Expansion hang over: ACC annually meets under dark cloud
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Another Atlantic Coast Conference basketball media day. Another scandal casting a shadow over the gathering.
It has been that way since the league’s most recent expansions.
While there’s no question in the three years since the ACC expanded to a 15-team basketball league that the move has brought the conference more basketball prestige and financial power. But the ACC has also found itself squarely in the middle of some embarrassing scandals.
Standing in the crosshairs of federal investigations and NCAA inquiries has put conversations on placing a record nine teams in the NCAA Tournament last March and two national championships in three years on the back burner.
“Anytime you expand, there’s more chance for growth, but there’s more chance for issues,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said.
The ACC has gotten more than it bargained for with expansion over the last four years.
Heading into Wednesday’s media day, two of last year’s ACC participants in the NCAA Tournament — Louisville and Miami — are front and center of an ongoing federal investigation into college basketball corruption.
The biggest toll fell on the Cardinals, who have fired coach Rick Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich for cause. Four assistant coaches — all from teams among the Power Five conferences, but not the ACC — were arrested and charged in a fraud and corruption scheme.
Earlier this week, Miami coach Jim Larranaga acknowledged that he believes he is unnamed “Coach-3” in federal documents that is alleged to have had conversations with an Addidas executive on paying a recruit $150,000. Larranaga has denied any wrongdoing.
Last year, Pitino returned to media day after skipping 2015 amid the NCAA investigation and calmly praised the governing body for its professionalism as it hit Louisville with four major violations and said the national championship coach had failed to monitor a former staffer who paid for escort and strippers at sex parties for recruits and players.
ACC Commissioner John Swofford isn’t happy about the black eye Louisville has given the league, but doesn’t regret inviting the Cardinals to join the conference.
“Not pleased about recent events,” Swofford said. “But it was the right decision at the time and can be the right decision in the long term.”
Two years ago it was Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim who was on the hot seat during ACC media day. He was eventually suspended for nine league games, among other penalties for the Orange, as punishment following an NCAA investigation that involved the team prior to Syracuse joining the ACC in 2013.
Of course, scandals and NCAA investigations are not new to college basketball.
“I don’t think it’s totally fair to think scandal comes with expansion,” said Seth Greenberg, an ESPN college basketball analyst Seth Greenberg who won two ACC coach of the year awards in nine seasons at Virginia Tech. “There were issues with teams in the league before.”
That’s certainly true.
The Tar Heels athletic program was under NCAA investigation over academic issues for several years, a case that was recently resolved without penalties for North Carolina sports’ teams. Still, the inquiries lead to uncomfortable questions both for the schools under inquiry — and those in the league who must play them each season.
The ACC was a group of seven schools who broke away from the Southern Conference in 1953. It’s expanded five times since, the final two bringing in Pittsburgh and Syracuse in 2013 and Louisville in 2014.
Swofford said after talking face-to-face with coaches and others about the investigation, it may not be as widespread as it appears.
“Every indication I’m getting, from people who should know, is that it probably is not rampant,” he said. “Although, it is a problem.”
The commissioner said the ACC has set up a basketball task force, chaired by outgoing Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage, to look into the problems.
“Our league has to do its part in finding solutions,” he said.
Brownell, who is certain the Tigers lost players to other teams that used “shady” recruiting tactics, said it’s up to schools to trust in the league that their pre-membership vetting yields members who bring value to the league, both on and off the court.
When expansion among Power Five leagues was running wild a few years ago, Brownell said the ACC was seeking the best potential partners to strengthen the league’s future.
“It forces your hand,” Brownell said. “If everybody else is (expanding) and you’re not, with all that’s involved in television, it’s a bigger issue.”
With so much money on the table, the temptation to cut corners seemingly will always be there.
The ACC will launch its own ESPN-affiliated network in time for the 2019 football season, one where each league member will need to have enhanced TV equipment and personnel. Clemson is spending $5.5 million so its video department is ready for the network, athletic spokesman Joe Galbraith said this summer.
The league’s tax documents that cover the fiscal year ending in June 2016 showed revenues of $372 million, a figure that league leaders figure will grow once its own network is in place.
“We’re highly pleased with the current status of where we are,” Swofford said.
Still, the ACC can’t seem to escape member transgressions.
Syracuse junior forward Frank Howard was part of the Orange team that played through Boeheim’s suspension and rallied to make the Final Four in 2016, probably summed up for everyone at media day.
“I’m just happy we’re not in it this time,,” Howard said, smiling.