The ACC’s addition of Louisville on Wednesday was blissfully and essentially bottom line. Conference presidents chose the Cardinals because of how athletes perform on the field with minimal regard for how students fare in the classroom.
“We feel very good about the addition of Louisville in every respect,” North Carolina chancellor Holden Thorp said. “But our logic was we wanted to make the ACC as exciting a sports conference as we possibly could, and we felt that Louisville unambiguously did that for us the best. …
“That is the way to insure … (keeping) our group together. We talked about that extensively.”
Guided by commissioner John Swofford and the league’s athletic directors, Thorp and his fellow CEOs chose wisely and rapidly in replacing Maryland. Charter ACC members, the cash-strapped Terps announced last week their intention to join the Big Ten and its purported television riches in 2014.
Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, the conference’s most visible and iconic figure, called the ACC “vulnerable” to further poaching after Maryland’s decision. His remark roused up the delusional ACC-is-doomed crowd that had gone dormant after the league’s September addition of Notre Dame.
“I’ve never really felt that way,” Swofford said of Krzyzewski’s comment, “particularly in working with our presidents over the last 10 days and listening to them and their commitment to the league and to each other. And now adding Louisville, and the collective strength of this conference athletically and academically, I couldn’t feel any better about the future of this league.”
Thorp echoed Swofford, saying the collaboration among the ACC’s Presidents Council “couldn’t be stronger than it is today.”
Swofford and Thorp had best be right, because further defections combined with the conference’s continued football struggles could prove the Chicken Littles right.
The ACC is fond of touting its schools’ U.S. News and World Report rankings — eight among the top 45, none below No. 106 — but made an exception for No. 160 Louisville, whose football program was docked three scholarships last year for low Academic Progress Rates.
But amid realignment and television contract mania, what conference outside the Ivy League can faithfully follow its academic compass?
So while Louisville’s overall graduation rates for athletes are above-average, and while its hospital can partner with those at Virginia, Duke, North Carolina, Pittsburgh and Wake Forest, Wednesday’s invitation has nothing to do with such noble concerns.
The Cardinals’ advantage over those Big East colleagues? Money, location, facilities and success.
Louisville reported $87.8 million in athletics revenue for 2011-12 to the U.S. Department of Education, $6.4 million more than ACC leader Florida State. Most important, the school turned a $3.5-million profit.
While not in the deep south, Louisville meshes with a conference whose southern flank did not have the appetite for another Northeast corridor school. No telling how Florida State, Clemson and Georgia Tech would have responded to UConn.
In fact, given that conference bylaws required support from nine of 11 current members — short-timer Maryland was rightfully excluded — FSU, Clemson and Georgia Tech could have vetoed the Huskies by voting as a block.
Papa John’s Cardinals Stadium seats 55,000, 15,000 more than its original capacity in 1998. Louisville draws, on average, more than 48,000 for football, 21,000 for men’s basketball and 10,000 for women’s basketball, the latter two among the top five nationally.
Cardinals athletic director Tom Jurich said the school has a waiting list of more than 7,000 for men’s basketball season tickets.
“I will make you a promise,” Jurich said he told Swofford. “I’m a man of my word. We will make you proud here at the University of Louisville.”
The Cardinals have not finished below 41st in the Directors’ Cup all-sports standings in the last five years and have made recent Final Four appearances in men’s and women’s basketball and men’s soccer. Louisville’s baseball team advanced to the 2007 College World Series.
The 1980 and ’86 national champions under Denny Crum and annual contenders under Rick Pitino, the Cardinals add to an embarrassment of ACC basketball riches that will include staples Duke and North Carolina, plus newcomers Syracuse, Pitt and Notre Dame.
But football generates 75-80 percent of television rights fees, so make no mistake, football was a driving force here. Cincinnati, UConn and Louisville have appeared in Bowl Championship Series games, but the Cardinals have been more consistent — they reached nine consecutive bowls from 1998 to 2006 and will play in their third straight this season, likely the Orange against the ACC champion if they defeat Rutgers on Thursday.
“If you look at what has been done over the last 15 months, the ACC has only gotten stronger with the additions of Louisville, Notre Dame, Pitt and Syracuse.” Swofford said.
Indeed, and swapping Maryland for Louisville is a wash. The ACC loses the Terps’ presence in the coveted Washington-Baltimore market but enters a new region that’s far more attuned to college sports. Louisville’s marquee sports and facilities are better than Maryland’s, and the trade, according to Swofford, will not affect terms of the ACC’s 15-year rights contract with ESPN.
With 14 members still for football, the conference has no reason to expand further, unless Notre Dame stunningly decides to forgo football independence. The league and ESPN continue to explore a potential ACC channel that would raise television revenue closer to that generated by other major conferences.
“It seems to be a very sexy thing in today’s world,” Swofford said of a channel, “but it has to be the right thing.”
Adding Louisville wasn’t sexy, but it was right.
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