conference realignment really hinges on three primary schools: Texas, Notre Dame and North Carolina. The first two are fairly obvious to football-focused fans, but UNC is really the true lynchpin to the ACC. So, it was interesting to see the emails that were circulated within the UNC leadership ranks in the wake of Maryland’s defection to the Big Ten last year that The News & Observer procured. Here are some key excerpts and my thoughts:

Emails to and from Cunningham, the UNC athletic director, reflect the uncertainty that fans, boosters, administrators and Cunningham himself shared in the days after Maryland announced its decision to leave the ACC. Financial concerns drove the speculation surrounding conference realignment. According to Maryland, those concerns also drove it out of the ACC.

Hours after Maryland announced its move, Sports Illustrated posted a story on its website that detailed how much more money Maryland would make in the Big Ten. The first paragraph read: “The University of Maryland stands to make nearly $100 million more in conference revenue by 2020 with its switch from the ACC to the Big Ten. …”

Martina Ballen, the Chief Financial Officer of the UNC athletic department, emailed the link to Cunningham and UNC’s associate athletic directors. She included a short note: “Wow! Big $$$ if this is accurate.”

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Other emails Cunningham received expressed shock that Maryland would leave, and they questioned whether the money in the Big Ten was that much greater than in the ACC. One came from Cappy Gagnon, a longtime Notre Dame athletic department employee who retired in 2011.

“I don’t get this one,” Gagnon wrote to Cunningham, who started his college athletic administration career at Notre Dame. “Maryland is going to be nobody in the Big Ten, with zero natural rivals and long travel. Is the money from the Big Ten Network that much greater than the ACC TV money?”

Cunningham’s response: “Yes. Likely $20 (million)/yr by 2017.”

This was one of the more surprising points in the sense that there seemed to be a genuine lack of knowledge among top level people of how much more of an advantage in TV money that the Big Ten had (and continues to have) over the ACC. That wasn’t something isolated to UNC – recall that University of Maryland President Wallace D. Loh stated that he was “stunned” at the Big Ten’s financial projections and didn’t realize the extent of the financial disparities between conferences until going through realignment discussions. It would have been one thing if these were average sports fans just focused on on-the-field results, but it’s quite amazing that university leaders and athletic department officials didn’t seem to be as informed on college sports financial matters as, say, most of the people reading this blog or those that followed the reporting of mainstream media members like Brett McMurphy of ESPN.com, Andy Staples of SI.com and Dennis Dodd of CBSSports.com. It’s an indication of the insularity of many universities and athletic departments and partially explains why the inertia in favor of the status quo is often stronger than many conference expansionistas would like to believe. What we’re seeing is that it takes a real external crisis for the vast majority of power conference schools to take notice of the information that’s out there and consider switching leagues. (Note that this thinking doesn’t apply to the “Group of Five” non-power conference schools, who are going to be continuously and unabashedly actively looking for greener pastures.)

Cunningham had no shortage of input. A steady stream of emails from alumni, fans and boosters began on Nov. 20.

The notes came from everywhere: from people who graduated from UNC in the 1960s, and those who graduated in the past few years. Former athletes wrote in. There were Rams Club members. And emails from fans who had no tie to the school other than their allegiance.

One came from an Army major who wrote of how he’d followed UNC athletics throughout deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq. He expressed concern about a conference move and wrote, “I will always love Carolina, but my fervor towards our athletic programs would die a rapid death should we choose to enter the BIG TEN.”

The emails – many coming after UNC fans on the message boards at InsideCarolina.com organized a push to fill Cunningham’s inbox – shared roughly the same sentiment: Lead the Tar Heels out of the crumbling ACC, to a better place. The overwhelming majority of fans preferred moving to the SEC. Among the more than 150 pages of emails that Cunningham received in the 10 days after Maryland’s announcement, only one email favored joining the Big Ten.

This isn’t a shock that UNC fans preferred a move to the SEC over the Big Ten, as many purely sports-focused fans are generally ignorant or dismissive of the desire of university presidents to tie academic prestige to athletic conferences along with the TV dollars involved. As I’ve stated in previous posts, this plays to the ACC’s advantage in terms of retaining UNC: Tar Heel fans want a Southern-based athletic league, but university leaders care much more about being with their academic peers and maximizing revenue. So, the ACC provides the right balance of being Southern-focused (unlike the Big Ten) and having academic prestige (more so than the SEC).

And so it went, day after day. The most dire speculation was that Florida State and Clemson might also leave for the Big 12. The possibility came up in communication between Cunningham and Dean Jordan, an ACC consultant who specializes in TV rights contracts.

Jordan, who works for the Wasserman Media Group, worked closely with Swofford and helped convince Florida State and Virginia, among others, that the grant of rights agreement would help secure the ACC’s future. Jordan also discussed with ACC schools the possible benefits of developing a TV network devoted to ACC coverage.

Back then, in the days after Maryland’s announcement, Jordan was like everyone else, trying to figure out whether Florida State might actually leave. In an email to Cunningham on Nov. 21, Jordan wrote:

“FSU’s life won’t greatly change in the Big 12. The Big 12 TV deal is pro-rata for any new member and their TV distribution is only about $1 (million) more than the ACC. The Big 12 is going to take in $13 (million) more in BCS money – around $1 (million) per school.

“So for $2 to $3 (million) bucks, FSU is going to go through the trauma of switching leagues?”

The Wasserman consultant crystallized what I had always thought about the prospect of Florida State and Clemson going to the Big 12: it just didn’t make sense when you just took a step back and saw what was involved. The Big 12 might have had the advantage in pure on-the-field football performance over the past several years, but that league is a paper tiger in off-the-field conference realignment discussions compared to the ACC and other power conferences. Florida State might have used discussions (or the rumors of discussions) with the Big 12 as leverage to get an audience with the SEC and Big Ten, but the Seminoles were never seriously considering actually joining the Big 12.

Cunningham didn’t just receive emails from interested colleagues and panicking fans. On Nov. 25 – six days after Maryland announced its move – former University of Cincinnati NCAA faculty athletics representative Frederick Russ wrote Cunningham in hopes of bolstering support for Cincinnati.

Russ and Cunningham spent time together days before at the Maui Invitational in Hawaii.

“As I mentioned in Maui, I’ve been hearing all kinds of rumors about which schools the ACC might seek to add, and I wanted to let you know why I think adding the University of Cincinnati to the ACC would benefit the conference and both UNC and UC,” Russ wrote, before listing his reasons.

The ACC, though, already was finalizing its plan. Less than two weeks after Maryland announced that it would be leaving for the Big Ten, the ACC on Nov. 29, 2012 announced that it was replacing Maryland with Louisville. About five months after that, the conference had secured a grant of rights agreement, which effectively put an end – at least for the foreseeable future – to speculation and rumors that were never more prevalent than in the days that followed news of Maryland’s impending departure for the Big Ten.

Give Cincinnati credit for this: that school has been tireless in getting its message out for conference realignment purposes and taking nothing for granted. To be honest, I didn’t even really consider Cincinnati to be a viable ACC candidate in the immediate aftermath of the Maryland defection, but they managed to at least shoehorn themselves into the conversation when all was said and done (despite the fact that Louisville was ultimately chosen). Being aggressive in and of itself isn’t going to change a school’s position in conference realignment, but with the insularity among university and athletic department officials that I described above, taking every opportunity to highlight successes and future facilities plans (particularly in football) to the right people is critical. Louisville (Cincinnati’s competition) did just that over the past couple of years and went from being a marginal ACC candidate and possibly being left out of the power conference picture completely to grabbing the last spot in the ACC against formidable athletic (at least in basketball) and academic competition (UConn). Keep an eye out on Cincinnati when (not if) the Big 12 inevitably comes to the conclusion that it needs to expand.

All-in-all, the UNC emails highlighted the consternation that school officials and fans feel in times of conference realignment instability. As much as people like me are interested in the topic, I can certainly understand that no one in a leadership position likes dealing with periods of high stakes uncertainty. That being said, UNC is one of the few schools that is legitimately in control of its own destiny – both the Big Ten and SEC would take them in a heartbeat. The worst case scenario for the Tar Heels is that they are forced to join a league against their will that is wealthier and more powerful than the ACC itself. A fellow ACC school like Wake Forest, on the other hand, would feel quite a bit differently in the face of a conference collapse (just as Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas and Kansas State feared back in 2010 and 2011 with the Big 12 defections and UConn, Cincinnati and USF feel today in not being able to escape the then-Big East (now AAC). Schools will continue to place quite a bit of value on stability even if there is the possibility of larger dollars elsewhere.

(Image from Now I Know – It’s Gotta Be the Shorts)

The Linear Regression of Big Ten Basketball

Wisconsin Northwestern Basketball

The regular readers of this blog know that I’m the consummate Big Ten guy.  On the football side, I’ve been quick to point out that the Big Ten’s recent problems in BCS bowl games are more due to having to play USC and SEC teams on their respective home turfs than anything about the quality of the conference overall.  However, there’s only so much that I can defend the state of Big Ten basketball.  Somehow, the conference enters into the week of the Big Ten Tournament with a legitimate chance to send 8 teams to the NCAA Tournament since each of its 5 bubble teams have solid numbers and key victories on paper.  (Northwestern still has an outside chance for a potential 9th Big Ten bid, but put itself on death’s door with a loss in a winnable game at Ohio State yesterday.)  While this could indicate to the naked eye that the conference has strong depth overall, it’s masking the fact that the level of play is simply not up to snuff compared to the Big East and ACC.  Michigan State has the only reasonable chance of making the Final Four out of the Big Ten this year.  Purdue and Illinois might get to the Sweet Sixteen if everything falls into place.  Everyone else, though, has been the beneficiary of beating each other up as good-but-not-great teams that make the RPI and other computer numbers seem strong even though anyone that has been watching the games would know otherwise.  The Illinois-Penn State game in Champaign on February 19th, with a 39-33 final score in favor of the Nittany Lions, was the single worst sporting event involved people purported to be upper level athletes I have ever witnessed in my entire lifetime.  (I’ll spare you any comments on the choke job the Illini performed in the second tilt between those two teams in State College last week in order to avoid beating my computer with the house-full of bricks put up by Illinois in the last 5 minutes of that game.)  That game wasn’t the mark of two good defensive teams.  Instead, it was the result of two horrific offenses.

In fact, Loren Tate wrote a column a couple of weeks ago indicating the difficulty that the Big Ten has had in attracting top-level recruits.  This is not a suprise whatsoever, as better athletes these days seem to enjoy playing in systems that emphasize running offensive schemes that would make Mike D’Antoni quiver in delight.  Conferences usually adapt to the styles of play of the teams that have had the most consistent success.  In the ACC, that means that schools have emulated Duke and UNC, which run extremely fast-paced offenses.  The same has occurred in the Big East, where teams have loaded up to keep pace with UConn.  It’s no wonder that those two conferences have been filling up the top ten all season since the styles of play in those leagues are being dictated by teams that are perennially Final Four contenders.

Meanwhile, the Big Ten’s style of play seems to have been dictated by Wisconsin, with its emphasis on using nearly all of the shot clock on offense.  Penn State, Northwestern, Iowa, and Minnesota also have emloy deliberate offensive sets, which means that nearly half of the conference is in slow-down mode.  Certainly, it has been admirable that Bo Ryan has been able to produce a consistently winning program while using middle tier recruits from places like Waukesha and Eau Claire.  However, this isn’t a great trend for the conference overall since Wisconsin is the classic “always-very-competitive-but-rarely-great” type of team that attains a gaudy regular season record and then gets rolled over by a superior athletic team in the NCAA Tournament.  Today’s superstar high school players might not have cared 10 or 20 years ago about this (i.e. the old saying that Dean Smith was the only person that could hold Michael Jordan to under 20 points per game), but it’s evident that they certainly do today.  As Tate points out in his column, not a single one of the 24 of this year’s McDonald’s All-Americans will attend a Big Ten school.  In contrast, North Carolina will enroll 4 alone, while Duke adds 2.  While some college basketball fans may scoff at how the McDonald’s All-Americans are chosen or say that they don’t really matter, history says otherwise.  The last Big Ten team that made it to the national championship game was the 2007 Ohio State team that boasted 4 McDonald’s All-Americans (Greg Oden, Mike Conley, Daequan Cook, and Ivan Harris).  The 2005 Illini team had Dee Brown as a McDonald’s All-American along with Deron Williams and Luther Head being top-rated recruits.

I’m not arguing against the old adage that defense wins championships.  Clearly, a team needs to be a solid defensive team in order to win the national championship.  However, at the college level, it appears that having a great offense and a good defense is the winning combination (while an NBA team is better off with a great defense and a good offense).  At the same time, athletic ability means more in terms of winning at the very top level of basketball compared to any other sport.  As a result, the Big Ten’s relevance is going to depend upon attracting the best athletes over the long term.  Hopefully, the highly-rated recruiting classes anticipated to be coming in for Illinois and Ohio State over the next couple of years (along with the jack-up-threes-at-will John Beilein sets at Michigan) will turn the Big Ten away from the Wisconsin-style of play and into a league that has more open court offenses that will be more attractive to the nation’s top-level players.

(Image from USA Today)