Former ACC commissioner laments latest round of conference realignment

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Gene Corrigan is 82 years young, plays tennis three times a week and is as sharp as the day he took command of the ACC in 1987.

If today's crop of conference leaders were as sage, college athletics might well have been spared the past month of realignment Texas hold 'em.

During his decade as commissioner, Corrigan rousted the ACC from its only-basketball-matters malaise and insisted that football be upgraded. Most important, in 1990 he convinced the league's eight members to share revenue equally, a policy that endures and that not enough emulate.

"Our basketball was making five times more money (from television rights fees) than our football," Corrigan said from his home near Charlottesville. "We needed to become a real conference. People were mad at Carolina and Duke because they were on (TV) more, but we had to have them on more to get the money."

Of course the Tar Heels and Blue Devils dominated ACC basketball's television package. As iconic programs and winners of seven national championships combined in the last 20 years, they still do.

But Corrigan believed that funneling more basketball TV revenue to Duke and North Carolina — sound familiar Big 12 faithful? — fostered ill will. So he went to the schools' athletic directors, the Devils' Tom Butters, since retired, and Tar Heels' John Swofford, Corrigan's successor as commissioner.

"I'm asking you to give up some money," Corrigan recalls saying to them.

"Those two, God bless them, they were willing to do it, and their schools were," Corrigan added.

One year later, the ACC strengthened its football exponentially by welcoming Florida State as a ninth member.

Already a national power under Bobby Bowden, the Seminoles had been approached by the Southeastern Conference, too. So they were positioned to negotiate, if not demand, a larger slice of television revenue, especially from football.

"When Florida State came in, we said, 'We want you to understand this is the way we do things,'" Corrigan said. "It cost them money because they were on national TV for football quite a bit. But they were delighted to join the ACC. They liked the (academic) association with Duke, Carolina, Virginia, Georgia Tech."

Although the Seminoles won the ACC football title in 11 of their first 12 years, their entrance paid dividends to all.

The conference was included in the first Bowl Coalition, a precursor to the Bowl Championship Series, guaranteeing its winner access to a major postseason game such as the Orange Bowl. Contrast that to 1990, when second-ranked and undefeated Georgia Tech was relegated to the Citrus Bowl against No. 19 Nebraska because of ACC football's meager profile.

An even more tangible benefit of inviting Florida State: "We went from $3 million to $16 million in football television revenue in about six weeks," Corrigan said.

Who couldn't use a 533-percent raise?

Florida State's excellence and equal revenue sharing combined to uplift other ACC football programs. They recruited better players, built better facilities and fielded better teams.

With 10 consecutive top-15 seasons, including the 2005 national title, Texas is on a similar roll under former North Carolina coach Mack Brown. The Longhorns' heritage dates to their Southwest Conference days, and when that league folded they became charter members of the Big 12, which began competition in 1996.

The Big 12's revenue formulas favor the haves, and Texas clearly qualifies. That and other governing decisions that tinted orange chafed conference rivals, some of whom developed wanderlust.

Next thing you know, Colorado was headed to the Pacific 10, Nebraska to the Big Ten, and vultures were hovering over the Big 12 as five other members contemplated a move to the Pac-10.

But 11th-hour financial concessions to Texas, Oklahoma and Texas A&M, mostly to the Longhorns, saved the Big 12 and foiled the Pac-10, which then added Mountain West Conference power Utah. The Big 12's bonding prevented a seismic makeover of major college athletics that would have been more unattractive than Joan Rivers' latest facelift.

"I'm just so happy," Corrigan said. "If you listened to all the blowhards on radio who thought they knew what they were talking about …"

Indeed, countless media proclaimed the Big 12 dead and forecast subsequent plundering of the Big East and perhaps the ACC by the Big Ten and SEC. How long the current truce holds likely hinges on the Big Ten.

Are commissioner Jim Delany and the current membership content with adding Nebraska as a 12th? Or do they covet Big East schools such as Rutgers and Syracuse for the cable subscriptions they would generate for the Big Ten Network?

Corrigan, the athletic director at Virginia and Notre Dame before heading the ACC, believes the Big Ten is content and that the Fighting Irish will remain independent.

"They've got a unique place in football history," Corrigan said, "and I'm a history major. If I hadn't worked at Notre Dame, I probably wouldn't feel that way."

History also teaches that equitable revenue distribution, as practiced by the ACC and SEC, works best, and for that Corrigan deserves credit.

David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at dteel@dailypress.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime


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