By David Glenn
ACC commissioner John Swofford has been a part of ACC football, in various capacities, since 1969.
After almost four decades, first as a player and now as an administrator, he has a unique perspective on the sport in a 55-year-old league that’s known primarily for its basketball prowess.
“We’re proud of the fact that our league has become synonymous with basketball success, and that’s true with both the men and the women,” Swofford said. “We feel like we’re doing the right things in football to where we can reach a similar level of success in that sport as well.”
Just in the last seven seasons, the ACC has captured three national championships in men’s basketball -- Duke in 2001, Maryland in 2002 and North Carolina in 2005. The league’s longer-term basketball track record, in terms of NCAA Tournament success and many other measuring sticks, overwhelms that of every other conference in the nation.
Football, to this point, has been a different story. ACC teams rarely finished in the top 10 nationally in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. The situation improved in the 1980s and again in the ’90s, after perennial power Florida State joined the league in 1992. Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech added three more strong gridiron programs with the expansion of the conference in 2004-05.
Still, the ACC has not had a national champion in football since 1999, when FSU won. Unlike the other major conferences, it hasn’t had a team in the national championship game since 2000, when the Seminoles lost to Oklahoma. It also has never placed an at-large team in the Bowl Championship Series.
The continuing disparity between football and basketball has led to some common questions for Swofford, a quarterback and defensive back at North Carolina from 1969-71 and the athletic director at UNC from 1980-97.
Is the ACC trying harder in football now, more than at any other time in the history of the conference?
“I very much agree with that,” Swofford said. “It’s about commitment. That’s what it takes. Whether it be [attracting and retaining quality] coaches, whether it be [upgrading] facilities, that commitment is there.”
Will ACC football ever catch up to ACC basketball?
“We’ve had that tremendous national competitiveness and quality depth in men’s basketball for a long, long time, and still have it and hopefully always will have it,” Swofford said. “The commitment hasn’t wavered at all toward the sport of basketball at our schools throughout the conference. I think we’ve got that opportunity and potential in football now to do the same thing.”
Over the last decade, virtually every ACC school has made significant improvements to its football stadium and/or facilities. Meanwhile, more programs -- even traditional cellar-dwellers Duke and Wake Forest -- are spending more money to secure and retain proven coaches.
After the failed tenures of Carl Franks and Ted Roof, first-time head coaches asked to take over one of the most difficult jobs in college football, Duke recently hired former Mississippi coach David Cutcliffe. In six seasons with the Rebels, Cutcliffe posted a 44-29 record and went to five bowl games.
The Blue Devils agreed to pay Cutcliffe an average of $1.3-$1.5 million per year. The latter number is three times the amount Duke has ever paid its football coach. The school also reportedly gave Cutcliffe a pool of about $2 million for his nine assistants, one of the highest such numbers in the nation.
Wake Forest found Jim Grobe, who had turned around a horrible Ohio program in the late 1990s, in time for the 2001 season. As Grobe has emerged as the best football coach in Wake history, the school has kept him happy enough, financially and otherwise, that he’s turned down inquiries from Baylor, Nebraska and Arkansas, among many others. Most recently, Grobe rejected an offer worth more than $2 million per year from the Razorbacks.
Elsewhere, after decades of trying other avenues, N.C. State last year landed in Tom O’Brien something that had escaped the school for the first 54 years of ACC football: a proven head coach from a major conference.
Earle Edwards (1954-70) was an assistant at Michigan State when he was hired to coach the Wolfpack. Al Michaels (1971) was promoted from Edwards’ staff. Lou Holtz (1972-75) came from William & Mary, which now has a Division I-AA program. (In 1972, college football had not yet split into Divisions I-A and I-AA.) Bo Rein (1976-79) was promoted from Holtz’s NCSU staff. Monte Kiffin (1980-82) came from Holtz’s Arkansas staff. Tom Reed (1983-85) had been the head coach at Miami (Ohio). Dick Sheridan (1986-92) came from I-AA Furman. Mike O’Cain (1993-99) was promoted from Sheridan’s staff. Chuck Amato (2000-06), another former Holtz assistant, had been a longtime aide at Florida State.
O’Brien was not merely a proven head coach from a major conference. He’s the winningest coach (75-45) in the history of Boston College football. He also had an impeccable track record in terms of on-field consistency (eight straight winning seasons), postseason success (seven straight bowl victories) and graduation rates (eight AFCA honors).
“Your ideal candidate is someone who has already achieved success as a head coach at the highest level of college football,” N.C. State athletic director Lee Fowler said. “The problem is, those people are hard to find, and a lot of times if you find them they’re not available. Given his track record, we were thrilled to get Tom O’Brien.”
The ACC still has a long way to go in football. But it is attracting and retaining proven head coaches -- see Georgia Tech (Paul Johnson) and North Carolina (Butch Davis) for other recent examples -- rather than losing them.
“It’s a good sign,” Swofford said. “It’s what we like to see.”
Issue 2.52, Dec. 27, 2007