Let's set aside for a moment the discussion about whether FSU should remain in the ACC. The simple fact is that FSU is in the ACC now. Until further notice, that means there needs to be some focus on improving the ACC.
The league's image and standing as a premier college conference is in rough shape right now. There is plenty of blame to pass around - just about everyone has underachieved in the last five or ten years or so in one way or another. The conference needs to improve its brand and improve the quality of play from top to bottom in both football and men's basketball. Below are five steps I think the ACC can and should take now to make this happen.
I'm not focusing on personnel changes, because calling for someone to be fired is probably fruitless at this point and is not as constructive as identifying some things that the league can do to rebuild itself. If they need new leadership to make these things happen, then so be it. If not, then they have no reason not to get started.
(1) Divisional Realignment - This needs to happen yesterday. There may be no solution that any member of the league considers perfect, but right now the divisional alignment is a trainwreck. At the very minimum, why are Georgia Tech and FSU in different divisions? No ACC team is closer geographically to FSU than Georgia Tech, and depriving FSU of access to an Atlanta market loaded with FSU alumni while asking FSU to regularly spend time in Boston (no offense, Boston) and, starting in 2013, Syracuse (no offense, Syracuse) - literally the two most northern teams in the league - is pretty frustrating.
Because of the league's awkward setup, the league is handicapping the formation of more regional rivalry games. It also hurts branding because right now hardly anyone can tell you which one is the Atlantic and which one is the Coastal.
In a perfect world, a purely geographic divisional split might take place. The problems: the competitive balance may not be totally even, there would have to be some awkward split of the Tobacco Road teams, and the northern teams may worry about recruiting exposure in the south. Frankly, I don't think those issues are reason enough to keep the awkward alignment the ACC currently has, even if a pure geographic fix is impossible. If not going all the way with a geographic realignment, then at least make some tweaks to make things a little more reasonable and to encourage at least a few more regional rivalries.
(2) Come to Terms With the Fact that the ACC's Brand is Damaged and Go the Extra Mile to Fix It - One of the great things Larry Scott did when he took over the Pac 12 was that he focused a lot of his energy on figuring out where the Pac 12's branding weaknesses were and then he attacked them so as to change the paradigm. It is time for the ACC to stop relying so heavily on the same old tune of "these things are cyclical," or "things will smooth over once we win a few more games." The league can't afford to wait. It needs to attack the public relations problem now.
The truth is that nothing will do more for the league than winning. But that doesn't mean that the league has no room for improvement in just perception. The league has plenty of things it can do to help build equity in the ACC's brand that go beyond the field or court.
The league needs to have players and coaches flown up to Bristol on a regular basis. The league needs a well-spoken, polished voice that will proactively seek out face time on the various networks, radio shows, and news outlets (don't just respond after crises and criticisms arise; be there consistently). I saw on College Football Live last week an interview with John Swofford that was conducted by phone. Why? If they do not already have one, the ACC needs some type of studio in their league office so that if ESPN or any other network calls, getting someone on camera is about as easy as going to the room next door and flipping a switch.
There needs to be a coordinated, simple message and everyone in the league needs to stay on that message. Each league program needs to be encouraged to have a "one voice" policy when it comes to overall athletics program and league issues (e.g., no more popping off by trustees).
Stop arguing the question of whether the ACC officiating is "really that bad, comparatively," and just fix it - be a leader in improving officiating on the college level. Be a leader - THE leader - in multimedia. The league needs to have a website that is a destination.
Other things as seemingly simple as a logo change can have a psychological impact in terms of advertising a "fresh start" and defining the league's identity (right now the logo says the league's identity is a bunch of dots on a map).
(3) Construct One Hell of a Five Year Plan and Put Some Teeth Into It - The ACC needs to get representatives from every member program into a room and they should not end the meeting until they've hammered out one hell of a five year plan to improve the league.
This isn't about coming up with some consultant drivel about synergies or generically reaching some agreement to "try really hard from now on." This is about everyone coming up with a specific series of steps that the league is going to take and steps that each program will take. Everyone has to agree to take certain steps and to agree to certain benchmarks. Let's get everyone on a course toward pulling their weight.
Each program should walk away with at least three critical benchmarks they have to meet - one for football, one for basketball (a brand that has also been diminished of late), and one for branding or marketing.
For example, FSU could set its benchmarks as win at least two BCS bowls and/or playoff games in the next five years, renovate the Civic Center to bring the facility in line with high league standards, and increase its booster membership by, say, 20% in five years. Duke could set its benchmarks as being bowl eligible in football at least twice in the next five years, winning 12 men's basketball NCAA tournament games in the next five years, and finishing in the top 5 of the NACDA Director's Cup standings at least twice in the next five years. Maryland's could be to have at least one 10 win season in football, to win at least one ACC basketball title, and perhaps improve its apparel sales by some significant sales figure. I'm just spitballing here, so don't take those suggestions as anything more than examples designed to show what I'm talking about.
Ideally, there would be some teeth to these benchmarks. The best thing I can think of is that if a program doesn't meet their benchmarks, then at the end of five years perhaps they take a smallish hit on their league revenue (maybe 5-10%?) for a year and that money can be divided up as a "bonus" for teams that met theirs. Nothing that will provoke a civil war, but something to lend some urgency to these programs. If everyone meets their benchmarks, the "bonus" is that the league is in better shape and has improved its value.
To make sure this is both meaningful and fair, everyone needs to set benchmarks that are realistic but still require an investment and measureable and significant success or improvement, and everyone needs to feel comfortable that everyone else is being given the same level of task (and that everyone is committed to completing the task).
If there isn't the energy in the league from top to bottom to get out of their comfort zone in order to return the league to premier status, then the league is in real trouble.
(4) Cement the League's Relationship with Quality Bowls and get At Least One on New Year's Day - The ACC has been frozen out by the deal that the Big 12 and the SEC signed. Nothing the ACC does is likely to be as lucrative as that "Champions Bowl." Well, no more crying over spilled milk. It is time for the ACC to get out there and lock up some primo spots in bowl games for when the current bowl contracts expire. Lock up a spot in the Orange Bowl. Lock up a spot in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl. Be preemptive. Take advantage of the uncertainty bowls are having over their future to try and score some good deals.
Most critically, for branding purposes if nothing else, the ACC absolutely must lock up a spot in a New Year's Day bowl (and preferably two). There aren't many of those games left, but the ACC can't afford to let that day continue to be an exclusive showcase for the SEC and Big 10. I don't care if the ACC starts its own bowl if it has to - the ACC needs a game on that day; the bigger the bowl, the better. If ESPN - the ACC's supposed close partner - won't cooperate, then maybe talk to the Orange Bowl about trying to land a deal with Fox or NBC that puts that game back on New Year's Day where it belongs and provides the showcase the ACC needs.
(5) Study the feasibility of a cable network (any cable network), and if it is feasible, then make it happen - The theory is that since the ACC has given up all of its more lucrative third tier rights, this isn't a possibility. And it might not be financially or logistically feasible. If that's the case, so be it. It should nonetheless be studied carefully and thoroughly, and every possible angle should be exhausted. For example, what if Raycom was no longer syndicating the product they have purchased from ESPN, but was instead the ACC's partner in a cable network that broadcasts that product? (Note that the Big 10 and Fox are partners in the Big 10 Network and Fox actually owns half the Big 10 Network.)
Even if some type of ACC cable network is no more than a breakeven proposition and has to be nearly given away to get carriage at first, it likely would not hurt the ACC in the long-term - especially in branding - if cable systems across the eastern seaboard were carrying an ACC Network. Imagine, if you will, a Saturday evening highlight show during football season that features ACC highlights without starting it off with the sarcastic "Wheel of Destiny." And once the ACC's television contracts expire down the road, if the groundwork has already been done on an ACC Network, then the ACC has the utmost flexibility to expand the Network's mission, reach, and profitability.