Conference officials love to stress about how important academics are when they discuss the addition of a new member.
Not this time.
ACC presidents unanimously voted Wednesday to add Louisville as the replacement for Maryland, which intends to leave the conference for the Big Ten.
Louisville will leave the Big East for the ACC in the summer of 2014. Big East members Connecticut and Cincinnati were also hoping to fill the ACC’s vacancy.
North Carolina Chancellor Holden Thorp, the chairman of the ACC’s council of presidents, said Louisville got the nod because of its athletic program.
“All of the presidents, … what we felt was that what the ACC needed the most was to add the most exciting sports program that we could,” Thorp said on a teleconference. “That is the way to ensure that the success of the ACC in sports was successful enough to allow us to keep our group together.
“We feel very good about the addition of Louisville in every respect, but our logic was that we wanted to make the ACC as exciting a sports conference as we possibly could and we felt that Louisville unambiguously did that for us the best.”
Louisville is rated only No. 160 among “national universities” by U.S. News & World Report, much lower than UConn (No. 63) and also lower than Cincinnati (No. 139). Louisville is the only current or incoming ACC member rated outside the top 110.
But the Louisville football team can land the Big East’s BCS berth by beating Rutgers tonight, and the men’s basketball team is aiming for a second straight Final Four appearance.
“When you look at Louisville you see a university and an athletic program that has all the arrows pointed up — a tremendous uptick there, a tremendous energy,” ACC commissioner John Swofford said.
“That collection of [ACC] schools has to be a group that everybody wants to be part of, but it also has to succeed in athletics in order to make the conference viable,” Thorp said.
In September 2011, the ACC voted to add Big East members Syracuse and Pittsburgh, both of whom will switch leagues next summer. Two months ago, Notre Dame agreed to switch from being a non-football Big East member to being a non-football ACC member (but play five ACC football teams a year) — a switch that could take place as soon as next summer.
But Wednesday’s move was not an effort to expand the ACC but to replace a departing member. Last week, Maryland announced it would leave the ACC in 2014 to join the Big Ten. The addition of Louisville means the ACC will still have 14 football schools and 15 basketball schools in the 2014-15 school year as planned.
There was speculation that Maryland’s decision could lead to more ACC teams exiting. On Tuesday, North Carolina and Virginia issued statements of loyalty to the ACC. On Wednesday, Swofford said Georgia Tech President Bud Peterson has been “emphatic” about staying in the ACC.
“In working with our presidents over the last 10 days, … and now adding Louisville, … I couldn’t feel any better about the future of this league,” Swofford said.
Swofford said the ACC remains “very comfortable” with having no more than 14 football members.
UConn was considered to be a strong contender to join the ACC not only this time but also when Pitt and Syracuse were chosen for last year’s invitations.
But the Louisville football program is better than UConn’s (and currently better than Maryland’s).
The Cardinals fell out of this week’s Associated Press Top 25 after back-to-back losses to Syracuse and UConn but are 9-2 and headed for a bowl for the 12th time in the past 15 seasons.
UConn won three NCAA men’s basketball titles under former coach Jim Calhoun and boasts one of the nation’s best women’s basketball programs.
But the Louisville men’s basketball team is ranked No. 5 in this week’s AP Top 25. Coach Rick Pitino has led the Cardinals to the Final Four two times and to the Elite Eight four times. The team won two NCAA titles under ex-coach Denny Crum.
Louisville is the only Division I school that in the last six years has reached the men’s and women’s basketball Final Fours, a BCS bowl, the College World Series and the men’s soccer final four.
The addition of Louisville enables the ACC to expand its territory, whereas the addition of UConn would have given the league a third school in the Northeast.
“This allows the ACC to extend our footprint into a vibrant region,” Swofford said.
Louisville is the highest-rated TV market for basketball in the nation, according to ESPN. But the ACC can’t reopen its TV deal with ESPN.
Will the new addition make the ACC more interested in creating its own cable channel a la the Big Ten Network?
“We will continue to look at that and are actually having some conversations now with our television partners about possibilities in that regard,” Swofford said. “I’m not sure we can do a whole lot better in terms of distribution than we’re doing with our current partners.
“It seems to be the sexy thing in today’s world, but it also needs to be the right thing.”
Louisville has wanted a new home since Syracuse and Pitt opted to leave the Big East, but the Big 12 picked West Virginia instead of Louisville last year. When Rutgers decided last week to leave the Big East for the Big Ten, Louisville’s dissatisfaction grew.
“When [the Big East] began to deteriorate, we felt that all our options were pulled away from us and that we had to look,” athletic director Tom Jurich said. “To see a lot of your peers moving around you, leaving nobody to schedule, it was very, very difficult.”
The ACC also raided the Big East in 2003, when it voted to add Virginia Tech, Miami and Boston College. Louisville was one of the schools that joined the Big East after that trio left.