Maryland, a founding member of the Atlantic Coast Conference, left its longtime home conference for the seemingly greener pastures of the Big Ten on Nov. 19, 2012. It was a blow to the ACC, and made some in the conference realize how tough it may be to compete with other richer leagues.
North Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham was among those concerned. A number of emails from shortly after Maryland announced its decision, unearthed by Andrew Carter of the Raleigh News & Observer, reveal some of the worries that were plaguing Cunningham. Chief among them: money. With other conferences signing huge television contracts as a result of expansion, the UNC AD was afraid the ACC wouldn't be able to remain competitive.
Joe Frierson, a financial adviser from Athens, Ga., and a former UNC tennis player and assistant tennis coach, wrote Cunningham on Dec. 7, 2012, about a lunch meeting Frierson had with an SEC athletic director.
"He said the SEC pays out around $20 (million per) team right now," Frierson wrote. "Thinks it will approach $35 (million per team) when TV contract is renegotiated in a couple of years.
"He said the SEC just signed a contract for the Sugar Bowl (between teams from the SEC and Big 12) for 2015 that will pay $40 (million) to each conference. ... That is ridiculous money."
Cunningham's response was short and direct: "It really concerns me. If these trends continue I'm not sure how the ACC (can) compete financially."
Earlier this year, reports that North Carolina had expansion offers from the Big Ten and SEC began to surface. Nothing has come of that, and since Maryland left the fold, the ACC has added Louisville and Notre Dame (though, the Irish will retain their football independence). The conference doesn't have the kind of big-money TV deal that's making the Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC richer by the day, but ACC schools have signed a grant of media rights agreement, which would prevent any school that leaves from taking its television money to a new conference. That should prevent conferences looking to expand their footprint for TV purposes from poaching ACC schools.
"In my opinion, any potential realignment of the Atlantic Coast Conference ended with this vote," Miami athletic director Blake James told ESPN. "Today was a great day for the league and for all the members of the league."
Still, Cunningham's concerns show just how volatile the college football landscape is in the new era of seemingly endless conference realignment. The ACC seems to have stabilized itself, but the ever-present specter of bigger dollar signs almost certainly ensures the college athletics shakeup will continue.