On Saturday, the chairman of Florida State’s board of trustees went nuclear on the ACC’s new TV deal with ESPN. In the process, Andy Haggard not only undercut the Atlantic Coast Conference and its television partner but also his own school’s athletic director. Randy Spetman had said all was fine and dandy with FSU, the ACC, and ESPN just a day earlier. Seminoles football coach Jimbo Fisher then stood beside Haggard and all his booster cash and said his school should indeed look at the Big 12. (Which should all give you some idea of just how powerless a puppet Spetman is in Tallahassee.)
As it turns out, Haggard was railing about Tier 3 rights and a pro-North Carolina school bias within the ACC without actually knowing what he was talking about. His view of the new contract was driven by Twitter, messageboards, blogs, etc. Those sources were wrong when it came to the details of the contract. Therefore Haggard was wrong, too.
Enter Florida State president Eric Barron who tried to put the toothpaste back into the tube with this statement late Saturday night:
“Florida State University regrets that misinformation about the provisions of the ACC contract has unnecessarily renewed the controversy and speculation about University’s athletic conference alignment. Florida State respects the views of the Chair of its Board of Trustees that, of course, any university would examine options that would impact university academics, athletics or finances. At the same time, Florida State is not seeking an alternative to the ACC nor are we considering alternatives. Our current commitments remain strong.”
By Sunday, Haggard was backtracking a bit, too:
“All I tried to say was I think Florida State needs to keep an open mind. If the Big 12 or the SEC or any other conference wants to talk, we have an obligation to listen. If the Big 12 calls, should we hang up the phone? No.I’m not saying take it. I’m saying listen to it. Listen to what they have to say.”
Well if that’s all he was trying to say, he did a pretty poor job of saying it. Not very impressive for a man who’s practiced law for decades. He botched the evidence and then went too far with his closing argument.
Additionally, his talk may have set off Realignment War III.
“If the Big 12 or the SEC or any other conference wants to talk…” That’s a clear way of telling the Big 12, the SEC and maybe even the Big Ten that his cell phone is turned on and in his pocket. Now, the Big Ten — even though Jim Delany has said his league somehow needs to reach further south due to population shifts — would never chase FSU because it’s not an AAU school. (Rant, rave and fill up our comment boxes about the AAU if you like, but there’s a reason university presidents and conference commissioners tout AAU membership anytime they get the chance.)
That leaves the Big 12 and the SEC as options — in Haggard’s mind, at least — for FSU. If given the choice, you can bet he and the rest of FSU’s “let’s get outta the ACC” faction would choose Mike Slive’s league over Bob Bowlsby’s. First, if FSU could get on equal footing with Florida cash-wise, that’d be a huge plus. Also, though one year FSU’s recruiting is up and the next UF’s is, being in the same league would take away a strong Gator recruiting pitch: “Come play in the league that produces more NFL draft picks.” Finally, the SEC would be easier on fan travel and the school would have ready-made rivalries with Florida, Georgia, Auburn, Alabama, etc.
But the Big 12 is still the more likely landing spot for FSU if FSU bolts the ACC. And at that point, who else from the ACC leaves for the Big 12? Ask a Big 12 fan and you’ll hear that Clemson, Miami and Virginia Tech are all ready to roll.
If that happened, would the Big Ten or the SEC then come and siphon off what’s left of John Swofford’s weakened league? Slive might not worry about raiding his pal’s conference if that league were already breaking apart.
All that leads us to the other thing Haggard might have done with his Saturday comments — he might have cost the SEC an ally in the ongoing playoff negotiations.
Until now, the Pac-12 and Big Ten have reportedly been pushing playoff plans geared toward protecting the Rose Bowl and protecting conference champions. Reason: They want to make sure they get teams in a four-team playoff and the SEC doesn’t get more than one.
The ACC and SEC have led the other voting bloc. While the Pac-12 and Big Ten are both 12-school leagues, the SEC and ACC will, er, were expected to be 14-school leagues by the time a playoff kicks off after the 2014 season. They have reportedly been pushing for the top four schools in the rankings to get the playoff bids. Reason: They’re bigger conferences which by default means they’re more likely to have two teams ranked in the final top four.
But now Swofford is faced with a dilemma. With his league now on the verge of losing one or more schools, what does he do?
1. Does he go back to ESPN and beg that network to provide more money quickly in an attempt to hold things together and steady the landscape? That’s the main reason the Big 12 got a huge media deal recently (the brand name value of Texas and Oklahoma was another). In 2011, the Big 12 actually drew fewer TV viewers per game than the ACC did. The Big 12 got big cash for its five-state product because the networks didn’t want to have to re-work every other contract they had in place with other conferences who were waiting to pick the Big 12′s bones clean.
Interestingly, for all those squawking about the ACC’s “awful” new deal with ESPN, keep in mind ESPN didn’t have to do much of anything at all. They had a contract in place with the ACC already. Adding Syracuse and Pittsburgh won’t move the needle much in football unless one of those schools returns to previous glory. The network could’ve told the ACC to live with a very slight increase in its current deal. Instead they cut a backloaded new pact trying to keep things stable. Would they do so again — at a larger price tag — if they thought FSU would hang around and the ACC would survive and they’d have fewer contracts to re-work overall? At this point, I wouldn’t rule anything out, but that seems doubtful.
2. Does Swofford try to bolster his league with more football powers and go back to ESPN for more cash that way? If so, the only football name he could hope to grab that would sway ESPN would be Notre Dame. The school and the ACC have flirted in years past, but the Irish want no part of a conference. Their independence is part of their heritage. Notre Dame joining a conference would be akin to Alabama leaving the SEC or Ohio State leaving the Big Ten. It would take a serious change in the landscape of college football.
That brings us to Point 3…
3. Does Swofford suddenly switch sides in the current playoff talks? If the ACC were to suddenly join the Big Ten and Pac-12 in pushing for a champs-only or champs-mostly style of playoff, he’d be exerting pressure in two places. Faced with a champs-only plan, Notre Dame might be forced to actually join a league and the ACC would have a one-in-three shot at grabbing them (along with the Big Ten and the Big 12). In addition, Florida State might suddenly view the ACC, Pitt, Syracuse and all those other “basketball schools” as looking pretty good. What’s the easiest path to a national title and beaucoup playoff dollars: Besting Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, West Virginia and TCU in the Big 12 or beating, well, uh, the field in the ACC? The ACC would clearly be the easier path at the present time (even though FSU has only one its league once and it’s division twice since 2005). In that scenario, it might make greater financial sense for Florida State to stay put.
If Swofford decides the best way to help save his league is to change his stance on the playoffs, that would leave Slive and the SEC outvoted among the major conferences. So it’s at least possible that Haggard’s rant has set of a chain of events that could either a) lead to further conference realignment or b) lead to a playoff system favoring league champions only or mainly. In other words, Haggard’s misinformed rant could be the reason a team like Alabama’s in 2011 might not get a shot at national crown in the future.
We’re talking possibilities here. And as you’ll see us say 10 times today and probably 100 times this summer: Anything is possible.
We’ll just have to wait and see how quickly other leagues start dialing up Haggard and by what means Swofford tries to keep FSU in the ACC clan.
But it’s certainly possible all this could hurt the SEC when it comes to its push for a playoff taking the top four teams in the country.