The Chinese curse of “may you live in interesting times” could not possibly be any more applicable than it is today in Terry Holland’s offices in Greenville. That’s because with the ACC expanding — again — the ECU athletic director has an interesting set of possibilities, with some of them possibly meaning disaster for one of the most ambitious programs in the country.
ECU could either finally end up in a major (read: BCS) conference, which seems to have been its goal since the school took up sports, or it could once again end up on the scrap pile of irrelevancy by not moving at all and remaining in the husk of what’s left of Conference USA once this game of sports conference musical chairs is done.
First, the ACC. To some sports pundits not in ACC territory, the latest round of conference expansion has some surprising dance partners. To those of us in the traditional heart of the conference, not so much, in fact, the ostensible two new members of the ACC perfect sense. Syracuse was strongly considered in the expansion that brought BC, Viginia Tech and Miami into the ACC. At that time, it was widely held that the conference honchos wanted Syracuse rather than VT. The rub was that Virginia was told by its state government that it could not vote “aye” for the expansion plans unless VT was included. Thus, it was Syracuse out, VT in. In 2011, however, Jim Boeheim in the ACC is a logical conclusion to a process that started long ago.
Pitt was also mentioned at that last round of ACC expansion, albeit only slightly, but it makes sense given that the ACC will not get who it really wants: Penn State. While the Nittany Lions hardly have a notable basketball program, the whole expansion issue revolves around football, and the ACC would love to see its logo on the field in Happy Valley. That won’t happen, of course, because Penn State is a content Big Ten member…so Pitt it is. And why not? The Panthers are in a huge television market full of some of the most passionate sports fans in the world, fans who support their team so rabidly that it is fair to compare them to English Premiere League (soccer) fans. Given those qualifications, Pitt is a no-brainer over the ACC’s headquarters in Greensboro.
Pitt’s move, however raises a very good question: what’s West By-God Virginia going to do, especially with two of its natural rivals — Pitt and VT — in a new ACC? One could see the Mountaineers coming to the ACC hat-in-hand, asking to join and bring their ambulance beating and couch burning traditions into the conference. Whether the ACC is interested, however, is another story, and it doesn’t appear that John Swofford is cutting any new trails into the hills leading to Morgantown.
That brings us back to ECU. You can bet that the purple clad fans to the Wolfpack’s eastern flanks are not planning to be left out this time. There’s talk of joining the Big East, which seems reasonable given the wounds that John Marinatto will want to salve almost immediately as his conference disintegrates around him as it currently is. That might happen, given the Big East’s desperation. Their position is so dire, it’s almost a palpable smell in the air.
It’s probably not what the Pirates really want, however, and while they to a fan might say that they do, if they have a moment of clarity and one of blunt honesty, they’ll probably tell you that they want into the ACC, after all, it’s where the two flagship UNC System schools — their hated rivals — reside. ECU, if nothing else, wants to be one of the Big Boys, not only in sports, but also in the UNC System itself. While the university is growing leaps and bounds and has steadily grown and increased its academic stature, joining the ACC would probably represent — to them — their crowning as one of a Big Threein terms of universities that they envision their having a natural right to be among.
Problem is, it doesn’t appear that the ACC is interested. The Pirates have a sub top-100 local TV market and no real basketball tradition, so they offer next to nothing to the ACC’s demographics experts. The ACC will easily overlook the fact that ECU’s fanbase is one of the most loyal and rabid you will find – while comparitively small next to the Universities of Tennessee or Alabama, their devotion approaches SEC-type love. In fact, I often think of South Carolina and its fans when I think of a school to compare ECU’s fans to. Love or hate the Gamecocks or the Pirates, their fans are in their seats when their teams play, win or lose.
The one thing trump card that the Pirates do have, however, is a powerful set of state legislators here in North Carolina who would like to see their school prosper in athletics and who also have a great deal of influence on the University system through the state of North Carolina’s budgetary process. All that said: do not be too surprised if in North Carolina you see a VT-UVA type effort from the state legislature on the behalf of ECU — a school that wants into the BCS so badly its fans never stop talking about it. These days, prosper means the BCS, and it would not at all be very surprising in the least to see those fellows who haunt Jones Street try to pull the same game on the ACC that their counterparts in Virgina did not too many years ago. And who knows, they just might win…never underestimate the powers of persuasion that those who control the purse strings have. Fools in the past have done just that, usually to their chagrin.
So, with all of this in mind, Terry Holland must choose his next move carefully, as it will likely define his career at ECU for all time. Coach Holland most definitely lives in interesting times.