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In uncertain college football landscape, the future is now for UNC and the ACC

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University of North Carolina Athletic Director Lawrence "Bubba" Cunningham takes in "Late Night with Roy Williams" on Oct. 14, 2011, at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

University of North Carolina Athletic Director Lawrence "Bubba" Cunningham takes in "Late Night with Roy Williams" on Oct. 14, 2011, at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Robert Willett/Raleigh News & Observer/TNS)

The text message conversation began on the afternoon of June 30 the way countless others around the country did, with two people with an interest in college athletics commiserating about the news of the day. They were not merely fans, though, but two of the most powerful figures in the ACC, leaders with an ability to shape the future of the conference, and college sports.

“I just heard USC and UCLA may announce today they are joining the Big Ten,” Bubba Cunningham, the athletic director at North Carolina, texted to Kevin Guskiewicz, the university chancellor, as the news began to spread of another round of major conference realignment.

A few hours later Guskiewicz responded. The ACC’s presidents and chancellors had scheduled a meeting for the morning, and first he wanted to talk with his athletic director. They agreed to a 6 p.m. call. After, around 10:30, Cunningham texted his boss again.

Cunningham had shared a conversation with a UNC alum who’d become one of the most powerful figures in college athletics over the past several decades; a man who, before his recent retirement, had forever changed the financial model of his industry. The same man who had positioned the Big Ten as one of college sports’ two dominant conferences.

“Had a long call with Jim Delany tonight,” Cunningham wrote in his text to Guskiewicz, referencing the former Big Ten commissioner who led that conference from 1989 through 2020. “He preaches patience and planning. No need to rush right now.”

The text messages, which UNC released to The News & Observer after a public records request, provide a brief snapshot into how two of the most powerful leaders in college athletics in North Carolina reacted to the latest seismic change in college sports. The news of the Big Ten’s impending expansion immediately became a moment of demarcation, a dividing line between how things were before and everything that has happened, and will happen, as a result.

In this state, the news set off frenzied speculation about the ACC, whose future suddenly appeared uncertain given the ever-widening financial gap between the ACC and the Big Ten and SEC, the two conferences who have separated themselves atop college athletics’ financial food chain. Outside of the ACC, at Appalachian State, Charlotte and ECU, leaders wondered how dominoes that might fall above could affect them below. And at the heart of everything was football.

Cunningham didn’t detail the “long talk” he shared with Delany the night the Big Ten news broke, but in a recent phone interview he said, “I consider Jim Delany a good friend.” It’d be easy to read meaning into UNC’s athletic director sharing an extended conversation with the former commissioner of the Big Ten — one who’s still a powerful figure in college athletics, despite his retirement — on such a pivotal night in recent college sports history.

Cunningham, though, said he’d only wanted to seek Delany’s insight on a changing landscape.

“It was more of ‘give me your thoughts’ kind of conversation,” Cunningham said. “That’s what that call was about.”

Navigating a period of transition

These have become fraught times in college athletics, with schools and leagues attempting to position themselves for brighter futures, at the risk of being left behind. In North Carolina, especially, there’s a race — a marathon, perhaps — among Football Bowl Subdivision schools to stay ahead, or catch up, in the one sport that now controls everything. Charlotte aspires to become the next UCF, its athletic director, Mike Hill, said in a recent interview. Appalachian State and ECU, meanwhile, aspire for more, as well.

And in the ACC, Duke, North Carolina, N.C. State and Wake Forest are all still navigating a long transition from their basketball-centric roots to the future, and the reality that the sport that built the ACC has perhaps never mattered less to its bottom line. North Carolina’s college athletics past has been built on basketball. The state’s success in that particular sport fueled the prestige of the ACC, made it a national brand and helped the ACC become the wealthiest league in college athletics in the 1990s and early 2000s. Those days, though, are over.

The state’s college athletics future, for better or worse, will be built on football. Particularly, it will be built on football television money, which over the past 15 years has become the dominant financial force throughout the industry. A new college football season has already started but, in many ways, the most significant part of the season starts now for North Carolina’s ACC schools.

UNC, in particular, will enter into the national spotlight on Saturday when it hosts Notre Dame. In 15 years, perhaps sooner, a UNC-Notre Dame game just might turn out to be a conference game — and perhaps one in the Big Ten. Though the conference has indicated it’s for now done with expansion, Notre Dame and UNC would make for tantalizing targets. The appeal of Notre Dame is obvious enough, given its tradition and location.

And as for UNC? It fits the institutional profile of the Big Ten, for one. Second, there now can be little doubt geographic constraints might preclude the Big Ten from venturing into the Carolinas. Then there’s the connection with Delany, who graduated from UNC and played basketball under Dean Smith before becoming one of the most influential leaders in college athletics.

Improving the on-field product

On the field, the Tar Heels’ game Saturday against Notre Dame is significant enough. A victory would give UNC a 4-0 start to the season, and provide the Tar Heels with the kind of national statement moment they haven’t had in a while during Mack Brown’s second head coaching tenure at the school. Off the field, it’s arguably even more important given the need for the ACC, and its members, to enhance their profiles in football as quickly as they can.

That the conference finds itself on shaky ground is a direct result of a football product that has mostly been mediocre — especially in the middle — throughout the past 15 years. That period of mediocrity coincided with an infusion of money, dependent on football TV ratings, which themselves most depend on the strength of teams and interest in their games. The ACC endured a stretch in the mid-to-late 2000s and early 2010s in which it had no dominant teams. Florida State became a national power, again, before fading. Clemson ascended, but faced little competition in the conference. Miami is still waiting to win its first ACC championship.

The most effective way for the conference to solidify its future is also the simplest, and the one that’s often proven elusive: It’s to win. It’s for Clemson to remain dominant. It’s for the schools in the next tier to win more than they have. In a recent interview with The News & Observer, Jim Phillips, the ACC commissioner, stated the obvious as the season was about to start: “It’s important for teams to get off to a good start,” he said. “And certainly we want to get off to a good start. But it also ends up being the narrative for most of the season.”

So far, so good. At least in North Carolina.

The state’s four ACC schools are all 3-0 for the first time ever. N.C. State escaped disaster at ECU. UNC survived a fourth-quarter onslaught — and defensive meltdown — at Appalachian State. Duke has looked more formidable than it has in years, under first-year coach Mike Elko. Wake Forest has mostly picked up where it left off a season ago.

The ACC’s collective football image rehabilitative process is sure to be a long one, though. Phillips, who since the start of his tenure as commissioner in February 2021 has made clear the need for the league to bolster its football brand, hasn’t just talked the talk. He has sent ACC staffers to each of the league’s 14 full members to ensure they’re investing in football to the degree that the conference believes they should be.

“I don’t necessarily want to go into the metrics,” Phillips said, “ ... (but) we’re in the middle of that exercise right now.”

According to Phillips, the league is evaluating every member’s “infrastructure, support, financial support, resources, and the rest” concerning its commitment to football.

“And I think it’s going to absolutely tell us an awful lot,” Phillips said. “Maybe everybody’s invested (in football), or maybe somebody has invested in a much higher level than others.”

‘Patience and planning’

The question of investment is a significant one, given ACC schools will soon enough find it more challenging to invest as much in football — and other sports — relative to their peers in the Big Ten and SEC. Those conferences already generate hundreds of millions more dollars than the ACC, and both leagues in the coming years will enter into new TV rights contracts that will deepen the financial divide with other conferences. The ACC’s deal with ESPN, meanwhile, lasts until 2036.

For UNC and other ACC schools, there is little choice, then, but to follow the advice Delany provided Cunningham in their long talk over the summer: “Patience and planning.” In his text message conversation with Guskiewicz on June 30, Cunningham went over how Phillips was likely to address the ACC’s presidents and chancellors during their conference call the next morning. One of the talking points, as Cunningham described it:

“Should we explore a partnership with the Big 12 or Pac 12(?)”

Guskiewicz was intrigued: “We could have a super conference both athletically and academically,” he responded. “Probably would need to be called the Atlantic-Pacific Athletic Conference (APAC). Maybe that’s crazy, but if it would get us a better TV deal, it may be worth considering.”

“We need to think about what outcomes we want?” Cunningham wrote back. “What are our priorities? Do we want to maintain all teams in the ACC? Is this a new league? Do we want to have the same number of teams at each school?

“Should we play a national schedule or regional schedule?”

At UNC those were some of the questions of the day, the day after the Big Ten news broke. The ripples were only beginning to reverberate, the implications only just beginning to be understood. Almost three months later, the speculation has quieted some. The ACC’s demise perhaps doesn’t appear as imminent. There’s hope, even, that perhaps it can be saved; that it’s possible if only the conference could reach its potential in the one sport that matters most.

Indeed, a UNC-Notre Dame football game could well be a conference match-up someday. Which conference, exactly, is still up in the air. If the ACC is to chart a more desirable future, it starts now.

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