Column: The expanding ACC made the right choice, even if it’s further from home than ever

Beginning in 2024, Stanford, California and SMU will join the ACC — the latest eye-popping move in conference realignment.
Beginning in 2024, Stanford, California and SMU will join the ACC — the latest eye-popping move in conference realignment.

The ACC was born in North Carolina, and 70 years later, its heart remains here.

Last fall, the conference made its departure from its ancestral home of Greensboro, N.C., official, announcing a relocation to Charlotte that finally took place in August. Many have rued what could be viewed as a loss of tradition — an abandonment of roots, even — but the fact of the matter is that the ACC chose wisely. After deciding that Greensboro could no longer be home, conference leadership struck a balance between history and geography with a need to grow and adapt.

That same balance is at the heart of the ACC’s latest, much more eye-popping move, even as it brings the conference further from North Carolina than ever. 

In September, the conference voted to add Stanford, California and SMU to its ranks, capitalizing on the rapid collapse of the Pac-12 to preserve the ACC’s own status in the Power 5 Power 4. Of the four holdouts from an earlier vote — Clemson, Florida State, N.C. State and North Carolina — only the Wolfpack flipped, but that one vote was enough to send a divided ACC head-first into the future.

Suddenly, and perhaps only temporarily, there is stability for the ACC and commissioner Jim Phillips, but there is also more cause than ever to question whether the conference has finally lost its path (or maybe its marbles). Even in today’s rapidly changing landscape, where geography and conference membership have little in common, is adding a pair of Pacific Coast schools to the Atlantic Coast Conference too much?

It’s not. The ACC, along with the requisite 80% of its roster, did what it had to do to survive, and there should be no shame in that. What good is clinging to the past when the choice is to get with the times or get left behind? 

For a while, football-independent Notre Dame has seemed the answer to the ACC’s realignment worries — who better than the Fighting Irish to give the conference a boost, both financially and in terms of relevancy? The Conference of Champions’ disappearing act, though, must have jolted the ACC into action: It could no longer wait for Notre Dame to descend from its throne to save the day.

And so, the ACC reached an agreement that keeps the conference stable and its three new schools in a position to maintain the programs they built in the Pac-12 and AAC. The geography is beyond ridiculous — as a California native at Duke, nobody has to explain this to me — and is becoming a real concern for athletes across the NCAA. But in a world where Southern California and Maryland are about to be conference rivals in the Big Ten, is this any different, just because the ACC has ‘Atlantic’ in its name?

Still, there is work left to do for the ACC, which benefits from the fact that its conference-wide television deal — the biggest financial barrier to leaving the conference — runs through 2036. As time goes on and that expiration date approaches, will things be different enough to keep the holdouts — Clemson, Florida State and North Carolina — from jumping ship? Will the ACC remain relevant as the new little brother among the Power 4?

If the conference plays its three new cards right, there is no reason that it can’t do so. While the ACC is nowhere close to overtaking any of the Big Ten, Big 12 or SEC, it can carve out its own niche as the premier home for Olympic sports among the powerhouse football conferences. Stanford and California are among the drivers of the United States’ continued success at the Olympics: the programs are second and fourth all-time in medals and have played an especially large role for the Americans this century.

At Duke, where basketball is king (yes, even after Clemson) but athletic director Nina King and predecessor Kevin White have emphasized the Olympic sports, my guess is that this not-so-distant vision for the future is an appealing one. The majority of the ACC agrees, and it’s time that the rest of us see what they do: This might just work.

Jonathan Levitan

Jonathan Levitan is a Trinity senior and was previously sports editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.


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