GREENSBORO, Ga. -- The food is free. The drinks are free. So are the cigars. They're big, they're stinky, and they're everywhere, these cigars. If you're lucky enough to attend the 2008 ACC Football Kickoff, even the golf is free -- and the golf is fabulous.
A typical round on the Rees Jones-designed Oconee Course at Reynolds Plantation costs $260. More than 130 people signed up to play Monday, all on the ACC's dime. That's about 338,000 dimes, but then, the ACC is flush with money.
What the ACC isn't flush with is great football.
The ACC would prefer to have both, obviously, but given the choice between football and finances the ACC will grab the cash every time. That's why the conference's ruthless expansion of 2004 was an unqualified success.
The ACC was rich, but it wanted to be richer. Objective met.
Thanks to expansion, the 12-school football conference has a $258 million TV contract, roughly twice the value of its previous deal with nine schools. Even with the ACC title game playing to crickets in Jacksonville, the annual league payout for each school has risen nearly 20 percent since expansion, to almost $12 million. As a result, ACC football facilities are going up almost as fast as ACC coaching salaries.
So what if the actual product has gone down?
The ACC once competed annually for the national championship. The competition was almost always created by one team, Florida State, but the rest of the league was credible. North Carolina (21-3 in 1997-98), Georgia Tech (10-2 in '98) and Maryland (31-8 in 2001-03) took turns making runs, and the middle of the pack was dangerous. In the four years before expansion, league teams went 14-10 in bowl games. In the four years since, the ACC has had seven extra bowl bids -- and lost all seven. ACC teams are 14-17 in expansion-era bowls.
What has become of the ACC since expansion defies logic. The ACC had a solid foundation before adding national powerhouses Miami and Virginia Tech, plus usually rugged Boston College, yet the bigger, stronger league has become undeniably weaker, less relevant. There have been no national championship contenders. There have barely been teams in the Top 10. Since expansion, the ACC's best individual finish in the AP Top 25 was No. 7 Virginia Tech in 2005. The highest-rated ACC team in 2006 was Wake Forest, at No. 18.
Most people figure the two are connected. The ACC inflated ... the ACC deteriorated. There's your cause. There's your effect. Let's go play a round of free golf!
But it's simply not true. Tempting as it is to pin the ACC's football freefall of today on its greed of 2004, it's not accurate. Expansion didn't drive ACC football into a recession. In fact, the two are completely unrelated. Virginia Tech and Boston College are the only teams keeping the ACC above the MAC. Considering that, expansion went right.
Here's what went wrong.
Bobby Bowden got old: It is what it is. As Bowden has become less coach and more figurehead at Florida State, the Seminoles fell back to the pack. And then behind it. Florida State reached its nadir (FSU fans hope) in 2006 when it tied for ninth in the league at 3-5, as many ACC losses as it suffered in 1992-2002 combined. Expansion didn't render Bowden obsolete. He was heading there anyway. The current FSU senior class -- and the ACC -- has paid the price.
Says FSU quarterback Drew Weatherford: "We've had to change our mindset. We used to go into the year thinking about national championships. We had this chip on our shoulder like, 'We're Florida State, it's going to happen for us.' It hasn't happened that way."
Butch Davis got out: Double whammy: Along with FSU, the ACC's other anticipated bedrock, Miami, slipped. Davis rebuilt the program from its NCAA ruins, bequeathing Larry Coker a team that would win the 2001 national title in his first season, but ultimately Coker was out of place. After going 35-3 with Davis' players, he went 25-12 with his own before being fired in 2006. Expansion didn't slam Miami; Coker did. Last season, under new coach Randy Shannon, Miami was 5-7. Players signed up for Miami but ended up more like Maryland. And they're not pleased.
Says UM defensive end Eric Moncur: "I was a little upset about that, but we have to take it on ourselves. Those teams that won titles, that wasn't us. We have to do it on our own."
The ACC got sentimental: A burst of nostalgic hires mostly backfired. In 2000 N.C. State hired Chuck Amato, an alum, and fired him seven years later. In 2001 North Carolina hired alum John Bunting, Miami promoted Coker, Maryland hired alum Ralph Friedgen and Virginia hired alum Al Groh. In 2002 Georgia Tech hired Americus, Ga., native Chan Gailey. Results? Bunting, Coker and Gailey have been fired. After a sizzling start, Friedgen's program has had four years of mediocrity. Groh is the best of the bunch, but he's still George Welsh Lite. And George Welsh Regular was no world-beater.
|Bobby Bowden is no spring chicken these days. (Getty Images)|
The ACC will no doubt offer another take Tuesday when commissioner John Swofford spins for the media -- not mentioning the ACC won half as many bowl games last season (two) as the Mountain West (four), but pointing out that no conference since 2006 has had more players drafted by the NFL than the ACC. Which is true.
The ACC also set NFL Draft records by having 51 players selected in 2005, 12 first-round picks that same year, and two players among the top four overall picks in each of the past three drafts. Those are facts, mysterious as they may be, adding another paradox to the riddle that has become ACC football.
With more powerhouse programs than ever, and more powerhouse players than ever, ACC football is worse than ever. Whether the participants believe it or not.
"Lots of people, friends of mine around the country, make jokes that 'the ACC is weak,'" says Miami tackle Jason Fox. "I don't think people realize how good this conference is."
Wrong, Jason. People have a pretty good idea.