Conference Wars, Part 3: 1994-2000

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


In the aftermath of their 1994 rejection by the Big East, the Hokies put on a brave face, but truth be told, no one was sure what Virginia Tech’s ultimate conference fate would be. The lesson from the Big East snub was that VT had no power or leverage in the conference marketplace, and it left everyone associated with VT athletics wondering how and if they could ever get that power, and if not, what would happen.

But while those in Virginia Tech athletics had been casting their eyes forward, 1994 brought a new threat from behind: the Metro Conference, VT’s home for all sports but football, which had barely survived defections in 1990, was beginning to look shaky again.

1995: The Metro and the Great Midwest get it on, to the dismay of VT and VCU

As early as 1992, a merger had been suggested between the Metro Conference and the Great Midwest Conference, which had formed in 1990 by taking Metro members Cincinnati and Memphis and combining them with Midwestern basketball programs such as DePaul, Marquette and St. Louis to form a seven-team conference.

After just a few short seasons of play, the Great Midwest started eyeing the Metro for a merger, a plan that was at least partially and perhaps completely football-driven. The Great Midwest hired former NCAA executive director Dick Schultz as a consultant, and Schultz recommended among other things picking up football-playing Metro members Louisville, Tulane, and Southern Mississippi and moving towards a conference makeup that could offer current Great Midwest members Cincinnati and Memphis the chance to play league football.

Two additional things happened that gave the proposal some steam: SWC member Houston got left out in the collapse of the SWC and the merger of some of its members with the Big 8 to form the Big 12, making their media market, their football program and their tradition-rich basketball program (Hakeem Olajuwon, anyone?) available for membership in a new conference; and Metro basketball started looking weak in comparison to Great Midwest basketball. In 1994, only one Metro team (Louisville) got an NCAA bid, while over in the Great Midwest, four of seven teams got bids, led by resurgent Cincinnati under Bob Huggins.

Louisville, with designs on big-time football, already knew that football would never happen in the Metro, and the growing disparity between Metro basketball and Great Midwest basketball left the Cardinals looking longingly towards the Great Midwest, which was more than anxious to bring Louisville on board to help boost the conference’s basketball and football profiles.

That was fine for Louisville, Tulane, and Southern Miss, but what about the Metro’s non-football-playing members, VCU, UNC-Charlotte and South Florida? And what about Virginia Tech, who had no intentions of moving their football program from the Big East to a new Metro/Great Midwest league?

What, indeed? This is what the Metro spent the fall of 1994 and the winter of 1995 deciding.

By November of 1994, the Metro/Great Midwest merger had become a fact, with the full list of participants to be determined later. One thing was sure: Tulane, Louisville, and USM were gone, and gone soon: the GM/Metro teams wanted to start play in their new league in the fall of 1995, less than a year away.

There were still plenty of things to argue about among the Metro members. At issue was one thing: money. The three departing schools would be required to pay exit fees of $500,000 each, and since they represented less than 50% of the conference’s seven-school membership, they would have to leave behind the Metro’s NCAA Tournament revenue sharing credits, worth over $1 million a year to the league. They would also leave behind the Metro’s $700,000 per year TV contract.

That was a big hit for those three departing schools to take, so they did … nothing. Despite publicly announcing that they were going to a new conference, the three schools refused to officially resign from the Metro, leaving everything in limbo. The four schools left behind couldn’t join new conferences, because then they would be the schools leaving the Metro, and they would have to pay the exit fees and forfeit conference revenue sharing and media contracts. The threesome of Louisville, Tulane, and USM stood fast, holding the entire Metro hostage.

On and on the situation dragged, through November and December, and only one thing changed along the way. South Florida and UNC-Charlotte went from Great Midwest/Metro outsiders to insiders, being asked to join the new league for basketball only.

That swung the majority from the teams staying in the Metro to those leaving. Suddenly, VCU and VT were the only teams that weren’t leaving the Metro, and the implications were profound, with regards to the Metro money. VCU and VT were exposed, and attorneys for both sides got heavily involved.

Fine, VT and VCU said, leave the Metro, but pay your $2.5 million in exit fees and leave your NCAA Tournament money when you go. No way, said the five departing schools. We represent a majority of the conference, so that money is ours.

There are times where the target on your back is too big to ignore, and VCU and Tech saw what was coming next. In January of 1995, Louisville got together with the other four departing schools and made the one move that gave them the best chance of keeping all their money: they voted Virginia Tech and Virginia Commonwealth out of the Metro, effective at the end of the 1994-95 school year.

The Metro Five didn’t have the guts to call VCU and VT directly with the news. Instead, they sent a two-page FAX to VCU president Eugene Trani informing him of VCU and VT’s expulsion. Trani told his athletic director, Richard Sander, and it was Sander who called VT Athletic Director Dave Braine and let him know about the ouster.

What the Metro Five did was classless, but it was according to the Metro by-laws. The by-laws required a two-thirds vote — in this case five of seven votes — to add or expel members, so the Metro Five got together and voted to (a) expel Virginia Tech and VCU and (b) add teams from the Great Midwest into a new, expanded Metro.

It was a slick maneuver that enabled the Metro Five to avoid paying exit fees and keep their NCAA Tournament units and other revenue sharing money. Officially, the five-team Metro picked up Houston and absorbed six of the seven Great Midwest teams: Cincinnati, Memphis, Alabama-Birmingham, St. Louis, DePaul and Marquette. Left out of the merger was Great Midwest member Dayton.

The only thing left to settle was, well, the settlement. On February 2nd, 1995 the Metro Five agreed to payments of $1.135 million each to Virginia Tech and VCU, in exchange for them leaving quietly, without further litigation. The Hokies and the Rams took the money and ran.

Braine was philosophical about the ouster, having seen it coming, but he expressed his disdain for the Metro’s actions by having Metro insignias and school logos stripped off and painted over immediately wherever they appeared in VT’s athletic facilities. “If those schools don’t want us in their league, why should we have their emblems on our walls?” Braine said to Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist Bob Lipper. “That’s why when we settled the lawsuits, we said we didn’t want to play them anymore.”

VCU took a different route with scheduling. Their settlement included stipulations that the Metro Five each make one more visit to Richmond to play the Rams on their floor. But yes, VCU immediately stripped the logos off, too.

The Metro/Great Midwest eventually named their new home Conference USA, a silly but geographically accurate name, and on July 1st, 1995, the 19-year old Metro Conference, home to Hokie sports for 17 years, died quietly and without fanfare.

1995: The Hokies join the Atlantic 10

While the Metro was going through its death throes, the Atlantic 10 (A-10) and the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) were courting the Hokies. The CAA was very public and vocal in their desire to have both VT and VCU join, but the A-10, having been burned slightly by the Hokies back in 1990, was more reticent, at least publicly.

The ink had barely dried on VT’s settlement with the Metro when one week later, on February 9th, the Hokies and the A-10 proudly announced the addition of Virginia Tech to the league, along with Great Midwest leftover Dayton. Xavier and Fordham were also joining the conference, running the number of teams up to 12. Tired of renaming itself every few years, the conference immediately decreed that they would keep the name “Atlantic 10,” the number of members notwithstanding.

The decision to go to the A-10 instead of the CAA was a no-brainer for the Hokies. The CAA offered low travel costs, but the A-10 had a bigger TV contract, sent more teams to the NCAA Tournament on a yearly basis, and enabled the Hokies to get continued northeast media exposure after football season was over.

The CAA, which took in VCU, was a little ticked at the Hokies. The athletic directors of Richmond, JMU, and ODU, all CAA members, were quoted publicly as considering a boycott of VT non-revenue sports competition, forcing the Hokies to look outside the state for many non-revenue matchups. The anger quickly settled down, mostly because the Hokies never expressed any sort of disdain or dislike for the CAA; they merely thought the A-10 was a prettier prom date.

When the Hokie men’s basketball team received an invitation to the NIT in March of 1995, they wore T-shirts throughout the tournament – which they won – that sported the A-10 logo on the back, along with the message, “Thanks a Million, Metro,” a jab at the million-dollar settlement fee.

Braine said at the time VT entered the A-10 that Tech’s ultimate goal was, as always, all-sports membership in the Big East, and he expressed optimism that it would still eventually happen, despite Tech’s treatment by the Big East the previous year. Braine was quoted in the Hokie Huddler as saying, “Until that time, we’re going to be the best we could possibly be in the Atlantic 10,” flat-out admitting that the A-10 was a temporary way station for the Hokies.

Tech put a happy face on their new A-10 membership. The A-10 did represent a more stable conference than the Metro, particularly since none of its members played football and therefore wouldn’t get the wandering eye for another conference, as Metro schools had done for half a decade. And the A-10 had become a more prestigious conference than the Metro, sending more teams to the NCAAs than the Metro. The A-10 even featured its own Louisville-like high-profile program in UMass, a national championship candidate coached by John Calipari and led by Marcus Camby.

But the truth was that A-10 membership was a huge body blow to the Tech’s men’s basketball program. Attendance had steadily declined since the late 1980s and would spike upward with the success of Bill Foster’s mid-‘90s Hokies, who won the NIT in 1995, got as high as #8 in 1996, and went to the NCAAs. But once the success under Foster disappeared, and the team started to struggle under first Bobby Hussey and then Ricky Stokes, contests with the likes of Fordham, Duquesne, La Salle, and St. Bonaventure absolutely murdered interest in the sport at VT.

With the conference shifts of the early and mid-‘90s settled down, the Hokies sat and pined for Big East all-sports membership. Tech’s national profile in football increased with Big East championships in 1995 and 1996, and increased appearances on ESPN, but no matter what Tech’s success in the Big East Football Conference, the all-sports Big East wasn’t interested.

It would take a “triggering event” for the Hokies to be considered for all-sports membership in the Big East, but the question was, what would that triggering event be? The ACC and the SEC weren’t interested in Virginia Tech, so there was no reason for the Big East to absorb the Hokies to protect their flanks.

What reason could the conference possibly have to take Tech in?

1999: ACC expansion (round 1), and VT heads to the Big East

Things stayed status quo for years, but in early 1999, rumors began to surface that Big East membership might be in the offing for the Hokies. In late March, Roanoke Times columnist Jack Bogaczyk lent credence to the rumors with an article titled “Tech’s role in Big East may expand,” in which he said that the Hokies were a definite expansion candidate.

On May 26th, Big East athletic directors voted by an overwhelming margin to recommend to their school presidents that Virginia Tech be admitted into the Big East. With two football championships under their belt and a strong 1998 Music City Bowl showing that landed a tie-in to that bowl for the conference, it was felt that Big East resistance to VT membership was softening. The Hokies had come a long way in football since the 1994 snub and were proving to be a valuable conference member.

But was there something else to explain the BE’s sudden interest in adding VT as the 14th member? Indeed there was.

The success of the SEC with its 12-team format and football championship game was not lost on the other conferences. The Pac 10 and Big Ten weren’t willing to expand, and the Big 12 already had 12 teams and a championship game, and that left just the ACC and the Big East as candidates to expand to 12 teams.

And out of those two conferences, only one could expand.

The Big East had ballooned to an unwieldy 13 teams, and with its hodge-podge membership wasn’t even remotely capable of expanding in football. The ACC, with its clean nine-team all-sports configuration, was a prime candidate for expansion to 12, with plenty of great expansion candidates right there in their geographical footprint … in the Big East.

ACC football members FSU, Clemson and Georgia Tech were rumored to be in favor of expansion, but they faced stiff resistance from basketball powers Duke, North Carolina, and anyone else with a whim to side with them when expansion was discussed.

On June 18th, 1999, Roanoke Times writer Doug Doughty wrote casually in his on-line Notebook Plus column, “I have heard independently from two semi-reliable sources that Miami will be introduced as a 10th ACC member on July 18.”

You couldn’t have gotten a bigger reaction if you had thrown a rabid pit bull terrier into a room full of cats. The prospect of the ACC snatching up Miami sent fans of Virginia Tech and the Big East into a tizzy and put a damper on what appeared to be an impending Big East offer for the Hokies. The idea of joining a Big East without Miami was less than palatable to Hokie fans and administrators, so things stood in limbo, and everyone wrung their hands as the ACC expansion story played itself out.

Unlike the ACC expansion of 2003, the ACC expansion drama of 1999 took place privately, with very little media attention. To this day, it remains shrouded in secrecy, but one thing is known: obviously, it didn’t happen.

Theories and rumors abound. One says that Miami was the only school up for a membership vote, and it failed to get the seven of nine votes needed. Another theory says that Virginia Tech, Syracuse, and Miami were all but guaranteed by the ACC athletic directors to receive a group invitation, but when the vote went to the ACC presidents, it failed.

(One of the juicier tidbits I ever heard concerning this scenario came from a TSL subscriber who lived next to a UNC athletic administrator at the time. Our TSL’er was in the garage of his UNC buddy when his UNC buddy came upon an ACC cap, put it on the head of our TSL’er, and said, “Here, you’re going to be needing this soon.”)

Another theory says that Syracuse Chancellor Buzz Shaw talked then-Miami President Tad Foote into staying in the Big East. (“Foote’s price,” my source says, “was VT being admitted as a full Big East member.”) It’s not clear under what circumstances that occurred — did UM get the votes? Did VT, SU and UM all get the votes? Did Shaw’s conversation with Foote bring the process to a stop before a final vote occurred? — but there might be some truth in that.

Shortly after Doughty’s June 18th article, on June 24th, the Big East extended a membership proposal to Virginia Tech. Hokie fans always thought that if that offer came, Tech would jump on it immediately, but with the uncertainty surrounding Miami and the ACC, Virginia Tech played it slow and cautious, saying they would mull it over and make a decision later. In addition to the Miami situation, the Big East proposal included heavy entry fees, exit fees, and reduced revenue sharing, giving VT pause.

For the remainder of the summer, VT and Big East fans sat on pins and needles, waiting for the July 18th date, the date of the annual ACC athletic directors meeting, to come and go. It did, and the rumored expansion with Miami didn’t occur. The ACC ended its meeting with the announcement that it would not expand “this year.” Miami AD Paul Dee was coy about whether or not the Canes were considered and were interested. This didn’t end the speculation that Miami would receive an invitation.

On August 2nd, Virginia Tech said that they would delay entry into the Big East until 2001-2002, to let the Miami-ACC situation resolve itself. Tech AD Jim Weaver’s brutally frank comments about not wanting to enter a Miami-less Big East, and the possibility that other conferences might “cherry-pick” Big East teams, angered some Big East media personnel, who ripped him in print. Later that month, on August 24th, an announcement was made by the Big East office that Tech would join the conference for all sports in the 2001-2002 academic year.

VT and Big East officials haggled over Tech’s entry terms for a few more weeks, and on October 6th, 1999, it became official. Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese traveled to Virginia Tech and held a joint press conference with Weaver, in which the two men announced that VT would officially enter the Big East for all sports on July 1, 2001. Both men admitted that Miami’s flirtation with the ACC, which they expected to work itself out “in the next 2-4 weeks,” had slowed the VT/Big East process down.

Terms of Tech’s Big East deal were announced, and they weren’t favorable to Tech. In 1994, Rutgers and WVU paid $500,000 each and got to participate in revenue-sharing immediately, but the Hokies weren’t so fortunate. Virginia Tech would pay $2.5 million in entry fees over ten years and wouldn’t get to share TV revenue for the first five years of conference membership, a loss of about $1.3 million in conference revenue-sharing per year.

Within a few weeks, the Hurricanes pledged their loyalty to the Big East, and the 1999 ACC expansion threat passed. With that issue settled VT, under threat from the Atlantic 10 that their sports programs would be booted from the league for the 2000-01 academic year, moved their Big East entry date up to July 1, 2000.

Wherever the truth about the failed 1999 ACC expansion lies, it’s too much of a coincidence to think that the membership offer to Virginia Tech and the threat of the ACC picking off Miami were unrelated. In the next couple of years, the Big East took other moves to strengthen itself and become more cohesive. Connecticut built a new football stadium and upgraded their program to Division 1-A status, earning them Big East football membership under an agreement signed in 1995. And in March of 2001, the Big East voted to oust football-only member Temple.

The changes meant that within a couple years, there would be no more “football-only” Big East members; every D1-A football-playing university in the conference would be in for all sports, not just football. It shifted the voting power into the hands of the football-playing schools, by an 8-6 margin.

The move to admit VT for all sports looked even more brilliant when the Hokies played for the national championship in 1999 and became media darlings of ESPN and the entire nation. Miami, shaking off the effects of their mid-1990s probation, turned into a powerhouse again in 2000, 2001 (national champions), and 2002 (runners-up). Syracuse and Connecticut won national championships in men’s basketball, and the future looked bright for the Big East.

But as the Big East would find out in the spring and summer of 2003, their feeling of security was badly misplaced.

Up Next: The ACC finally gets serious about expansion, and for the Hokies, hell freezes over.


Editor’s Note: We had originally announced this as a three-part series, but the depth of the subject matter requires that it be at least four parts.

References for Part 3:

The information for Virginia Tech’s expulsion from the Metro and acceptance into the Atlantic 10 came from Hokie Huddlers of the 1994-95 academic year (Vol. 12, Nos. 4, 5, 7, 11, 12, 15, 18, 19, 23, and 24).

The information about 1999 ACC expansion talk comes from HokieCentral.com archives.

The information about Virginia Tech’s 1999 membership offer to the Big East comes from HokieCentral.com archives and from two Roanoke Times newspapers (Friday, June 25, 1999 and Wednesday, August 25, 1999).

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

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