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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — If there’s one sport that’s synonymous with the ACC, it has to be basketball. Born of out of its Tobacco Road roots, the ACC has long been a conference associated with very top of the sport of college basketball.
But is it possible that the ACC might really be a football conference?
Consider this: since the dawn of the College Football Playoff and the birth of a football analogue to basketball’s Final Four, the ACC has had four participants over four years in each sport, with two basketball titles compared to one it football. Of course, it’s easier for more than one team to make the last four in basketball, as happened in 2016, but it seems that now more than ever, the sports are at least on an equal playing field.
Furthermore, the newfound equivalence has come not by a fall in the fates of the conference as a basketball institution, but by a rise in the football side of things. That’s been an intentional process, ACC commissioner John Swofford said at ACC Kickoff on Wednesday.
“Sometimes you have to try and be visionary, you know, as a business, as a conference, as an individual, and most of us felt very strongly that with the way things were progressing, where college athletics was going, how the football side of things was beginning to dominate, if you will, the business aspects of it and the revenue generation aspects of it because of its growing popularity, we felt like we had to do two things as a league,” Swofford said. “One was to grow and enhance our footprint and our marketplaces and our television sets, and the other was that we had to get more competitive top to bottom in football. Those were the two items that we beat to death, quite honestly, meeting after meeting after meeting, and we got there.”
Swofford credited the schools that have joined the conference since the start of the last decade, with Louisville, Pitt, Syracuse and the association with Notre Dame adding a depth to the level of competition that the conference previously lacked.
“It also affected our ability to do some things television-wise and marketing-wise that we would never have been able to do as a nine-member conference, for instance,” Swofford said, referencing the league’s new partnership with ESPN that will culminate with the launch of the standalone ACC Network in 2019.
“But the biggest thing is the institutions responding to the challenge to improve football, to bring our football nationally up to a level similar to basketball,” Swofford said. “I think we’re in the best shape we’ve ever been as a league at this point in time in a real balance there with football and basketball, because basketball is so important to the history of our league and what we became, how we were perceived. And our football, while we had some, over time, great players and great teams along the way that won some National Championships and some Heisman trophies and those kinds of things, we weren’t doing it with nearly the frequency or with multiple teams the way we had been able to do things in basketball.
“And as I said, the business model was changing. About the early 2000s was when the football revenue from television equaled basketball television revenue in this conference and now a number of conferences before then, that had already taken place.”
Duke head coach David Cutlcliffe has been in the league with the Blue Devils since 2008. That year, the best team in the conference was 15th-ranked Virginia Tech. Since then, the conference has seen a dramatic change in the national rankings.
“The commitment to football changed at the institutions, it certainly did as a league, and that attracts coaches,” Cutcliffe said. “Coaches that hopefully, come and stay. It’s not a job you take to try to get another job. We have a great league. It’s very competitive.”
The rise at the top has also come with a rise in overall competitiveness. The league has had 10 teams reach bowl eligibility in each of the last two seasons, and it’s come while playing one of college football’s most demanding non-conference schedules. From the interlocking games with Notre Dame to annual SEC Rivalry Week matchups to games like Pitt’s non-conference series with Penn State and Florida State’s kickoff weekend neutral-site matchup with Alabama, the ACC has tested itself outside the conference at a high level.
“I think the most impressive thing about the ACC is our schedule,” Cutcliffe said. “Our non-conference schedule is still the toughest in the country. If you’re going to really be special, you cannot ever run from competition.”
The ACC has also seen a rise in the number of players that have gone on to become top professional prospects. During the 2018 NFL Draft, NC State defensive end Bradley Chubb was the first of six players from the ACC taken in the first round, including Virginia Tech safety Terrell Edmunds, who was taken by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Only the SEC had more first round picks and only the SEC had more than the ACC’s 45 overall players selected.
“I thought the Big Ten was it and that there wasn’t better football than that, I really did,” Pitt head coach and longtime Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said. “Then when you come to the ACC, it’s better football.”
Narduzzi thinks the reason is better athletes.
“You sit there and you think about it, everybody talks about all the athletes down south, well you look at the ACC, it’s north to south,” Narduzzi said. “It’s Miami to Boston and Syracuse. It’s a different type of athlete than you’re getting in the Midwest. What’s the furthest south Big Ten school? Illinois? Maryland is? That’s as far south as you’re going. You recruit your backyard, so I’d say 60, 70 percent of that roster is from the north. It’s a different speed. I think the ACC speed, overall, is better than the Big Ten.”
When Pitt left the Big East to go to the ACC in 2013, it was expected that it would be a jump up in level of competition for the Panthers, but the jump has actually been far more pronounced than anyone could have predicted because of the overall rise of the conference in the same time frame. The ACC has gone from a basketball school with a few solid teams to a conference that is in the conversation as one of the best in the country, year in and year out.
“Eight years in one conference and now three (here), it’s different.” Narduzzi said.