Bob Holliday

Virginia Tech's unique journey to the ACC

Posted May 30

VT head coach Frank Beamer during NCAA football action at Kenan Stadium between the North Carolina Tar Heels and the Virginia Tech Hokies on October 4, 2014 in Chapel Hill, NC. (Will Bratton/WRAL contributor)

Retired Virginia Tech football coach Frank Beamer said recently that the day VT joined the ACC was one of the greatest days of his life. Strong stuff from one of the winningest coaches in the history of the game. And yet the union of Virginia Tech and the ACC almost didn’t happen.

Every time I see Virginia Senator Mark Warner on television, and that happens a lot given that he is the Vice-Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, I think back to his use of political muscle during his days as governor in the Old Dominion. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that Virginia Tech is in the ACC today-at least in part-because of then Governor Warner’s adroit use of power.

Some Background on Expansion

Conferences like the ACC don’t consider expansion very often because it is a difficult process in so many respects. Former Commissioner Gene Corrigan, seeing the need to expand the conference footprint and improve the quality of its football, led the charge for the first round of expansion in 1991. Corrigan proposed the league add both Florida State and Miami. Under ACC by-laws, expansion requires a ¾ vote of the league’s members. The league approved Florida State, but was unwilling to grow from eight to ten. And so, Miami became the centerpiece of football in the Big East, while the ACC remained at nine members until 2003.

Other conferences began adding new members in the first few years of the new millennium. Consensus among the leaders in the ACC was that the league must expand to keep up, or risk losing members. There was a fear that Clemson, Florida State and Georgia Tech might leave for the SEC if the ACC didn’t add three new members. The NCAA required that conferences have at least 12 schools in order to stage a championship football game. And most members very much wanted to establish an ACC Championship Football Game.

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By now, John Swofford replaced Corrigan as commissioner. Swofford, the ACC’s top administrators in athletics, and the CEOs of each institution worked together on expansion, focusing on three schools. In early June of 2003, the league made site surveys at Miami, Boston College and Syracuse. Miami of course was the top target, with some strong academic programs, popularity in the South Florida TV market, and an outstanding football record. Miami, as a small private school at the bottom of the East Coast, had formed a partnership with a small private school at the top of the East Coast-Boston College. Miami really wanted to bring BC into the league in 2003, and certainly the ACC liked BC’s academic reputation and geographic location. The ACC targeted Syracuse as the third school-another institution with good academic programs that could get the ACC an entrée into the populous New York market.

It’s a given that the ACC would only consider schools with strong, well-balanced athletic programs. From my reporting in 2003, here are the other factors that were top of mind for the ACC in evaluating institutions for inclusion into the league:

*Academics

*Expanding the ACC’s Geographic Footprint

*Gaining new and large TV Markets

What about Virginia Tech?

Virginia Tech did not fit those templates. Now, let me be clear -- Virginia Tech is a fine school with many excellent academic programs. I have numerous family members who graduated from VT. My nephew is a fourth year student there now. But, the ACC’s stated goals in 2003 were to expand the conference’s geographic footprint and get a foothold in some new and large TV markets. Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, did not score points in either of those categories.

Five schools in the Big East Conference filed suit in an attempt to stop the ACC from expanding by depleting Big East membership. The suit was filed June 6, 2003, and Virginia Tech actually joined that lawsuit.

Gov. Warner Gets Involved

Enter Mark Warner.

Beginning June 10, 2003, the Virginia governor began lobbying publicly and privately for Virginia Tech’s inclusion into the ACC. Warner was able to get members of the Virginia General Assembly talking about the issue. What’s more, then, as now, Warner was exceptionally good at counting votes. He knew the ACC needed yes votes from seven of nine members in order to expand, and I suspect he was aware that Duke and UNC were not exactly locks to vote for expansion. Then-UNC Chancellor James Moeser advanced a plan to add Miami only, but that was about as far as the two great basketball schools wanted to go. That made UVa’s vote on expansion all important.

Virginia’s Governor issued marching orders: UVA President John Casteen could only support an ACC Expansion vote that included Virginia Tech. I remember being quite intrigued when I heard and saw reports of this use of political muscle by Warner. I wondered how tight a hold Warner had on the process. I raised the question: did he have the power to fire a disobedient UVA CEO?

For example, I knew the way higher education was structured in North Carolina, it would have been very difficult for the governor to fire a campus CEO. Chancellors of the state’s institutions of public higher education report to a University System President, who reports to the Board of Governors, whose members are appointed largely by the North Carolina General Assembly.

Virginia Governance Differs from NC

I quickly learned Virginia’s system of governance is a bit different. I placed a call to Terry Holland, who served as special assistant to Casteen, in between stints as Athletics Director at Virginia and later East Carolina. “Terry,” I said, I’m trying to understand the leverage Gov. Warner has here.” I explained the chain of command in North Carolina, which Holland, as a native of the Old North State, was familiar with. Then I asked him, “by comparison, how does the structure in Virginia differ?”

Holland was concise. “Bob, here in Virginia, the President (of UVA), serves at the pleasure of the Board of Visitors.” I learned there were 100 members of this board. My next query to Holland: “How many board members are appointed by the governor and how many are appointed by the legislature?” I can still hear his answer playing back in that tape recorder of the mind: “Well, Bob, here in Virginia, ALL members are appointed by the governor.”

Yikes! I was not prepared for that answer. In other words I realized, John Casteen, the President and CEO of the University of Virginia, would either follow Mark Warner’s game plan to get Virginia Tech invited to join the ACC, or face the wrath of the Virginia Board of Visitors, all 100 of whom were appointed by Gov. Warner. Checkmate!

Altering the Course of ACC Expansion

On June 18, 2003, the ACC Presidents voted to include Virginia Tech in the expansion process. The league’s CEOs made the decision when it appeared the league could not get the required seven votes for expansion any other way.

Things got really wild on June 24, 2003, as a league wide conference call was held to consider various routes to expand the membership. The Presidents voted to expand from nine-to eleven!??? Miami and Virginia Tech were invited to join the ACC. No one else.

Once sure of their direction, the ACC CEO’s were forced by Mark Warner’s power play to chart a new course for expansion on the fly. Although the league later announced a plan to invite Boston College for the 2005 campaign, the stunning decision to add just two new schools instead of three left the ACC with eleven members for 2004, one short of the requirement to stage a championship football game. Though some with the league believed the NCAA would grant a waiver and allow the football title tilt, that bid was turned down. So why 11, when getting to 12 was always the plan? The ACC had to act quickly in June of 2003 in order to bring on new members for the 2004 season. Miami and Virginia Tech were the only prospective members who could get seven votes on very short notice. Also, I remember reading one account quoting two different CEO’s who said: “We’re leaving the door open for Notre Dame.”

It All Worked Out in the End

Ultimately, the ACC connected with every school on its list, adding Boston College in 2005 (which created the clear path to a league championship football game), and adding, in subsequent expansions, Syracuse and Pitt in 2011, and Notre Dame in all sports except football in 2012. When Maryland left the ACC for the Big Ten, the league invited Louisville as a replacement, bringing the league membership to 15, 14 for football.

Discussions continue with Notre Dame about becoming a full league member. For the time being, the Irish remain as an independent in football. If and when Notre Dame decides to become a full member, surely the ACC would add a 16th member school to create equal divisions.

Virginia Tech’s Success

Since joining the ACC, Virginia Tech has brought tremendous support from its rabid fan base, and the Hokies have given us many memorable moments on the fields of play. Virginia Tech won the ACC Football Championship in its very first try. That was the 2004 season-the one that was played without a conference championship game. VT then won the title three more times, winning conference championship games in 2007, 2008, and 2010. Virginia Tech has probably exceeded expectations in basketball, making the NCAA Tournament in 2007 under Seth Greenberg, and again last year under Buzz Williams.

It’s very hard now to think of the Atlantic Coast Conference without Virginia Tech being prominently featured in it. Yet, without that big assist from Mark Warner in 2003, who knows?

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