Florida State’s Angry Weekend – And, It Is Probably Time For Swofford To Go

So it looks like there is an insurrection at Florida State brewing that might lead FSU to the Big 12 (or to poisoning the well in the ACC). Over the weekend I looked on and participated as the discussion took on an angry tone from various corners.

While this has been brewing for some time, the sparks that lit the powderkeg this weekend were some unfortunately uninformed statements made by the head of FSU's Board of Trustees. He no doubt expressed some important and valid thoughts, but the incorrect accusations he made really fed into FSU fans' angst and stirred up a hornets' nest. FSU fans right now are an angry mob wielding pitchforks and torches. There's going to be a lot of pressure that results thanks to comments that were poorly measured.

For FSU fans, every little frustration they have had about life in the ACC suddenly rose to the surface in the last week as they tried to justify leaving the ACC. On top of it, many FSU fans spent a fair amount of time trying to spin the Big 12 into something much better than it is in order to justify a potential move. You see, this whole thing is about money. It really is that simple. But, for fans, it can't be just about money. Psychologically they can't just leave it at, "Hey, the ACC has been good for us for the most part over the last 20 years and is probably a better fit in a lot of ways, and the Big 12 is hardly perfect, but ultimately we might get $5-10 million per year more in TV money, so..." So, naturally, it was open season on the ACC.

It is important to understand that there is a strain of the FSU fanbase that has always been upset that FSU chose the ACC over the SEC (yes, I know SEC fans like to pretend that FSU was never really wanted, but let's set that ego-driven ignorance of the facts aside for now). Those pro-SEC FSU fans were momentarily silenced for a decade or so as the ACC move appeared to be inspired. All was going well for FSU on the football field, the ACC was doing quite well financially, and the SEC in the 1990s was still mired in a wave of NCAA scandals that had handicapped the league through much of the 1980s as well. Few seem to remember that just a decade ago, it was the ACC that was number one in conference TV money (back when $9.7 million a year seemed like big bucks).

When the ACC expanded to 12 teams, it seemed like a good thing was about to get better. Only FSU stumbled through The Lost Decade, Miami hasn't been Miami since the players Butch Davis recruited left, and the SEC was revitalized thanks largely to finding a way around NCAA trouble, the exploits of Percy Harvin (the still under-recognized Gator hero), and the appearance of Nick Saban (who revitalized two SEC powers). It didn't help that ACC basketball has also struggled recently as seemingly every program except for Duke, UNC, and, oddly enough, FSU has been struggling (after Coach K, Roy Williams, and Leonard Hamilton, the longest-tenured head basketball coach in the ACC is Tony Bennett, who took over at Virginia in 2009).

When conference realignment started being bandied about in the last couple years, the pro-SEC FSU fans emerged from the shadows in force. For years, it was easy to keep that group of fans at bay by reminding them that the ACC choice had turned out pretty well. But as realignment took shape and TV deals were struck, it became increasingly obvious that the ACC was getting left behind. And when the ACC announced a renegotiated 15 year deal last week, FSU fans exploded. The pro-SEC contingent was now joined in force by other fans that worried that FSU football might be left behind financially not just by peer programs, but by second- and third-rate programs that happened to hit the lottery of conference affiliation (think about it: Washington State, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, and Iowa State, among others, will be getting more TV money than Florida State, one of the top college football brands and ratings draws).

It is suddenly obvious that the ACC is not going to be any better than fifth in TV money - for the next 15 years - and the gap between the ACC and other conferences only seems to be getting wider. FSU fans have raged about the 15 year contract length - it doesn't require a calculator to multiply the monetary gap by 15 and figure that ACC teams could be permanently handicapped by the time the deal has run its course. FSU fans raged about the fact that other conferences were not only making more money from their primary contracts, but were doing so while retaining a broader range of rights that they could use to make even more money to widen the gap even further.

When a mob begins to rage, watch out. FSU fans started throwing elbows at other ACC programs. They started ranting about favoritism shown toward Tobacco Road schools. Duke and UNC are considered to be John Swofford's puppetmasters - the schools that run the show (never mind that, if those two schools were really pulling the strings, the ACC would probably still be an 8 team conference and FSU would be in the SEC).

FSU fans insulted Pitt and Syracuse. For what reason, I don't know. If fans think West Virginia and Louisville were somehow going to force ESPN to throw riches at the ACC, then they are profoundly mistaken. The only viable teams that would have moved the needle were Texas - which seemingly only flirted with the ACC as a leverage play - and Notre Dame, which doesn't want to join a conference (even if they would choose the ACC). Pitt and Syracuse were decent additions considering what was available - perhaps just not enough to satisfy unhappy FSU fans.

Miami was derided - as they always seem to be both by FSU fans and Miami fans themselves - for having an administration insufficiently interested in going all-out to win in football. FSU fans threw in a few insults toward Miami's seemingly shrinking fanbase as well, just for good measure. Virginia Tech was bashed as being unable to win the big games. And Boston College - poor Boston College, which strangely seems to always be a popular focus whenever FSU fans want to write another chapter of What's Wrong With The ACC.

Pretty much the entire ACC was bashed as having wasted both the ten years of riding FSU's national coattails and the ten years FSU struggled (albeit making a bowl game every single year) without having made any appreciable progress in the relative quality of the football. All that money that rolled in when FSU was winning big and the ACC was tops in money seems to have done nothing to improve the conference's football lot. And when FSU struggled of late, it certainly opened up doors for the likes of Boston College and Wake Forest to win division and conference titles, but they seem to have done little with that opening to build stronger followings. Basically the conference has been dominated by a Virginia Tech team that keeps falling down on the national stage.

Not all ACC schools came under direct fire, however. FSU fans lamented the fact that Georgia Tech was in the other division - we want to be in a rivalry with you, Georgia Tech! It has long annoyed FSU fans that the ACC program geographically closest to Tallahassee was put in a different division while Boston College - there they are again - was grouped with FSU.

Clemson has increasingly become treated as FSU's brother-in-oppression - the one school that FSU fans point to as "knowing how we feel." I've been a bit surprised at just how much love gets thrown Clemson's way these days by FSU fans. There is even a strain of fan that has taken to arguing that they'd rather give up playing Miami than give up Clemson. It is a tribute to the fact that, after 20 years, an FSU-Clemson rivalry is really starting to take shape and is finally getting good. Of course, it is also crazy talk. Just about every FSU fan over the age of 30 or that lives in South Florida would be devastated if they had to give up the Miami rivalry.

For all the complaining about divisional alignments, Tobacco Road favoritism, ACC referees, and Thursday night road trips to Boston, the truth is that the real problem really comes down to this bad deal the ACC just signed. Let's face it: is the Big 12 all that attractive? No, it is not. Sorry, but if it wasn't for the money, it really wouldn't be much of a serious decision about whether to stay in the ACC or bolt for the Big 12. But, yet, here we are with a popular rebellion growing among FSU fans who are demanding a move to the Big 12.

Is the ACC deal really that bad? In my opinion, yes, based on what we know. It is bad because it is seriously low on money at a time when coaching salaries are exploding and programs continue to engage in a facilities arms race. The deal threatens to result in long-term structural deterioration in the ability of a program like FSU to compete on a national level. As FSU fans, just try to imagine a scenario 2 or 3 or 5 or 10 years down the road where FSU can't outbid Baylor or Kansas to keep its head football coach. The deal is only "not bad" if your program really does not care about competing on a national level. It infuriates FSU fans that too many of its conference-mates seem to find not competing on a national level - in football that is - to be all too acceptable.

The ACC got a bad deal because the ACC is seriously devalued right now. There is a lot of blame to spread around. But questions do have to be asked about the ACC's leadership and what leverage they had or did not have in negotiating this deal. Based on the numbers, it appears the ACC either had no leverage or lacked the skilled leadership to take advantage of any leverage there might have been (I keep hearing rumblings that NBC/Comcast is serious about competing in sports, but that has not been backed up with much to this point).

Some have noted that by "giving" the ACC a bad deal, ESPN must not be interested in saving the ACC. I doubt they care. Fans need to get a grip on the fact that ESPN is a for-profit TV network owned by a really large conglomerate. Neither ESPN nor ESPN's owners have any interest in throwing money around to preserve traditions or conference geographic integrity. They just want good product at the lowest price possible. They'll throw a lifeboat to the ACC if it is in their financial self-interest - and for no other reason.

The reaction of fans from other ACC schools was mixed. It seemed like many Clemson fans and, a bit surprisingly, Maryland fans were either angry themselves or at least seemed sympathetic to FSU fans' position. The sentiment from at least one strain of Clemson fans seems to be, "Hey, FSU, take us with you." From Maryland fans, their recent financial struggles seem to have sobered them to the point where they completely understand why FSU feels like it can't take any more financial hits.

For unsympathetic fans of other ACC schools, there were basically two primary points being made. First, many ACC fans derided FSU's arrogance and ego for thinking it somehow deserves better than other ACC teams. Generally speaking, I doubt if anyone at FSU has a problem with getting the same as every ACC school. The issue is that FSU wants to get as much as it needs to keep up with peer football programs. If that means every other ACC school is getting the same to keep up, then high-fives all around. (Of course, it only makes FSU fans' egos worse that FSU just won the ACC championship in basketball and is winning down the line in its sports - when FSU is supposed to be just a football school - while some of the other programs seem to be floundering across the board.)

Then, those ACC fans turned around and blamed FSU for the money problem, claiming that it is FSU's own fault that the league is undervalued because FSU stopped crushing the rest of the ACC. In other words: "Hey, don't look at us; if you're so great, then why aren't you winning more and pulling us all up?" What these fans perhaps do not understand is that this only feeds FSU fans' anger. This is basically a way of saying, "Yes, the rest of us suck, but it isn't our fault for sucking. It's all on you to make this league a football power; we'll take the money, but not the responsibility."

Believe me, opinion is starting to cement among some angry FSU fans that certain programs in the ACC are basically freeloaders - happy to accept the money that they get from the brand name programs, but not willing to make the effort or investment to bring their own programs up to par. As Jim Young noted a few days ago, many at FSU feel that promises were made when FSU joined the league that old-line ACC teams intended to take football seriously and make the necessary investments to turn the league into a football power. It didn't happen. To be fair, that only really mattered to FSU when FSU started to struggle and needed the other schools to pick up the slack while FSU figured out how to solve its Bowden problem.

Where does the truth lie? Maybe somewhere in between all the jawing at each other. I do think there has been pretty widespread mismanagement in the ACC - it isn't just bad luck that has forced the ACC to have such overwhelming basketball coaching turnover in recent years. I also believe that there are certain schools - schools, not necessarily fans - that aren't all that bothered if they're not winning in football. Put another way, I think there are probably half a dozen or more ACC schools that have administrations that are ambivalent about big-time football.

When Boston College fired Jeff Jagodzinski and hired Frank Spaziani, didn't it feel like that program was announcing that loyalty to the program and athletic director was more important than winning? Did Clemson really have no better options than hiring a first-time head coach that had no experience even as a coordinator? Did anyone - Maryland fans included - feel inspired when the Terps hired Randy Edsall to replace Ralph Friedgen? Maryland sure talked big about wanting to be big-time, but that hire hardly seemed like a serious big-time move (contrast Maryland, which apparently turned down fan favorite Mike Leach because of one controversial incident, with Washington State, which grew tired of being the dregs of their league and took a flyer on Leach and gave him the money - thanks to the new TV contract - to compete for assistants). Miami has never wanted to spend money on its coaches, and when they hired Randy Shannon it sure seemed like a cheap move for a program that obviously needed a breath of fresh air, not an assistant already on the struggling staff. Does anyone believe that the powers at Duke really - I mean really- care about winning at football?

The counter-argument, of course, is that FSU's administration waited far too long to make any changes in its football program and had its own bout of incompetence that has undoubtedly hurt the conference. There's plenty of blame to go around, but it is flat-out wrong to say that FSU somehow bears special responsibility for the conference's monetary situation. Saying that only justifies the alienation many FSU fans feel from their conference brethren (or, for others, justifies an argument for giving FSU a bigger slice of the pie).

So, short of a miracle gift from ESPN or an FSU-ACC divorce, how does this situation get fixed? It is unclear what, if anything, can be done about the ESPN deal. One thing that would help, I believe, is for there to be a change in leadership in the ACC. The conference needs to bring in an outsider with proven experience in sports business. Remember that Larry Scott, the widely celebrated Pac-12 guru, was not a college guy, but was running the women's tennis league. He was an outsider that came in, forced some programs to "get real" about the state of college athletics, energized the league about the possibilities, and ultimately got everyone in the conference to get on the same page. He then leveraged a fantastic deal. Part of getting that deal was bringing everyone in the league together, and in the ACC it sure feels like programs and their fans are growing distant and turning dissatisfaction with money into dissatisfaction with each other.

Whether John Swofford, the ACC leader, is to blame for any of this or is just a victim of circumstance is beside the point. At this stage, someone is needed to come in and provide an outsider's perspective, to end the perception that the league office cares more about Tobacco Road schools than anyone else, and to get everyone on the same page. If they can find a way to leverage more money, great. A change may be unfair to Swofford, and it may be empowering perception above reality. Nevertheless, a fire has been started and I don't think Swofford can put it out - I don't think some people will let John Swofford put it out. Something needs to be done before this past weekend's FSU fan insurrection either spreads or grows so powerful that it tears the league apart (or plants the seed for later discontent and discord). It really is time for a change - and it looks like the only place to start is at the top of the ACC.


Note: This essay was adapted from a post on my blog. I welcome feedback and look forward to reading others' thoughts on the matters discussed.

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