Conference Wars, Part 1: 1978-1990

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Click here to access all four parts of the Conference War series from June, 2004


After the 1970-71 academic year, South Carolina left the Atlantic Coast Conference, reducing conference membership from eight teams to just seven. For a few years, the league would stand pat at seven teams, but in the late 70’s, the ACC would make a decision to add Georgia Tech, a decision that would send the Virginia Tech Hokies on a 25-year odyssey through the shifting landscape of eastern intercollegiate athletics.

That journey eventually ended with an invitation to the ACC in 2003, but along the way, many individuals, conferences and institutions made one decision after another that left the Hokies wandering nomadically from conference to conference. When viewed from its beginning to its end, the shifting landscape of eastern intercollegiate athletic conferences, and the part Virginia Tech played in all of it, is a fascinating story.

For 25 years, a different decision made anywhere along the way, by anyone, might have painted a much different future for Virginia Tech, one that would have ended more likely in Conference USA than in the ACC. Here’s a look at the decisions made over the years that led the Hokies to ACC membership.

1971: South Carolina leaves the ACC

In this day and age, the idea of a university voluntarily leaving the ACC — or any healthy BCS conference — might sound a little crazy, but in 1971, South Carolina did just that. Frustrated by the control the four North Carolina schools exerted over the conference, and chafing against the ACC’s football scholarship limits and minimum SAT requirement of 800, South Carolina athletic director Paul Dietzel made the decision for the school to leave the conference. USC had huge donations for grants in aid for football, and Deitzel felt that Gamecocks would be better served by going it alone, rather than working against the ACC’s limitations, which adversely affected his school over most others in the conference.

Ironically, the NCAA imposed its own scholarship limits just two years later, and a court threw out the ACC’s 800 SAT minimum requirement. South Carolina’s decision to leave the ACC was a dicey one, but USC’s bacon was saved 20 years later when the SEC voted to admit the Gamecocks. Few universities get a second chance after a dumb decision like leaving a great conference, but the Gamecocks survived the move.

1978: Georgia Tech is invited to the ACC

For seven years, the ACC operated with just seven teams, and Virginia Tech, an independent since leaving the Southern Conference in 1965, was salivating to fill that eighth slot. In May of 1977, three ACC schools — Virginia, Clemson, and Duke — sponsored the Hokies for ACC membership, but VT didn’t get close to the number of votes required for an ACC invitation.

The vote wasn’t really an honest effort to get the Hokies into the league anyway, but rather was intended to settle “the Virginia Tech question,” which had been lurking for decades, once and for all. The league put the Hokies up for a membership vote so they could reject them and make a point.

One year later, in May of 1978, the ACC voted to expand to eight teams and include Georgia Tech, at that time a member of the newly formed Metro Conference. The move was made by the ACC to secure the television market of Atlanta for the league. The Yellow Jackets withdrew from the Metro and began ACC conference play in 1979-80.

Virginia Tech got the message: they were not wanted by the ACC. In 1978, the Hokies ended 13 years of independent status and joined the Metro for all sports but football, which the league didn’t play as a conference sport. VT took Georgia Tech’s empty slot in the Metro Conference and started play in the fall of 1978, winning the Metro Conference basketball tournament in the spring of 1979.

The Hokies joined Cincinnati, Florida State, Louisville, Memphis State, St. Louis and Tulane in the Metro, which had been founded in 1975. In an interesting twist, South Carolina joined the Metro shortly after the Hokies, and when St. Louis departed and was replaced by Southern Mississippi in 1982, that made the Metro an eight-team league that flourished in the 1980’s, mainly due to the star power of Louisville and Memphis State in basketball.

While all this was going on with the ACC and the Metro, something else was happening: the Big East was opening up shop.

1978: The Big East is formed … and immediately makes a big mistake

The late 70’s were an interesting and dynamic time in eastern intercollegiate athletics, and in May of 1979, perhaps the most important conference shift occurred: the Big East Conference was formed, following a meeting of athletic directors from Providence College, St. John’s, Georgetown and Syracuse Universities. Seton Hall, Connecticut and Boston College completed the original seven-school alliance. Villanova was added and began play in 1980-81, and two seasons later, Pittsburgh joined the group and started competition in ’82-83.

The Big East, consisting of schools in large media markets and featuring a bevy of interesting and talented coaches and players, was a made-for-TV league, and with the exposure granted by fledgling ESPN, the Big East boomed. During the 1980’s, eastern basketball was dominated by the ACC, the Big East, and the Metro. College basketball was enjoying a rise in popularity, fueled by the Magic Johnson/Larry Bird clash in the 1979 title game, and throughout the 80’s, college hoops ruled.

But in 1981, a decision was made that would haunt the Big East for years, and it wasn’t a decision that had to do with basketball. It was a decision that had to do with football.

In 1981, Penn State applied for membership in the eight-team Big East, but in a move that foreshadowed the league’s lack of vision, the Big East voted PSU down 5-3. At the time, Joe Paterno was the athletic director at Penn State, and he and Temple AD Ernie Casale wanted Syracuse and Boston College to leave the young Big East and form a seven- or eight-team eastern all-sports conference consisting of Boston College, Penn State, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, Syracuse, Temple, and West Virginia, plus perhaps another university.

But BC and Syracuse refused, infatuated with their new basketball league, so Paterno did the next best thing he knew to do and petitioned the Big East for membership. They voted him down in 1981, which didn’t completely kill his idea of an eastern all-sports conference … until Pittsburgh, a long-time PSU rival, accepted the Big East’s offer of membership for the 1982-83 academic year.

It was a classic conference war: the Big East versus Paterno’s unformed eastern all-sports league. Pittsburgh’s move to the Big East dealt a mortal blow to Paterno’s dream and proved to be a fatefully stupid decision on the part of the Panther administration. It didn’t look like a dumb decision at the time, but it was, because it was made with basketball in mind, when in reality football would set the course of intercollegiate athletics in the coming decades. Paterno and Casale knew it then, but the rest of the college sports world wouldn’t know it for another decade.

Their dream of an eastern all-sports conference smashed, PSU and Temple joined WVU and Rutgers in the Eastern Athletic Association, or the Eastern 8, a non-football playing league which later became the Atlantic 10. That’s how things stood through the 1980’s … until Paterno and PSU themselves triggered the next wave of conference realignment, driven this time by football.

1989: Penn State joins the Big Ten

In December of 1989, after nearly a decade of peace and relative quiet on the conference front, Penn State shocked the world of intercollegiate athletics by announcing they had accepted an invitation from the Big Ten to join for all sports, starting in the fall of 1990.

Penn State’s decision to join the Big Ten was surprising, because it took the Nittany Lions away from their eastern roots, and rivalries with Syracuse, West Virginia, Pittsburgh et al, to the Midwest. By going to the Big Ten, Penn State created a tidal wave of conference moves and shifts that carried on for years. At the time, the Nittany Lions were one of a small handful of heavy-hitting college football independents who could write their own ticket to any conference: PSU, Miami, Florida State, and Notre Dame were the jewels any conference would be proud to put in their crown.

On a second level were independent football teams such as West Virginia, Syracuse, Boston College and Pittsburgh, along with Temple, Virginia Tech, Louisville, Cincinnati, South Carolina, and others that would nicely round out any conference that could boast any of the big four as their cornerstone.

Penn State’s move started an expansion wave that was centered around five conferences: the SEC, the ACC, the Big East, the Metro, and an unnamed, unformed “Eastern Seaboard Conference” (ESB). The formation of a new ESB would require teams such as Syracuse to leave their current basketball-centric conferences, and with PSU, the giant of eastern football, gone to the Big Ten, the ESB had less of a chance of forming than of the other conferences expanding to snap up the independents.

At the beginning of 1990, the SEC had ten teams, the ACC eight, the Metro eight (with no football), and the Big East had three football-playing teams — BC, Syracuse, and Pitt — but no football conference. The possibilities were endless, but the heavy hitters, the conferences in prime position, were the SEC and the ACC.

With ten teams, it wasn’t clear why the SEC would expand, or how many teams they would go to. Would it be 12? 14? No one at the time knew that SEC commissioner Roy Kramer’s vision was to expand to 12 teams and take advantage of a little-known NCAA rule that allowed conferences of 12 teams or more to split into two divisions and stage a championship game, a game that the visionary Kramer saw as a lucrative, made-for-TV matchup that could generate millions for his conference.

The SEC set its sights on a number of teams, and in the spring and summer of 1990, they kicked conference expansion into high gear by snapping up Arkansas from the Southwest Conference (SWC), starting the death throes of the SWC and sending it on a slow spiral into oblivion. With the Razorbacks in the fold, the SEC set their sights on a number of other teams, foremost among them the Florida State Seminoles and Miami Hurricanes.

1990: Florida State joins the ACC

With the SEC concentrating on expansion, the ACC and the Big East started moving on football-driven expansion as well. Seeking to improve the football profile of his conference, ACC commissioner Gene Corrigan started talks with Florida State at about the same time the SEC did, pitting the two conferences in a one-on-one struggle to woo the Seminoles.

Meanwhile, the Big East was pushing hard to get Miami into the league. The Canes were the Big East’s second choice, with PSU being the first. The BE, realizing the error of their ways, had tried to discuss conference membership again with PSU in the late 80’s, but the Nittany Lions opened up serious discussions with the Big Ten in the spring of 1989 and were voted in by the presidents of that league in just a few months. So the Big East moved to plan B, which was to add the Hurricanes and give muscle to the Big East’s efforts to form a football conference. The Big East felt that adding a football playing arm was important to satisfy Syracuse, BC, and Pittsburgh and keep them from bolting the league for a new Eastern Seaboard Conference.

The Metro was active too, commissioning Raycom in early 1990 to do a study on the viability of adding football to the conference and expanding. Raycom’s report was very encouraging and led the Metro athletic directors to pursue a 16-team “Super Metro” conference in which all 16 teams would play basketball, but “only” 12 would play football. The Super Metro would have included West Virginia, Pitt, Boston College, East Carolina, Syracuse and others with Metro members Cincinnati, Florida State, Louisville, Memphis, South Carolina, Southern Mississippi, Tulane and Virginia Tech. The league that would quickly become a football and financial powerhouse. In May of 1990, Raycom presented their information to the Metro athletic directors during the Metro’s yearly meetings in Destin, Florida. The Metro ADs left the meeting enthused and committed to building the Super Metro.

But the Super Metro concept had a number of problems, other than its obvious unwieldy size: Florida State, one of the lynchpins of the Super Metro, wasn’t interested. During the summer of 1990, FSU was wined and dined by the ACC and the SEC, and despite having pined for SEC membership for years, the Seminoles were impressed enough with the ACC’s presentation that in September of 1990, the Noles announced that they were leaving the Metro to join the ACC as the ninth member of that league, starting in 1991.

Florida State made the ACC move versus making a jump to the SEC primarily because they saw an opportunity to be the top football dog in the ACC, instead of being treated as a johnny-come-lately in the tradition-rich powerhouse SEC. To this day, the wisdom of FSU’s move is debated in Florida State circles, though probably not much anymore, given the ACC’s new 12-team configuration and the lucrative TV contracts that have followed.

FSU’s move was the second big one, coming on the heels of Penn State’s move, and like PSU’s decision to join the Big Ten, FSU’s decision created shock waves. FSU blew a hole in the Super Metro the size of an ocean liner, and the Super Metro was left for dead when the SEC signed Metro member South Carolina up as the SEC’s twelfth team.

Having lost FSU and South Carolina, the Metro was dealt a near-fatal blow when Cincinnati and Memphis State announced they were leaving to join other schools in the formation of a new basketball-driven conference called the Great Midwest Conference, the precursor to today’s Conference USA. That left the Metro on life support, with just four schools — Louisville, Southern Miss, Tulane, and Virginia Tech — remaining.

The SEC was done expanding, the ACC was done, and the Super Metro was dead. But there was still a gaping football hole in the East, and it came down to whether the Big East would add football as a sport, or whether a new Eastern Seaboard Conference would be formed.

Virginia Tech, a bit player swept along by the tidal wave of expansion moves, was about to step onto center stage.

Next: the long, painful history of VT and the Big East Conference

References:

The following articles and references were used for this part of this series. I recommend reading as many of them as you can, because it’s very interesting stuff.

Conference mess has origins in ’80s – PhillyBurbs.com, 6/30/03
Details how PSU got voted down by the Big East in the early 80’s.

Tranghese: Big East passed on PSU in 1981 – Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, 6/24/03
More on how the Big East rejected PSU.

FSU and the ACC – Florida Times-Union, 5/13/01
Fascinating, very detailed account of FSU’s process of joining the ACC and rejecting the SEC.

What happens next? – MSNSportsNet, 5/29/03
Contains some good background of the formation of the Big East.

A BIG EAST History & Retrospective – By Jake Crouthamel, Syracuse University Director of Athletics
From the official Syracuse web site, Jake Crouthamel’s recollections of the formation of the Big East Conference.

How Penn State engineered a Big 10 invite – The Patriot-News, Dec. 11, 1994
Very interesting story on how the Big Ten presidents shoved PSU’s admission to the league down the throats of the ADs and coaches.

Other references:

  • The Hokie Huddler, Vol. 7, No. 31-33; Vol. 8, No. 1, 4, 6, 9-12, and 16. This is where almost all of the Super Metro information came from.
  • Virginia Tech media guides.
  • TSLMail #84 – June 20, 2003 (and by extension, the book Hokies ‘N Hoos: The Rivalry).

Click here to access all four parts of the Conference War series from June, 2004

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