Pitt becomes official ACC member with unprecedented stability
Before Pitt gave serious thought to joining the Atlantic Coast Conference, athletic director Steve Pederson said he wanted to “lock arms” with his Big East colleagues and save that conference.
He failed, which turned out to be good for Pitt.
Over the past decade, the Big East fell apart, and many of its members didn't even offer a bandage. Pitt's home since 1982 turned out to be no place to live.
That's why Pitt officially — and gleefully — will join the ACC on Monday, eager for the $17 million in annual TV revenue and the possibility of further financial growth through a projected national TV network. More attractive football opponents, big-city prestige (Boston, New York, Chicago and Atlanta) and unprecedented stability are added bonuses.
A year ago, the ACC signed a 15-year, $3.6 billion contract extension with ESPN. Pitt's take will be more than triple what it earned from the Big East. Plus, the money could grow next year for the ACC's best teams if the conference — as has been discussed — changes its bowl money distribution system to reward league champions and schools that reach the football final four.
Adding Notre Dame and the Midwest market also helps. The Irish, who have attracted four crowds of 60,000 or more to Heinz Field, will play five ACC football schools per year, beginning in 2014, after joining the conference this year for all sports except football and ice hockey.
Meanwhile, the Big East split, with the basketball-only schools keeping the iconic name and forming a new conference, and the others rebranding under the American Athletic Conference name — with significantly less TV revenue than is available to the ACC.
“As hard as we were working and all the things we were doing, there was this cloud hanging over the future of what the Big East might be,” Pederson said. “As long as there were questions, that was always going to be a struggle for us. That was a tough way to operate.
“We were trying to do as much as we could in the Big East, but we certainly weren't having very much luck getting people on board. At that point, it became pretty clear to us we had to evaluate any options that came along.”
It all started in 2003 when Miami, Boston College and Virginia Tech left the Big East for the ACC. The flood of departures didn't restart until 2011 when Pitt, Syracuse and West Virginia (Big 12) gave up the fight, followed by Notre Dame. Rutgers will leave next year for the Big Ten. Louisville, which won the national championship in basketball and defeated No. 4 Florida in the 2013 Sugar Bowl, goes from the Big East to the ACC in 2014.
At that time, six of the 14 ACC members will be former Big East schools.
“If someone went to sleep in 2003 and woke up today, they wouldn't even recognize the collegiate landscape,” former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese said.
Tranghese tried to keep the Big East together. At the '03 league meetings, he gave an impassioned speech in which he declared, “This is about my schools fighting for their athletic lives.”
He said running the conference was difficult amid the instability of collegiate athletics.
“There wasn't a day when I woke up and didn't worry about how fragile the league was and what I could do to keep it together,” he said.
“(Miami leaving) was going to leave us vulnerable, and we knew what the dominos were going to be. We were going to be a target.
“Other conferences were better than the Big East in football and were able to generate more TV dollars. That is what ultimately drove Syracuse and Pitt to the ACC.”
Tranghese credits Pitt chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg and West Virginia president David Hardesty for trying to save the Big East. But he admits, “When I got the call that Pitt and Syracuse had been approached (by the ACC), it didn't surprise me. It's all being driven by football and money.”
Tranghese said the ACC could have been headed in the same direction.
“There are five major conferences and clearly (the ACC) is at the bottom because of (its) football-playing ability,” Tranghese said.
Today, Tranghese is gracious toward ACC commissioner John Swofford and credits him for his league's current growth spurt, but he admits their conversations 10 years ago “were not pleasant.”
He applauds his former rival for getting his schools to agree this year to a grant of rights agreement that signs over each school's TV money to the ACC through the 2026-27 academic year, if the school leaves the ACC. The ACC is the fourth conference with such an agreement, joining the Big Ten, Pac-12 and Big 12. Only the powerful SEC has resisted.
The agreement may end movement from one conference to another, because it would cost a departing institution $330 million, including $20 million per year in TV revenue and a $50 million exit fee. It also ends speculation that some ACC schools, most notably Florida State, were looking at other conferences.
“It was brilliant,” Tranghese said, “and in the case of Pitt and Syracuse, it gives them protection.”
Said Pederson: “The league has never been in a stronger position than it is now.”
Two years ago, Nordenberg, with Pederson at his side, started talking to Swofford about a Pitt/ACC alliance. It happened quickly in a span of four late-summer days that Pederson said were among the most exciting of his career. Pitt's world changed with increased TV money, new fields of play upon which to find talent and more games that mattered.
Instead of playing Houston or Central Florida or some other lower-level school in the AAC, Pitt opens this season Labor Day night on ESPN against defending conference champion and perennial national power Florida State. There also is ambitious talk of selling out Heinz Field for all seven home games.
Upon the announcement of his own contract extension earlier this month, Pederson said Pitt is 11,000 short of selling out Heinz Field this year on a season-ticket basis. That hasn't happened since 2003.
The next trick — much tougher — is to compete for championships in the ACC, which has stronger football and baseball programs than the Big East. For Pitt fans, that means patience and a tolerance of expected growing pains.
Nonetheless, Pederson speaks with sincerity when he says: “This is one of the most exciting times in our history.”