Monday, September 19, 2011

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Proactive decision to become superconference a super move

Conference expansion is far from over. But if you're an ACC fan, you should be more confident than ever about the prospects for your league.

"Statement Saturday" took on a whole new meaning on this wild weekend. By adding Syracuse and Pittsburgh, the ACC ensured it wouldn't be sifting through the scrap heap to sustain itself. Instead, the league acted swiftly on its own terms, leaving itself in a position of strength moving forward.

We're trained to criticize ACC commissioner John Swofford -- you're going to put the title game where? -- but he deserves major kudos on this one. He was proactive. He showed foresight. And he accomplished in the No. 1 priority for any commissioner: He protected his constituency for the long term.

To debate whether Syracuse and Pittsburgh are the perfect fits is to miss the point. Perfection, if it ever existed at all, skipped town years ago. The options these days are simple: poach or be poached. And the ACC fell on the right side of that ledger, early enough in the process where desperation never became a factor.

Meanwhile, the additions maintain geographical congruency -- something that should be more valued than it is these days -- while making ACC basketball a must-see product once more.

Does it help football? Depends on whom you ask. Jim Brown (Syracuse) and Tony Dorsett (Pittsburgh) are long gone, but both teams went 8-5 last year and are 2-1 so far this season. At the very least, they have historical success in the sport and the potential to be solid, if unspectacular, gridiron contributors. They won't enhance the ACC football brand (such as it is), but they won't diminish it, either.

If you're Virginia Tech, that's exactly what you wanted. Talk of Texas to the ACC -- now an unlikely development, given the league's commitment to revenue sharing that the Longhorns would balk at -- threatened the Hokies' supremacy in a BCS conference.

Sure, fans would love to see the Hokies and 'Horns hook up on fall Saturdays, but they'd also like to see championships. There's a much better chance of the latter if Texas heads west.

Tech appeared to have some options, which now become moot. SEC officials can cancel any phone calls they might have made to Blacksburg. The Hokies have considered the ACC an ideal home since joining the league in 2004, and only radical changes the conference -- think defections, not additions -- would have changed that.

UVa, meanwhile, can breathe a sigh of relief. Its home since 1953 remains, albeit reconstituted. The Cavaliers' rivalries stay intact.

What happens next is anyone's guess, but the consensus seems to be that the ACC won't be stopping at 14 teams. Sixteen's the magic number of the future, and if that's where the ACC is headed, I'd endorse adding two more Big East schools: Connecticut and West Virginia.

The Mountaineers would help in football, the Huskies in hoops. Combined with the Syracuse and Pittsburgh additions, Boston College would have a host of natural rivals that would make it feel like less of an ACC pariah. Travel in all sports would remain reasonable.

Will that happen? I don't know. Nobody does. You'll hear Rutgers. You'll hear Texas. You might even hear Notre Dame. There are a million things to consider here (including, ahem, academics) that will influence the ACC's next move.

But the most important thing the league needed to do, it has done. Thanks to one crazy, progressive weekend, ACC officials will be charting their own direction, not allowing others to do it for them.

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