"I'll take 1800 barracudas ... industrial strength, please."
by Mike Fasano
Just a scant few months ago, no one in the northeast had ever even heard the name "John Swofford". Now, every card carrying Yankee both knows the name and hates it. Swofford was the guy trying to destroy the Big East Conference. But it wasn't just what Swofford was doing that got people so angry. It was how he was doing it. The ACC Commissioner wasn't just destroying the Big East Conference, he was treating that destruction like it was a leisurely past time designed for a lazy Sunday afternoon.
Swofford displayed an almost casual air. The ACC needed three teams, the Big East had those teams, therefore .... it was a done deal. The Big East's wishes were irrelevant. Press conferences were called, press releases were issued, the ACC moved inexorably towards expansion. Swofford gave the impression that the expansion was little more than a question of wrapping up the administrative details and then getting back to business once the newcomers were comfortably ensconced in the fold.
Early on, it looked like Swofford was right. Phase one of "dismantling the Big East" played out like it had been scripted. The proposed ACC expansion had barely hit the papers when:
"straw votes" were being taken of ACC presidents;
"visits" were taken to the campuses of the proposed invitees;
and a conference call was set up to finalize the move.
ACC expansion looked like an unstoppable juggernaut. In fact, phase one might have been labeled, "Swofford's blitzkrieg rolls on."
It seemed invincible, indomitable, unstoppable and inevitable. Fans of northeast football collapsed into despair.
Then came "phase two".
Phase two hadn't been planned by the ACC. Phase two was the Big East's counterattack. It was officially launched by the filing of a law suit but it was, more accurately, a "public relations" campaign plain and simple.
Now, any northeasterner will tell you that "public
relations" is something that savvy Yankees do very, very well. That is true and
this would be no exception. While John Swofford might have looked like the
consummate professional during the early going of the ACC's expansion move, his
days of glory were clearly numbered. As unprepared as the Big East had been for
expansion, the ACC was even less prepared for a
But the counterattack came anyway and when it came it was pure brilliance. In fact, if one had called "Phase one", "Swofford's blitzkrieg rolls on", "Phase two" would have been labeled, "City slickers fleece country bumpkins."
And fleece was an understatement. The northeastern public relations move was a masterpiece, a work of art. All of the best tools and ploys in media manipulation were used. Politicians, media personalities, timed releases of information, calculated leaks; you name it. Within days there was a totally new "spin" on ACC expansion and it didn't paint the ACC in a good light at all. Reduced to a phrase that "spin" went something like this:
"Collegiate sports conference in search of big bucks launches corporate raid on fellow collegians."
That message was going out on every radio and TV on the east coast. It was being printed in every newspaper on the Atlantic Seaboard. Even more importantly it was hitting home.
The word from the ACC country was "Ouch." University presidents and chancellors throughout the ACC saw their schools being painted as unprincipled opportunists, if not outright scoundrels. Olympic sports would be dropped, student athletes would be exploited, an entire sports conference would be destroyed and it was all being done in the name of the almighty buck. It got worse. Reports implied that academic integrity was as a thing of the past. It had been replaced by back door deals for hot cash payouts. The lofty and honorable heritage of schools like Duke and North Carolina was quickly soaking into thirsty dust.
The media blitz hit the ACC like a tsunami and the league saw its dreams of expansion going up in smoke. The devastating negative spin had to be stopped and stopped fast. The ACC found that the tables had been turned. Now it was the Atlantic Coast Conference that was forced to fight back.
However, in the world of "media management" northeasterners have no equal. The ACC's counterattack was worse than laughable. It was pitiful.
In fact, had the ensuing media fight been a boxing match the referee would have stopped it.
Case in point.
The Big East 5 hired the Skadden, Arps law firm the represent them in their suit against the ACC. Skadden, Arps is a world renowned law firm with 1800 attorneys. Many of their attorneys are considered the top practitioners in their fields. They have 23 offices located in places like New York, London, Paris, Rome, Tokyo, Beijing, etc. Their clients include one half of the companies listed on the Fortune 250 roster of the nation's top business concerns. The attorney handling the suit is the former chief counsel for the NBA, et cetera.
I could go on and on, but you get the point. These are industrial strength barracudas.
When they filed the Big East's complaint it included such notable phrases as:
"This case does not involve any single school simply seeking a different direction or vision; rather, this case involves a deliberate scheme initiated by defendants to destroy the Big East and abscond with the collective value of all that has been invested and created in the Big East."
"Defendants' scheme is not being fueled by efficiency or cost savings. BC, for example, has already indicated that it will have to evaluate whether to reduce several men's and women's "non-revenue" sports if BC moves to the ACC. Defendants' scheme has been undertaken with the full knowledge and intent that this scheme will inflict devastating harm on Plaintiffs."
Skadden, Arps' reputation and quotes from the complaint were all over the papers. It made for a hot story and it got big print.
And what was the ACC's counter spin?
About a week after the suit was filed The Charlotte Observer announced that the ACC's Greensboro lawyers had said that the suit was without merit. Nothing more than that was reported.
"Skadden, Arps"!?!? "Greensboro lawyers"!?!? " abscond with the collective value of all that has been invested!?!?" "suit without merit!?!?"
The ACC might just as well have held a press conference to declare that "a troop of monkeys has just announced that the suit was without merit."
Look, this isn't a knock against the ACC's lawyers. That's not the point. The point is that as far as spin is concerned the Atlantic Coast Conference just didn't get it. As far as shaping media opinion they just couldn't compete with the northerners that they were up against. They ended up losing the media battle and losing it badly. The guffaws could be heard throughout the northeast.
And that brings us back to John Swofford.
Swoffard now finds himself in quite a pickle. If expansion goes through people in the ACC will blame him for the damage done to the conference's reputation for integrity. If, on the other hand, expansion fails, Swofford will be blamed for bungling the deal. John Swofford just can't win at this point.
Or can he?
Now that the ACC expansion has turned into such a complete mess, people are suggesting a compromise solution. The solution is to keep the Big East the way it is, keep the ACC the way it is and make them into one super conference. At the end of the season you would have a playoff game worth many more millions than the playoff game that the ACC now anticipates.
A conference like that would span the entire east coast. It would be big enough and powerful enough to scare even gargantuans like the Big 10 and the SEC. The playoff game would rival and perhaps exceed BCS bowls in terms of TV ratings. No one could complain about money.
A great idea, right?
"Won't happen, Mike," I can hear people say. "There is a flaw in that plan and that flaw is fatal."
The flaw is Miami. Miami has to go to the ACC since Miami is a southern school. That is what started this whole mess. If you try to take take Miami out of the Big East you end up with a seven team Big East and a ten team ACC. Even worse you have a power imbalance between the "New Big East" and the "New ACC." The super conference is a great dream but in the end it doesn't work.
At least it doesn't work unless you make it even better.
Let's think about it. You'd have two championship caliber teams (Florida State and Miami) in the ACC and one championship caliber team (Virginia Tech) in the Big East. You just need add one super team to the Big East to make the dream of the greatest super conference ever come true. Preferably it would a team with an eastern presence. Preferably it would have a coach still looking for one last mountain to climb. Preferably it would be a team that would like to play an eastern schedule but still have a couple games open for national opponents. And preferably it would be a team not totally comfortable in the situation it now finds itself.
Who could that be?
If John Swofford and Mike Tranghese want to get themselves out of the public relations quagmire that they find themselves in, it is time that they get themselves onto the phone. It is time for a conference call. No, not a conference call to the ACC presidents, not a conference call to Big East presidents but a conference call to someone else entirely. A conference call to create something that has never before been seen in college football.
"Hello, Joe Paterno? Do I ever have an offer for you."
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