NEW YORK — Three springs ago, as Virginia completed a redemptive NCAA tournament for the ages, the ACC resided in rare air. For the second time in three academic years, teams from the conference won national championships in football and men’s basketball.
Clemson and North Carolina in 2016-17, Clemson and UVA in 2018-19.
The only other league to win football and men’s basketball national titles in the same academic year twice in such a short span is the Pacific 8, with Southern California (football) and UCLA (hoops) in 1972-73 and 74-75.
As the ACC gathered here in New York this week for its renowned basketball tournament, the conference’s image and place on the competitive food chain are radically different. The 2021 football season was the first in which no ACC team qualified for the College Football Playoff, and college basketball’s Selection Sunday may be bleak for the league.
Part of this is cyclical. With large and disparate memberships, conferences ebb and flow. But there are overarching issues confronting the ACC in the two sports that fund all others in the Bowl Subdivision.
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While it’s tempting to dismiss the ACC’s 4-7 performance in last year’s NCAA tournament, its first losing record in March Madness since 1987, as a pandemic anomaly, there’s no masking this season’s decline.
With Duke the conference’s lone ranked team for most of the season, no regular-season ACC game matched ranked opponents. The last time that happened was 1966-67.
Further context: From 2015-19, the league averaged 16 such games per season, with a high of 22.
How the falloff translates to NCAA tournament bids we’ll learn Sunday at 6 pm, when the 68-team bracket is revealed.
At least six, and as many as nine, ACC squads have made the field for each of the last seven tournaments, or since the conference expanded to 15 basketball members in 2013-14. Sunday’s number could be as low as four.
This dip comes amid coaching transition at three ACC programs with multiple national championships — North Carolina, Duke and Louisville.
After three NCAA titles in 18 years under Roy Williams, the Tar Heels are in their first season with Hubert Davis at the helm. Jon Scheyer is set to succeed Blue Devils icon Mike Krzyzewski, while the Cardinals have been in search mode since firing Chris Mack in January.
Davis is a rookie head coach, and Scheyer will be, as would a potential Louisville candidate: New York Knicks assistant Kenny Payne, a reserve on the Cardinals’ 1986 national championship team.
Neophytes leading three of ACC basketball’s most storied programs at such a pivotal time in college sports — name, image and likeness compensation; transfer freedom; NCAA restructuring — would be fascinating, if not harrowing.
And let’s not forget 2003 national champion Syracuse, where 77-year-old Jim Boeheim just completed his 46th year. Boeheim vows to return next season, but sooner rather than later, he will join fellow Hall of Famers Krzyzewski and Williams in retirement.
Since becoming ACC commissioner 13-plus months ago, Jim Phillips has vowed a 24/7/365 football focus, understandable given that football generates 70%-plus of Power Five revenue. And though Phillips has voiced the football priority more forcefully than his predecessor, John Swofford, the approach is not novel.
Indeed, the ACC’s additions of Florida State, Virginia Tech and Miami, and to a lesser degree Pitt, were football-driven.
Notre Dame’s basketball coach since 2000, Mike Brey understands football’s preeminence better than most. He was a Duke assistant from 1987-95, when basketball reigned financially in the ACC and the Blue Devils won their first two NCAA titles.
But the Power Five economic model has shifted.
“I think it’s been hard for some of the old-guard ACC people to understand the football machine now,” Brey said. “Of course, when you coach at Notre Dame — and even when I coached at Delaware … you really understood how football pays the bills, and I think that was an educational process. †
“I think John Swofford had to change and understand, ‘Uh oh, we’ve got to jack football up because this thing is really important.’ So that’s been interesting for me to watch, coming from the ACC pre-football machine.”
But men’s basketball has been the ACC’s signature sport since the league’s 1953 founding, and the conference needs to celebrate, nurture and build upon that heritage.
One essential task is to generate more revenue, either via the ACC Network or other means, to help schools attract and retain talented head coaches, assistants and staffers. They, in turn, have to recruit and develop more quality players.
The network’s recent 10-part documentary on the ACC tournament was exceptional entertainment and marketing, but Krzyzewski advocates more systemic enhancements.
“I’m anxious to see these next couple of years what will happen,” he said, “because we need to do more with ACC basketball, and I look forward to sitting down with [Phillips] to get some of his observations and … give him my opinion of it.
“You can’t take for granted, really the linchpin for ACC athletics, which is men’s basketball. It’s been the key thing for our conference and you have to keep renewing your commitment to the culture, and the nuances and stay … current. Again, I don’t think we’re in trouble or anything, but I think you have to stay ahead, and I think he’s the guy that can help us do that.”
How can Phillips and the ACC accomplish that?
Krzyzewski believes the conference needs to proactively lead on issues such as NIL and transfers, with a basketball emphasis, and Phillips serving on the NCAA’s Transformation Committee, a group crafting a new governance model for the association, is a welcome start.
The ACC “should flex its muscle in figuring out what’s going to happen with college basketball,” Krzyzewski said. “Do any of you know what’s going to happen with college basketball? I don’t think any of us know. There’s not a plan. †
“And so going into the future we should have foresight and impact and determine along with the other Power Five and Big East … as to what college basketball is going to look like next year and into the future. You’ve never presented a plan for next year, a 3-year plan, a 5-year plan. That’s what enterprises do, at least the ones that stay in existence. †
“You have to do it every day of the year, and that’s not been done for college basketball, where someone is feeling the pulse of the sport on a day-to-day basis and looking into the future. … I’m not going to be a part of it anymore, but to me, that is what I would wish for our conference.”