After a whirlwind of changes to the ACC, there is no end in sight for realignment. But Duke has its own reasons for remaining committed to the conference in an otherwise uncertain environment.
“Duke is totally committed to the ACC,” President Richard Brodhead said. “It’s a rich occasion for fantasy. You’ve heard of fantasy football. Now we have fantasy conferences.”
The ACC has been at the forefront of conference realignment in the last decade, most recently adding Louisville Wednesday with a unanimous vote from the conference’s Council of Presidents following last week’s announcement that Maryland would be departing the ACC for the Big Ten. The moves came after September’s addition of Notre Dame and last year’s additions of Syracuse and Pittsburgh, which came while Brodhead was chair of the council. But Brodhead said Duke will stick with the ACC because of its strong commitment to both athletic and academic excellence.
But Brodhead knows the game—when he went to parties as a kid, he never liked musical chairs, but it taught him a valuable lesson. Now, in a rapidly shuffling college athletics landscape that many acknowledge has the potential to end up with four “super” conferences, Brodhead’s goal is to make sure that the Blue Devils stay in the game.
“I never intend for it to happen that Duke doesn’t have a chair,” Brodhead said. “At the same time, I think the ACC is a great conference and is the perfect conference for Duke to be in.”
A ‘changing landscape’
Despite the recent reshuffling, Duke’s brass does not see more ACC changes on the immediate horizon. Director of Athletics Kevin White said he does not envision the conference adding or losing members in the near future.
“I don’t see it,” White said. “I just don’t see that as a high probability, or even as a reasonable probability. I think everybody is locked in. What we have here is pretty special.”
But stability is far from certain, as evidenced by Maryland’s surprise departure. And friends can quickly become adversaries, with the ACC filing suit against the Terrapins Monday regarding the $52 million exit fee required to leave the conference.
“They’re dead to me,” Brodhead joked. “They made that decision for their own reasons, and that’s their own business.”
When asked if other conferences had approached Duke about leaving, Brodhead simply reaffirmed the University’s commitment to the ACC. He also acknowledged that the conference’s future is difficult to predict, even though more changes may not be imminent.
“Would I bet you $20 that I know where things will be five years from now?” Brodhead said. “I wouldn’t. It’s a rapidly changing landscape.”
Maryland officials openly said their decision to join the Big Ten was a financial one, with their athletic department forced to cut teams in recent years due to financial constraints.
Although Duke does not face the same difficulties, Brodhead said the University would not be tempted by financial factors to leave for pastures perceived to be greener.
“That’s not the kind of school Duke is. Money is part of athletics, but our motives are not monetary for anything we do in athletics,” he said.
And the ACC is looking at its own options to improve the bottom line. ACC Comissioner John Swofford said Wednesday in a teleconference that the league is exploring the creation of its own television network, potentially with the conference’s current partner ESPN.
“We are pursuing it and taking a good hard look at it. I don’t know how it will play out, but we’re in the early stages of that,” White said. “I’d love to see us do a really deep dive and explore that possibility.”
White said they are also exploring the potential of a broader media rights deal, such as the one the Big 12 announced earlier this year with ESPN worth $2.6 billion over 13 years.
Balancing athletics and academics
For Duke, academics remain a strong element of their commitment to the ACC. When Notre Dame was added to the conference, Swofford and Thorp highlighted its cohesion with the league’s academic profile.
The addition of Louisville, however, was largely trumpeted as a primarily athletic one to keep the conference competitive.
“What the ACC needed most was the most exciting sports program we could [get],” Thorp said. “That is the way to ensure that the success of the ACC in sports was successful enough to allow us to keep our group together.”
Broadhead and White expressed no qualms with Louisville’s academic programs, noting the school’s improvement and entrepreneurial spirit.
“We’re in a conference that has the academic advantages for us,” Brodhead said.
‘A special relationship’
One of the strongest elements in the ACC is the close proximity and athletic rivalry shared by Duke and North Carolina. Rumors have speculated that the Big Ten could next target North Carolina for future membership, though Brodhead carefully warned against hearsay. He noted that much of the public discourse about conference realignment is misleading.
“I don’t think anybody [at North Carolina] has spent one second thinking of any other scenario than sticking with the ACC and making it the strongest conference it could be,” Brodhead said. “Duke and UNC have a very special relationship. We have a famous rivalry. It’s a great thing for a university to have a famous rivalry.”
North Carolina Chancellor Holden Thorp is currently the chair of the ACC’s Council of Presidents and has publicly reaffirmed his desire to remain in the ACC in the last two weeks.
At the same time, Maryland’s abrupt exit is a warning to all those involved that seemingly anything can happen. Richard Wagoner, chair of the Duke Board of Trustees, believes in North Carolina’s strong commitment but is aware of the changing landscape.
“I’m conscious of the fact that I may have said the same thing about Maryland four weeks ago,” Wagoner, Trinity ’75, said. “I would have been wrong. I don’t know what’s going on in UNC’s head.”