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Leaving the ACC was a bad idea. But going back would be worse.

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Or how the world changed in the 31 years between two Gene Sapakoff columns

Frank McGuire, Thomas Jones, and Paul Dietzel at a press conference, in front of a news clipping from The State with the headline “Carolina withdraws from ACC”
Basketball coach Frank McGuire (left), president Thomas F. Jones, and football coach Paul Dietzel (right)

This essay originally appeared in the Gamecock sports history newsletter To Thee, Forever Ago.

Texas and Oklahoma will, effective 2025, become the 15th and 16th members of the SEC. Perhaps because we’ve had a decade to live with the consequences of profit-above-all-else expansionism, the public at large has greeted this round of conference realignment much more skeptically than it did the last. It’s not a surprise that Big Ten and ACC fans have recoiled at the thought of a 16-team, hulked-out SEC. What has been unexpected is the resistance coming from within the SEC footprint.

To better understand the averse reaction — which isn’t coming from the whole South Carolina fan base, but definitely a substantial portion of it — let’s revisit the prevailing logic from the conference realignment of the early 2010s:

1) Add new media markets to your conference footprint

2) Get more lucrative TV contracts

3) TV money gets distributed to the members schools

4) Woohoo everybody’s rich

5) ????

6) Win more football games

What we’ve seen this time around is a fracturing of the consensus, at least among fans and journalists, that the rising tide of TV revenue will lift all boats. Or, more precisely, a growing recognition that it doesn’t really matter if South Carolina’s TV revenue boat rises alongside Alabama’s because Alabama still retains all the extra advantages conferred upon it by virtue of being Alabama. And all that revenue growth has meant a commensurate growth in expectations and head coach salaries (and buyouts), all the while most SEC teams have remained at least as far behind Alabama as they were when realignment began.

In other words, even after all the TV money is divvied up, someone still has to go 4-8, and it sure as hell ain’t gonna be Alabama.

Meanwhile, conference realignment and the introduction (and looming expansion of) the playoff has irrevocably changed the sport from a quirky, regional one to a national one. Whereas college football was once the NFL’s oddball cousin who never seems to have a steady job but always throws the best tailgate parties, college football in 2021 skips the tailgate and heads straight for the air-conditioned VIP suites.

These changes haven’t been all bad! The financial success of major college football clearly played a role in dialing up the pressure to allow NIL compensation, for instance. There are costs and benefits to every decision, but it’s less clear to me than it’s ever been that what we gain by hurtling toward a world of super-conferences is greater than what we’re giving up.

And I think that’s the context needed to understand why on earth award-winning Post & Courier columnist Gene Sapakoff wrote last week that South Carolina should consider returning to the ACC.

The ratio of 38 quote tweets to three retweets and 11 likes gives you a general idea of how things are going. Of course, the fact that the column itself is behind a paywall that many people won’t opt to scale does little to facilitate a good-faith discourse.

Lucky for me, I have a library card and can give you the high points of the argument:

The SEC is about to spin into a college version of Major League Baseball’s big-market/small-market split.

Except the Pittsburgh Pirates get to pick first in the draft and South Carolina doesn’t.

The post-Longhorns/Sooners standard for a good South Carolina football season is 7-5. That’s with Alabama and Auburn shoved into the SEC East, or no divisions or anything but annual home-and-home doubleheaders with Vanderbilt.

Sapakoff also points out that the trips to Austin and Norman are long ones that most Gamecock fans are unlikely to ever take. And besides, with the current eight-game SEC schedule and division structure, those trips are only likely to occur once every couple decades anyway.

These are all downsides of Texas and Oklahoma joining that most Gamecock fans can see clearly enough. The main difference, as far as I can tell, is that Sapakoff is proposing that South Carolina do something to avoid bearing the brunt of those downsides. Nevertheless, this take still scans to most Gamecock faithful as a hollow attempt to generate rage-clicks. And that might be part of what happened here, but there’s also a long and complicated history here that I think has received short shrift in the ensuing debate.

Among the most interesting things about this Sapakoff column is that 31 years ago he wrote his first column laying out the argument for a return to the ACC. At the time, South Carolina was a football independent and competed in the Metro Conference (later Conference-USA) in most other sports. In 1990, South Carolina preferred a return to the ACC, but owing to the acrimonious circumstances of their 1971 departure from the league, USC couldn’t muster the majority support among member schools needed to obtain an invitation for reentry.

A brief history of why South Carolina left the ACC to begin with

South Carolina left the ACC in March 1971 after several months of lording the threat of their departure over the other seven members of the conference. Carolina’s grievances mostly had to do with their perception that the ACC was holding them back by imposing scholarship limits and academic requirements that other conferences didn’t have. A pattern emerged in which South Carolina, Clemson, or Maryland proposed a rule change, only to see the North Carolina schools vote as bloc to shoot them down. The USC Board of Trustees scheduled a handful of votes on leaving the conference throughout 1970, primarily in response to the failure of highly regarded running back prospect Carlton Haywood failing to meet the ACC’s minimum SAT requirement. On one occasion, the trustees voted unanimously to remain in the ACC, only after the conference granted Haywood a special hardship exemption.

But the board appears to have begun more aggressively pursuing a split from the ACC after concluding that ACC bylaws did not, contrary to previous interpretations, prevent ACC schools from scheduling games with South Carolina even after the Gamecocks left the conference. Once that was settled in the minds of the trustees, their tactics shifted; they now felt increasingly empowered to leverage the threat of USC’s departure. Best case scenario, the ACC once again caves to USC’s demands. Worst case scenario, USC leaves the conference and subsequently enjoys greater admissions freedom and the ability to maintain historic ACC rivalries.

But then USC overplayed their hand, setting into motion a chain of events that led to their departure. In an echo of the nullification crisis during the Andrew Jackson presidency, both South Carolina schools unilaterally decided that the ACC’s rules did not apply to them. Carolina and Clemson each started recruiting prospective student-athletes according to the NCAA’s academic standard, which was lower than the ACC’s. The ACC and the NCAA both had the same GPA requirement but the ACC imposed an additional minimum SAT score of 800, whereas the NCAA had none. When a vote to drop the SAT requirement failed in the fall of 1970, by a vote of 5-3, South Carolina and Clemson were so dug in on their position that it seemed both schools were headed for the exits. But in the end, only USC carried out the threat.

The early returns on South Carolina’s decision to leave were not great

It turned out that the ACC’s rules weren’t the one thing holding South Carolina back from football and basketball glory. As independents, Frank McGuire’s successful run continued through the mid-1970s, but football quickly relapsed into mediocrity. Carolina’s 1969 ACC title proved to be an aberration rather than the dawn of a new era, and Paul Dietzel only posted winning records in two of the next five seasons. By the time the football program was restored to relevance in the 1980s, the financial incentives were aligning to push USC back into a conference.

Even as the basketball team became an NCAA Tournament mainstay in the early 1970s, fans complained that it was hard to get excited about the rotating cast of Northeastern schools brought in to fill out the schedule. (Frank McGuire, a native New Yorker, had connections in the area.) And as the McGuire era trailed off at the end of the decade, the short-lived notion of South Carolina as a basketball-first school was already fading from memory.

Though the football team consistently scheduled four ACC teams every year, by 1980, Clemson was the only other ACC team still on the basketball schedule with any regularity. If sacrificing its historic rivalries within the conference South Carolina co-founded was meant to confer new recruiting advantages, the evidence of such advantages remained absent from the win column.

South Carolina becomes a partial member of the Metro Conference

In the early 1980s, USC’s stated position was that, at least in football, it was better off not having to share TV revenues with other members of a conference. Indeed, it was quite fashionable at the time for successful programs to eschew conference affiliation. In 1982, Carolina had good company in the ranks of the I-A independents: Miami, Florida State, Pitt, Penn State, Notre Dame, Boston College, and Georgia Tech — to name a few.

But basketball was a different story.

South Carolina ended the 1982-83 season with a 22-9 record but only an NIT invite to show for their trouble. Convinced that their lack of conference membership played a big role in their exclusion from the NCAA Tournament, athletics director Bob Marcum began pushing hard for South Carolina to join a conference. Marcum quickly secured an all-sports-except-football invitation from the Metro Conference and, in April 1983, Marcum convinced the board of trustees to sign off on the move.

“Other conferences have benefitted from lucrative television television packages in basketball,” Marcum said, “and I know that the Metro Conference is, at this time, consulting with several networks that could result in a similar TV package for its members. I know in the past, Coach [Bill] Foster has had some difficulty in scheduling, and the Metro Conference offers an opportunity to bring nationally ranked teams into our coliseum.”

As USC saw it, the ability to remain independent in football was essential to the Metro Conference’s appeal. To the extent that a return to the ACC was something anyone at the school wanted or that the ACC would have entertained, USC’s desire to remain independent in football rendered the notion dead on arrival. And, to Carolina’s credit, its football teams of the 1980s provided a stirring demonstration that the independent model could succeed. After having never won more than seven games from 1892 to 1978, South Carolina won at least eight games in five different seasons between 1979 and 1988, producing Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers along the way. In addition to maintaining a handful of rivalries with former ACC foes, USC was able to schedule games against the likes of Michigan, Pitt, Notre Dame, and Miami.

At least on the football field, South Carolina appeared to be having its cake and eating it too. Just like the Board of Trustees drew it up in 1971. And so it went until the early 1990s, when South Carolina’s athletics department ran at a net loss for two years in a row, and the tectonic plates of realignment began to shift.

The first major conference realignment

In June of 1990, Penn State joined the Big Ten. That September, Florida State struck a deal to join the ACC. After attempts by the Metro Conference to create a 16-team football conference fizzled, several prominent independents joined up with the Big East in 1991. It was becoming clear that the real money in TV contracts was through deals negotiated between networks and conferences rather than individual teams. Only Notre Dame, which started its broadcast deal with NBC in 1991, was able to command comparable sums acting alone. As a result, conference realignment took on the feeling of high-stakes musical chairs — a feeling familiar to those who remember the most recent round of large-scale realignment 10 years ago.

With almost 20 years for old wounds to heal, plus the emergence of a compelling financial incentive, South Carolina joining the ACC suddenly seemed like a pretty good idea.

“The greatest charm of the ACC is its tight geographic web that allows fans to easily commute to all road games except Georgia Tech vs. Maryland,” wrote none other than Gene Sapakoff for what was then the News & Courier. “Travel is not as easy in the Pac-10, the Big 10, the Big East, or the Southeastern Conference.”

Internally, South Carolina wanted an invitation to come back home to the ACC, but the ACC was still in no mood. It was only after it became clear that an ACC invitation would never arrive that Carolina fixed its gaze on the SEC. But even then, South Carolina’s decision was put on hold while the SEC and ACC jockeyed for the favor of Florida State. Within days of FSU picking the ACC, South Carolina pounced on an invitation from the SEC.

“South Carolina doesn’t belong in the Southeastern Conference any more than Florida State belongs in the Atlantic Coast Conference,” wrote Tom Sorensen in the Charleston Evening Post, “but when geography and money go head to head, money wins every time.”

The rise of the SEC

One of the interesting things about how FSU’s conference selection played out is that exposes how similarly the two leagues were viewed at the time. The SEC was thought the better football conference, to be sure, but the difference was close enough that the ACC’s clear advantage in basketball made it very reasonable that a school might prefer the ACC over the SEC.

The SEC did not become the S-E-C! S-E-C! until the mid-2000s, but the conference and its members nevertheless developed, throughout the 1990s, a healthy sense of superiority over its ACC neighbors. As it turned out, FSU was such a good addition to the ACC’s football membership that the Seminoles ran roughshod over all challengers and won at least a share of the conference title for nine straight years after joining. The perception became that the ACC was FSU and not much else of substance. Toward the end of Florida State’s run of conference championships, it was further perceived that the ease of the Seminoles’ ACC schedule was key to their ability to sustain success on the national stage.

The SEC schedule, by contrast, was a crucible. Sure, you were lucky to go 3-5 in the league most years, but losing in this conference made a man out of you. You got to see Danny Wuerffel and Peyton Manning hang 56 points on you, and you were happy for the privilege. And then once South Carolina wasn’t just a bystander to the SEC’s success, but an active contributor to it? Forget about it. Gamecock fans’ shares of SEC tribalism were fully vested, and they were never looking back.

The flawed but enduring appeal of going back to the ACC

Once, calls to rejoin the ACC were best understood as longings for a simpler time. A time when South Carolina fans felt a sense of rivalry, yes, but also a sense of community from the fact that all but two of its conference foes lived within a drive of three and a half hours. A time when conference affiliation decisions more heavily prioritized intimacy and tradition over media markets and TV contracts. But by the 2000s, calls for South Carolina to rejoin the ACC were primarily received as thinly veiled trolling.

That’s how a 2003 column from Ron Morris landed, at least. “It’s time for USC to think about rejoining the ACC,” read the headline, as the ACC was in the process of courting a 12th member so that they could add a conference championship game. Twitter would not exist for three more years, so this column, unlike Sapakoff’s, did not get ratio’d. But a reasonable pre-Twitter analog for the quote-tweet dunkfest is the letter to the editor. Morris wrote his column on July 3rd, and the complaints kept rolling in through the end of the month. And those are just the ones that The State deemed fit to publish.

When I first started writing this, I expected that, when I got to this part, I would do a tomahawk-360 from the free throw line on this Ron Morris take. But after spending several hours immersed in news clips from the time of South Carolina’s departure from the ACC … I mostly agree with it?

No doubt, USC would gain the intimacy in the ACC that generally is lacking in the SEC. Having six schools within driving distance of Columbia would make it that way. As it is, Georgia and Tennessee are the closest SEC schools for USC fans.The biggest gains USC would reap by joining the ACC would be in men’s basketball, where it has never regained the national prominence it attained prior to leaving that league in 1971. With the ACC about to be more on par with the SEC in football, USC would no longer be devaluing its most prominent sport by jumping leagues and it could continue to compete for the same caliber of football players.

For those who have forgotten, USC left the ACC primarily because it believed it could not compete against the SEC for athletes as long as the ACC instituted higher admissions standards. The ACC long ago dropped those standards. And the NCAA has lowered its admissions standards to the point that it’s virtually impossible for an athlete to be denied eligibility.

The fact that Carlton Haywood isn’t a name you’d heard of until a few paragraphs ago demonstrates that the decision to escalate tensions with the ACC over Haywood’s SAT scores did not pay off in the form of results on the field. The Gamecocks very plausibly might have spent the 70s and 80s adding ACC football and basketball trophies to its cabinet. Instead, they spent two decades in the wilderness. And for what?

But this is where I part with Morris: just because leaving was a bad decision doesn’t mean going back would be a good one. At the time South Carolina left the ACC, they’d only been in the conference 18 years. It’s easy to look back now at the 68 years of tradition the Gamecocks passed up on and wonder what might have been, but in 1971 the ACC was a relatively new institution; it was barely old enough to go fight in Vietnam. By 1990, USC had already been out of the conference longer than they’d ever been in it. And now, in 2021, vanishingly few still-living USC fans born in time to experience the ACC era were old enough to form any lasting attachments to it.

Besides, the ACC we’d be returning to is not the one we left. The community of tight-knit regional programs Sapakoff gestured toward in 1990 column is long gone. With outposts in Massachusetts and New York, the modern ACC requires that its teams play the same kind of trans-continental schedule that South Carolina basketball fans found so unsatisfactory as basketball independents in the 1970s.

And now, 30 years into its SEC membership, South Carolina has formed new bonds and new rivalries just as strong as the ones it enjoyed in the ACC. At this point, a season without Georgia, Florida, and Tennessee on the schedule would hardly seem worth playing. The forced cross-division rivalry with Texas A&M is annoying, as is Missouri’s cartographically offensive inclusion in the SEC East. But it’s hard to imagine that the same sorts of problems wouldn’t follow us to the sprawling ACC of 2021.

So the only remaining argument worth considering is that competing in the ACC would be easier than competing in the SEC. And this argument is every bit as short-sighted as the argument over admissions requirements was in 1971, chiefly because it takes for granted a permanent state of SEC supremacy. Let’s suppose Nick Saban retires in the next few years, and let’s further suppose that Nick Saban’s successor is less good at coaching by a relatively slim margin of, say, one or two wins per season. Without perennial national champion Alabama’s coattails to ride, the math on conference supremacy suddenly looks quite different. Every non-Alabama program in the SEC has experienced some degree of instability over the past decade, and you only have to go back 15 years to find a time when the same was true of the Crimson Tide.

Meanwhile, the ACC is replete with programs that are overdue for a return to former glory. Six different teams in the current membership have won national championships since South Carolina left the ACC — the same number as SEC teams with national titles in that timeframe. And it was this strength-of-schedule piece that was the crux of the argument in Sapakoff’s latest column.

Sapakoff straddles a generation of South Carolina fans that remembers the old fights over the ACC and one that has only ever known SEC membership. When Sapakoff wrote about realignment in 1990, the SEC footprint was already considered by some to be too sprawling — and that was two decades before Missouri and Texas A&M stretched it out even further. But to fans like me who came into their Carolina fandom in the 1990s, it never occurred to us that we should question whether a two-day drive to Baton Rouge made sense; that’s just how the world of college football was arranged when we were born into it. For Sapakoff to suggest that it should be otherwise is like telling us we should breathe water and drink the air.

The most generous reading of his column is that it’s a quixotic attempt to stand athwart the unstoppable forward progress of TV-driven conference realignment — a process that often leaves us feeling like complete strangers to members of our own conference and that our value lies not in our traditions or the strength of our communities but in the size of our television markets. South Carolina might have taken a number of different paths along the way to this moment, including staying in the ACC or forming a 16-team super-conference in the Metro. But no choice USC might’ve made would have been enough stop the forces of conference realignment that bring us to this present situation.

In other aspects of American life, we seem to be taking a moment to question whether it has been wise to spend the past forty years substituting profit-maximization for an actual system of values. But that mood has yet to touch the college football decision-makers, if it ever will. In the early 1990s, the athletics directors of America outsourced their decision-making faculties to the television networks, and the hard truth is that no conference-swap or divisional reorganization will bring back what we’ve lost along the way.

So, Texas and Oklahoma, welcome to the league.

This essay originally appeared in the Gamecock sports history newsletter To Thee, Forever Ago. New issues of TTFA are published every Friday. To have them delivered straight to your inbox, sign up here.