Death Of A Conference, Part 3

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Virginia and UNC continued the “South’s Oldest Rivalry” as conference members partners in the 1950s. ~ UVa Athletics Department

About The Author: Kevin Edds is the Writer/Director of the documentary Wahoowa: The History of Virginia Cavalier Football. You can purchase the DVD from our sponsor UVA Bookstores (click here). For more information on his new film Hoos Coming to Dinner: The Virginia Cavaliers Unbelievable Rise to #1, please visit www.UVaFootballHistory.com. To Email Kevin, click here.

This is Part 3 of a three-part article series on the evolution of the ACC.

In their first official meeting as a new conference, representatives from ACC schools gathered in Durham to lay down plans for the 1953 football season and to discuss membership. Virginia was refusing to submit a formal application to the conference, which was the custom of the day, and the gang of seven was reluctant to go calling.

Duke, it was learned, almost decided against joining the ACC, and vigorously opposed adding any team, not just Virginia. Duke was proud of its rivalries with Tennessee, Navy, and Georgia Tech (an SEC member at the time). While schedules were commonly being raised to 10-game seasons, Duke did not want to be limited to playing its three rivalry games plus seven conference ones, allowing for no other inter-sectional matchups (a similar stance held by Notre Dame which dipped its toe into ACC waters this season).

West Virginia was gaining prestige as a football power and was now seen as an alternative to Virginia – the Mountaineers still remained in the weakened Southern and would have no qualms about deigning to ask for an invitation. Concerns about travel expenses were the biggest obstacle, though, to a league primarily based in the Carolinas. The Washington Post’s Herman Blackman said of West Virginia, “It’s a long way to send a tennis team.”

The new ACC was even getting overtures from the Orange Bowl to have its champion play the winner of the Big Seven. Publicly ACC officials scoffed at that idea as they much preferred their previous invitation to align with the SEC in the Sugar Bowl. But it did show the immediate credibility of the ACC in the eyes of others.

Virginia Athletic Director Gus Tebell dispelled the rumors that Virginia was completely eliminated from consideration by the ACC. He had to run the decision through the proper channels including Virginia’s Board of Visitors, which decided everything from conference affiliation to Presidential ousters. If there was agreement then Tebell planned on joining the ACC meeting on June 14 in Raleigh.

UNC was lobbying for Virginia as the two shared the title of “The Oldest Football Rivalry in the South.” Maryland likewise favored UVa as it already played Virginia in every sport except football due to the Wahoos’ disdain for the “football factory” that Curly Byrd was creating. UVa’s 104-year-old football alum John Risher says, “Maryland was a powerhouse. But, they had some of the dirtiest players I ever saw. They were terrible. I don’t know how they got away with some of the stuff. We didn’t like Maryland. We didn’t like the way they played.” Still, the ACC thought Virginia would make a natural rival for Maryland, a sign that rivalries influence the creation of leagues as much as they arise naturally.

The biggest challenge on Virginia’s part would be adding 13 more scholarships to meet league minimums, which would cost $25,000 more per year. Virginia most likely had the fewest scholarship players amongst the eight schools, something that would haunt the program throughout most of its first three decades in the ACC.

Waiting in the wings were West Virginia, and now Virginia Tech, hoping to gain membership to the ACC. And in a trickle-down effect, Florida State was rumored to be applying to the tattered remains of the Southern Conference. Meanwhile, Virginia Athletic Director Gus Tebell did not attend the June ACC meeting, which “disturbed officials” of the ACC, according to the Washington Post. South Carolina’s J.T. Penney said, “I sure would like to see Gus Tebell walk in here right now.” A story was circulated that Tebell was home saying goodbye to his son who was being called to military duty in Korea.

Rules Of The ACC

While awaiting word from UVa, one major change the ACC made from the Southern Conference bylaws was to require every football team to play the others in a true round-robin as soon as schedules allowed – a rule that would be followed for the next 51 years.

Despite the desire to “remain small” as a conference, expansion talk already had started. Penn, still a strong football school, was said to be frustrated with the lack of competition in the Ivy League, while Florida and Georgia were unhappy with the tough SEC. Both SEC schools had approached members of the ACC to get a feeler on whether they would be open to accepting offers.

League officials even began talking about following the lead of the Pacific Coast Conference by creating a Northern and Southern Division. Most presumed that Penn, Maryland, Virginia, Wake Forest, and Duke would be in the North, with NC State, UNC, Clemson, Georgia Tech, Georgia, and Florida in the South.

Virginia had already established a rivalry with Penn in some heated battles over the past seven years. And Penn would add a bit of class to the league from some members’ view and a new Northern outpost that would help alleviate Maryland’s isolationist feelings. By September, Southern Mississippi had applied for membership to the ACC. Other reports had Kentucky also applying. The swirling, ever-changing tide of conference affiliation was beginning already and the league had not even held a conference game yet. Ultimately, the decision was made to expand no further than eight.

Virginia Finally Joins

2014EDDS_UNCprogram001aInto October, no decision had been made by Virginia. The football season already had started, and the basketball slate was soon approaching. While Virginia’s administration was deciding on membership to the ACC, it received an unexpected offer. The Southern Conference, of which UVa was a member until 1937, had come calling with an invitation to return. Virginia had left the Southern originally due to what they felt were untoward alumni dealings at UNC. With the Tar Heels now out of the conference, perhaps the time was right for Virginia to come back?

Tebell favored the ACC and would try to convince the Virginia board of its positives. But President Colgate Darden hinted of issues with relationships with the other five schools in the state of Virginia, all of which were still in the Southern Conference. A similar political tango involving what was best for the Commonwealth would play a part in Virginia Tech receiving a bid to the ACC 50 years later. Virginia politicians intimated at reduced state funding for UVa if it did not support a Hokie invitation.

The benefits of being in the “big leagues,” as Tebell called it, were immense. “We get a lot of good boys and, if we were in a top conference, I’m sure we would get more.” Virginia was having a tough season in 1953, but the past six seasons they had gone 18-1 against other Virginia schools.

On October 9, Tebell waged a four-hour debate with the Virginia Board of Visitors. Now burdened with the contentious decision on ACC membership, the BOV was concerned with ACC members adhering to conference rules but also relishing the potential benefits of scheduling, all while weighing the feelings of its fans and alumni.

From the official transcripts of the UVa Special Collections Library:

BOV Rector, Barron Black: … if we enter the ACC and play Maryland, we will know that, in the opinion of our Alumni groups, Maryland will violate the ACC rules?

Hunter Faulconer, President of the Alumni Association: Yes.

BOV Member, Alfred Barksdale: How do you feel about playing Maryland?

Mortimer Caplin, Chairman of the Athletic Council: I don’t think we would be contaminated by one game a year.

UVa Football Coach, Gus Tebell: The feeling against Maryland results from their recent ruthless attitude in building a football team.

[UVa President Barron Black read a letter from the Maryland Chapter of the UVa Alumni Association reporting it opposed ACC membership by a 17 to 2 count.]

BOV Member, John Gravatt: Schools like North Carolina and Duke are in the Conference. I think we have mutuality of thought with those schools. Our influence added to theirs would have great weight towards insuring proper rules and real enforcement of them.

Mr. Black: Isn’t scheduling a serious problem if we are not in a conference?

Mr. Faulconer: Yes. Duke won’t schedule us until we decide about the ACC. We would like membership in the Ivy League, but can’t get that.

Mr. Gravatt: I doubt that North Carolina and Duke will actually play us outside of the Conference.

Mr. Tebell: Duke will not schedule us unless we enter. As regards other sports, we haven’t played North Carolina or Duke in basketball for ten years.

BOV Member, Thomas Gay: Do you think that Alumni thought is sufficiently crystallized to allow the Board to act in accord with Alumni wishes if it should choose to do so?

Mr. Faulconer: No, you will be severely criticized, whatever you do.

Finally, after hours of debate, a resolution was passed by a 6-4 vote to accept membership to the ACC if an invitation was offered. After hearing of the news, South Carolina’s Penney called UVa President Darden and extended a formal invitation, breaking the impasse over who would make the first move on this extended romance.

UVa joined the league just a few weeks into the inaugural season of the ACC, but its football team would have to wait until the following year to play its first league schedule. The basketball team though would play immediately in the ACC’s first season. Maryland’s Tatum said, “This is what the conference members hoped for, a Virginia school. And we wanted the University of Virginia, a fine school.” If the minutes of the Virginia BOV meeting were made public then perhaps Tatum would not have been so gracious in accepting this fine school.

A week later, in a surprising turn of events, the ACC signed a two-year deal with the Orange Bowl to play the champion of the Big Seven and not the SEC. Maryland would play Oklahoma as they already had wrapped up the National Championship in the regular season. The game was televised nationally by CBS. The Sugar Bowl would pick its teams based on no conference affiliation as the deal with the ACC and SEC fell through.

More matters of business at the ACC meeting that October included bids to invite West Virginia and Virginia Tech. Both were denied. Rumors permeated that UVa did not want to allow another school from its state to join, but as one vote out of eight they held little sway over the decision. In fact, many in the ACC had warm feelings towards Virginia Tech’s Sally Miles, a former president of the Southern Conference. UNC proposed the motion to accept Virginia Tech, but South Carolina’s Penney ruled the motion out of order. It would take another 51 years before the Hokies were asked to join.

The Big (Conference) Picture

2014EDDS_Clemsonprogram001aWhen the ACC decided in 1953 to expand to no more than eight members, college football saw a settling of the tectonic plates of conference alignment. For the next 51 years the big moves made in the ACC were the exodus of South Carolina in 1971 and the addition of Georgia Tech (a former SEC charter member) in 1979.

From 1932 to 1991, almost 60 years, the SEC’s only changes were the defections of Georgia Tech and Tulane (yes, believe it or not Tulane was in the SEC until 1966). From 1917 to 1990, the Big Ten saw only the departure of Chicago University (athletically) and the addition of Michigan State. The current Pac-12 was relatively stable from 1964 to 2011 with only the additions of Arizona and Arizona State in 1978. And the Big Eight (now the Big-12) was a fairly tight outfit from 1947 to 1996 with only the induction of Oklahoma State in 1958 causing any ripples.

The 1990s, however, brought about a few new changes: Florida State to the ACC, Arkansas and South Carolina to the SEC, Penn State to the Big Ten, and the merging of most members of the Big Eight and Southwestern Conference into the Big 12. While the latter was a major shift, four of the current “Power Five” conferences saw only eight membership changes in a combined 230 years until the 1990s.

Even then, excluding the Big 12, there were only four institutional changes in the 90s and early 2000s in those four conferences. That’s when the ACC kicked off the most recent trend of realignment with the 2004 acceptance of Virginia Tech and Miami from the Big East. Within a decade of the ACC expansion, the SEC brought in Texas A&M and Missouri, the Pac-12 invited Colorado and Utah, and the Big Ten accepted Nebraska, Rutgers, and Maryland.

It was Maryland’s move that really seemed to ignite the most passions. From alumni, politicians, to the fanbase, it seemed the only ones in the Maryland contingent who wanted to move to the Big Ten were Maryland President Wallace Loh and Athletics Director Kevin Anderson. The exit from the ACC was causing shock waves throughout the college football landscape. There were rumors of the SEC swooping in to pick up FSU, Miami, Clemson, and Georgia Tech. And the Big Ten coming after UNC, Duke, and Virginia.

Here was Maryland again leaving a conference that it helped create and potentially causing its collapse. In 1953, the Southern Conference was in essence killed off as a power conference in big time football by the defection of the ACC schools – an idea that originated with Maryland and was executed with the help of North Carolina. No longer would it have members that competed for a National Championship and it only occasionally spawned bowl-worthy teams. The Southern had five National Champions over the years and almost 60 former players and coaches are in the College Football Hall of Fame. But all of that changed when Maryland and the others left to create the ACC.

Many thought the same fate could await the ACC when Maryland announced its departure to the Big Ten in November of 2012. And if not for the ingenious grant of TV rights agreed upon by ACC schools in 2013, the conference potentially was close to the same situation the Southern faced. ACC teams were discussed as if they were antique cars about to be auctioned off to the highest bidder among the likes of the SEC, Big Ten, and Big 12.

South Carolina became the first ACC school to leave the conference in 1971, primarily over a dispute with unfair conference rules instituted by the Big Four of North Carolina. Maryland is only the second institution to ever leave the conference. Criticism from all corners is still rampant. Was it the right decision? Did the Terrapins harm the ACC? Will their athletes and coaches feel that Big Ten love during those long flights to Iowa and Minnesota?

Maryland’s view that the ACC did not care about its once farthest-lying member was based in truth. The four Carolina schools typically did vote like-minded, which meant Maryland, Clemson, Virginia, and others often felt left out of Tobacco Road. But will Maryland finally be happy to be out from under the thumb of UNC and Duke, while now being squeezed by the likes of Ohio State and Michigan?

Don’t Let The Door Hit You

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John Risher

With the threat of implosion over with the TV rights deal, the ACC levied a $52 million exit fee against Maryland while simultaneously inviting Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, and ultimately Louisville (to replace Maryland). That led to the break-up of the Big East Conference.

Again college football was back to the times where conference expansion, contraction, and reformation had become commonplace. Fans of college athletics were under the misconception that conference membership was set in stone since the beginning of time. But in 2012, fans now realized that conferences are stuck in a cycle of constant maneuvering: for better scheduling, better travel, better fit, and better money.

Virginia’s John Risher, who actually remembers Maryland’s shenanigans from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, shares the view of many recent ACC fans, “I’m glad they’re gone. Although I cannot understand why they’d leave.” Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski told ESPN, “If [the Duke-Maryland basketball game] was such a rivalry, they’d still be in the ACC. Obviously they don’t think it’s that important, or they wouldn’t be in the Big Ten.”

The Wheel Of Death

Mark Twain said, “There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.” The colored glass of college programs are continuously turning and forming new combinations in this kaleidoscope of death and rebirth. And those that run these institutions are still guilty of taking old ideas and hoping they’ll make a new variation that can stand the test of time.

Samuel Walker, in his book “ACC Basketball,” says “The Charter members were not inclined to expand beyond an eight-team league; one of the main purposes of forming the ACC was to keep it relatively small.” Yet here we are again revisiting old concepts on conference expansion.

Time changes, and so does technology. TV rights, and now conference TV networks such as the SEC Network and potential ACC Network, can rattle the very foundation upon which a conference stands. Revenue streams never before imagined can make conference membership as tenuous as ever.

Still, there’s hope. There’s an old idea that one conference is finally putting into practice instead of just using as lip service. The thought that more does not always equal better. The Big 12, which ironically has but 10 members, is resisting the temptation to expand. At the most recent National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics convention, Kansas State Athletics Director John Currie says, “We see how strong and productive our league is with 10 members. The camaraderie is really good.”

The Big 12 has a nine-game conference football schedule where each team plays all other members each and every year. West Virginia AD Oliver Luck said, “The conference schedule is absolutely great. Our tagline is ‘one true champion.'” There are no issues as with the ACC where one team plays another but twice over a 12-year period, sometimes killing rivalries over 50 years old (Virginia has played Penn State three times in the last 13 years, and Clemson three from 2005 to 2019).

The Big 12 footprint may be a bit wider with West Virginia in the mix, but with modern airline travel, the difference is perhaps one extra hour of flying time. And as for revenue, Big 12 members earn more per school than the ACC and SEC (time will tell if the new SEC television network changes that).

Maybe the lessons of conference expansion and contraction are finally sinking in. Perhaps the reasons for the break-ups in the past will be the rationale the Big 12 uses to stand the test of time. Or at least for the next 50 years. But will the ACC revert to its past tendencies? Will this new 14-member football conference, along with the partial addition of Notre Dame, become too big and ultimately lead to a faction leaving in order to “keep its numbers small?” When might they set that kaleidoscope spinning once again?

For more information on the author’s new film Hoos Coming to Dinner: The Virginia Cavaliers Unbelievable Rise to #1, please visit www.UVaFootballHistory.com.

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