Rags to riches as Louisville enters Atlantic Coast Conference

Forgive University of Louisville fans if they seem to be walking on air the next few weeks and months. No waking up, shaking their collective head and realizing it was all a dream. They’re living it. A new era in UofL athletics and academics begins Tuesday as the University is officially welcomed into the Atlantic Coast Conference.

To fully appreciate the significance of the move, one would have had to have followed Louisville for seven decades through the various conferences in which UofL has participated during one’s lifetime, seven conference affiliations during that span. Check that. Make it eight now — the ultimate conference, the ACC. Member institutions speak volumes about the quality of the conference — Duke, North Carolina, Virginia, Florida State, Clemson, Georgia Tech, Syracuse, Boston College, North Carolina State, Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest and Miami. And, of course, Notre Dame in every sport except football.ACC-logo-with-Louisville-Cardinal-Bird

The premier destination for a program that has competed at the highest levels for decades despite tremendous obstacles, overcoming the stigma of mid-major status in struggling conferences, achieving national respect despite severe scheduling challenges.  Building for the future, investing in athletic facilities second to none, hoping, wishing, praying not to be left out when the final bell rings for conference realignment.

Some really dark days there for a while, more than five years, watching conferences expand and implode, prominent members leaving the Big East Conference, watching a once proud league steadily implode. There would be tantalizing, sometimes conflicting rumors of possible inclusion in the Big XII only to lose out to West Virginia in the end. Any chance of getting into the SEC expansion blocked by a rival university. The ACC said to be beyond UofL’s reach for geographic and academic reasons. Anxious UofL fans scouring the Internet daily dissecting dozens of rumors, parsing official statements, watching and waiting, trusting all the while in the abilities of Tom Jurich to prevail against sometimes overwhelming odds.

Being excluded would have been a crushing blow to fans for whom the University is like a second family. Missing out would surely mean being forever banished to the ranks of the also-rans, getting shut out in the recruiting wars, being relegated to second-rate football bowls, relying on past accomplishments with little odds of seriously being respected in the national polls. The situation was undeniably bleak until the Big 10 decided to expand again in November 2012, extending invitations to Rutgers and Maryland. The ACC needed to replace Maryland. At long last, the gods were smiling on UofL.

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Let Louisville and UConn decide ACC question on football field

Already much on the line with the University of Louisville-UConn football game. Let’s raise the stakes.

UofL badly needs a win to stay in the running for a BCS berth. UConn needs to win if it hopes to become bowl eligible this season. Both teams will already be highly motivated.

Why not let the issue of conference realignment be decided at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium?

This is presuming, of course that the Atlantic Coast Conference has to add another new member after losing Maryland to the Big Ten and Rutgers will decide to leave the Big East this week and that the top two choices are UofL and UConn. Both present impressive credentials.

UConn would bring a larger TV market and higher academic ratings, the home of the ESPN cable network. That would seem to be enough, based on the Big Ten’s selection of Maryland’s largely bankrupt program, which had been forced to drop some sports. However, Boston College, a current ACC member, has had issues with UConn in the past. Fans of schools like Florida State and Clemson decry UConn’s shortcomings in football.

On the other hand, Louisville offers a resurging football program, an improving academic profile and a fan base that travels well. UofL also has one of the most successful athletic departments in the country, nationally competitive in almost every sport, and quality facilities for all sports.

If the conference realignment issue is about football, why not let the issue be decided on the football field. Winner takes all. Gather all the good old boys at ACC headquarters for the ultimate game-watching party, complete with all the trappings and a sumptuous buffet. The ultimate tailgate party, but with all the drama of a high stakes football game.

This, of course, is never going to happen. But it makes as much sense as some of the criteria used to make conference realignment decisions in the past.

How About A Basketball-Driven Realignment

None of the recent changes in proposed or actual college conference realignments have had anything to do with basketball. Not even one. In fact, Kansas, one of the leading basketball programs, came perilously close to being relegated to the scrap heap.

Hard to fathom in parts of the country where the following for basketball closely resembles the most fanatical of cults, with an intensity among its frenetic followers that rivals that of some hardened fundamental and radical groups.

Brendan Prunty, of the Star-Ledger in New Jersey, envisions a realignment that would merge the Big East and Atlantic Coast conferences into what he convincingly argues would be the best basketball conference in the nation while also being a respectable football league, as follows:

Big Atlantic Conference

NORTH — Boston College, UConn, Cincinnati, West Virginia, Temple, Villanova, Notre Dame, Georgetown, St. John’s and Maryland.

SOUTH — Wake Forest, North Carolina, North Carolina State, Duke, Louisville, Central Florida, South Florida, Virginia, Virginia Tech, and Memphis.

Under this scenario, Villanova, Notre Dame, Georgetown and St. John’s would be basketball-only schools. Miami, Clemson, Florida State and Georgia Tech would have joined the SEC, and Syracuse, Rutgers and Pittsburgh would have gone to the Big Ten.

The Triangle Hoops Journal, a North Carolina-based blog, has endorsed the concept, noting:

The “Big Atlantic Conference” would be a respectable football conference and would provide sufficient opportunities for the member schools to compete at the highest level.  More importantly, it would remain true to the history and tradition of the basketball-centric ACC and Big East by creating perhaps the best college basketball conference imaginable …

State, Duke, UNC and Wake would get to play each other twice each regular season.  Traditional rivalries in each league would be respected and promoted …

Imagine a conference tournament arranged as follows:  The South division plays two rounds in Greensboro, the North in Madison Square Garden.  The four semi-finalists from each division would then play out the tournament in Greensboro or the Garden, alternating each season.

Gotta love the name, The Big Atlantic Conference. However, the South division of the tournament would have to be played in the new 22,000-seat state-of-the-art arena in Louisville. And Notre Dame would not be pressured into playing conference football, enjoying a great new home for its other sports.

This lineup is one that makes a lot of sense and would generate a highly profitable television network, assuring that basketball remains a major power player on the college athletic landscape.