The mood at the posh resort in Orlando, Fla., was jovial and relaxed as the athletic directors from the nation's top schools wrapped up their annual convention.
Dave Hart Jr., Florida State's AD and the group's outgoing president, took advantage of the setting for a casual but business-oriented talk with Dave Braine, the AD at Georgia Tech. Along with former Clemson AD Bobby Robinson, Hart and Braine were the leaders in the slow but steady evolution of the Atlantic Coast Conference from a basketball-dominated league that also played football to a conference that wanted to be regarded among the elite in both sports.
So now, on this early summer evening, the talk was again of the ACC's future and which schools could be added for it to go from a nine-team league to 12, which would mean a conference title game in football, and additional revenue.
Hart and Braine began to consider an expanded ACC with potential new members. Also among the group was Paul Dee, AD at the University of Miami, who had been studying the conference landscape for several years to see if the highly regarded Hurricane football program could move from the Big East for a bigger financial payoff. And there was Gene DeFilippo, the energetic AD at Boston College. DeFilippo's agenda was more informational than anything else. He was also a close friend of Hart's. The two bounced ideas off each other all the time.
This time, it was different.
BC, DeFilippo was told, was very much a player in what the ACC hoped would be a true super conference.
It was June 2000.
Long time coming
The BC athletics website has been counting down the time (to the second) until the Eagles officially become a member of the ACC tomorrow. The official countdown has been under way for one year nine months, but unofficially it began five years ago.
What started as a trickle with the gathering in Orlando in 2000 has developed into a strong current from Boston to the ACC offices in Greensboro, N.C., and points beyond. The trip has been far costlier than anyone anticipated -- lawsuits, accusations, and broken bonds between schools that once considered themselves partners.
''None of this has been easy," said DeFilippo. ''But I think the worst part is over now. It's time to move on. Only time will tell if we did the right thing. I feel in my heart that we did what was right for Boston College."
But to understand where BC and the ACC are going, you first have to first understand where they were, and what were their original goals.
In terms of the ACC, what prompted the idea of getting bigger, if not better, was a move it didn't make. ''What started it all, in my opinion, was when Penn State made the move to the Big Ten [in 1991]," said former ACC commissioner Gene Corrigan. ''We were all asleep at the switch on that one. I thought Penn State would have been a perfect fit for the ACC. Once that happened, I became obsessed with expansion."
From its inception in 1953, the ACC had been no stranger to change. When Clemson, Duke, Maryland, North Carolina, North Carolina State, South Carolina, and Wake Forest broke away from the football tradition-rich Southern Conference in 1953, the face of college athletics in the South received its first jolt.
Over the years, the ACC matured, establishing itself as a premier basketball conference and a solid football league. But by 1991, Corrigan realized that football was becoming the driver of the bus in college athletic revenues. And in the South, with the dominance of the Southeastern Conference, the ACC needed a presence in talent-laden Florida.
Thus, Corrigan focused on Florida State . . . and Miami.
''We locked in Florida State right away," said Corrigan, overcoming a fight from some of the Tobacco Road schools about adding even one school. ''But the more I thought about it, I thought it would make sense to go after both of them. The two schools had a natural rivalry. But Miami was out of favor at the time. I just couldn't generate any interest."
It wasn't that the Hurricanes weren't good enough for the ACC, at least on the field. Miami, which had won national championships in 1983, '87, '89, and '91, had developed a reputation for its off-field antics.
And it wasn't just the ACC that thumbed its nose at the Hurricanes. Sam Jankovich, the Miami AD at the time, remembers talking to the SEC and getting a similar chilly feeling. ''They just weren't interested," said Jankovich, who was primarily searching for a home for his basketball program.
Enter the Big East, which was still riding its basketball glory days of the '80s, but looking to branch out and form a football conference. The only problem was it had no marquee football schools. The Big East had attempted to add Penn State in 1981, but coach Joe Paterno and the Nittany Lions came up one vote short from the member schools. Instead, Pittsburgh, Penn State's archrival at the time, was invited to join. It was a decision that continues to haunt the Big East.
A decade later, when the issue of Big East football came up again, Penn State was discussed. But before the Big East could make a decision, the Big Ten invited the Nittany Lions as its 11th member. With expansion suddenly on the table, other Big East schools that had no conference affiliation in football started looking for spots.
''The clouds were forming around the issue of football again with BC, Pitt, and Syracuse sensing some conference movement around the country," former Syracuse AD Jake Crouthamel wrote on the school website in December 2000. ''Other conferences began nosing around for potential new members, particularly the ACC and the SEC. At the time, the athletic directors at Pitt and BC joined me on a trip to the ACC office to talk about federated membership in football only."
Before that idea bore fruit, the Big East had voted to add Miami and formed a football league. But three years after formation of the Big East football conference, the squabbling among the basketball-only members and the football schools broke out. So much so that the league almost split. Even after the decision had been made for the conference to stay together, Big East football never developed an identity other than Miami, and later Virginia Tech.
Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese, attempting to oversee what was essentially two leagues with different agendas, had developed a strong tie with Corrigan. They talked about having a federated football conference, combining the Big East and ACC in football only. With such an arrangement, a championship game between a Big East division and an ACC division was possible. ''But we just couldn't work it out," Tranghese said.
Winds of change
With the advent of the Bowl Championship Series in 1998, college football became an even bigger force in generating revenue for athletic departments. As long as Miami stayed in the Big East, the league would be among the nation's best and remain a part of the BCS, and thus receive a portion of the money that flowed from it. In other words, BC felt secure.
However, the attitude in the Hurricane athletic offices was changing. Dee had replaced Jankovich, who had moved on to run the Patriots. Miami's attitude became more corporate and the feeling was that the Hurricanes would be more comfortable in a southern league than as the lone southern entry in a northern-dominated conference. Nothing was definite, as the discussions at the ADs' convention in Orlando indicated, but no doors were closed.
And the more Miami talked about leaving, the more nervous BC got. Without Miami, the Big East had no guarantees. BC football coach Tom O'Brien recognized that. By late winter 2003, the chatter was constant. O'Brien made his preference clear from the start. ''Where Miami goes is where I want to be," he said. The joke was that if Miami exhaled, BC would inhale. Still, it was all talk until March 2003, following the Big East's sweep of the national championships in men's (Syracuse) and women's basketball (Connecticut).
Tranghese remembers getting a call from a New York sportswriter he had known for years. ''Do you know what's going on with the ACC?" he was asked. Tranghese thought it involved Wake Forest basketball coach Skip Prosser, who was considering an offer from Pittsburgh, which was looking for a new coach after Ben Howland left to take the UCLA job.
Tranghese replied that he thought Prosser would take the job. ''No," came the reply. ''People at Wake Forest are telling Skip that the Big East won't be around in five years. The ACC is going to make a major raid on the Big East."
The talk was true, which first hurt and then infuriated Tranghese, who accused the ACC of behind-the-back dealings. And while Pittsburgh was not the focus of the ACC's attention, Miami was. And so were BC and Syracuse because Miami, with much of its alumni based in the Northeast, wanted a northern linkage.
When the ACC formally invited Miami and Virginia Tech (because of political pressure in Virginia) two months later, BC and Syracuse were left on the outside. But the expansion battle between the Big East and the ACC wasn't over.
After their initial rejection in May 2003, the Eagles had to sit through that summer in a state of limbo. But despite that, the school received assurances from the ACC as the accusations flew.
Richard Blumethal, Connecticut's attorney general, filed suit in June accusing BC, Miami, and the ACC of ''a backroom conspiracy . . . and carried out through calculated deceit."
The ACC was just an 11-team league and could not hold a lucrative conference title game (12 teams are the NCAA minimum). A 12th team was needed and BC was the most logical choice.
By October, the issue had again come to a boiling point. At a Big East meeting in Newark Oct. 1, conference presidents asked BC president Rev. William P. Leahy, S.J., about the Eagles' intentions. Leahy squirmed, but conceded that the Eagles might indeed be leaving the conference. It was suggested that BC might have remained if the Big East had finally made the split with its basketball-only schools and reconfigured as an eight- or nine-team league.
''If they had said we will stay if you do that, we would have approved it," said a former administrator from a Big East school. ''But they never asked."
A little more than two weeks later, the ACC voted, 9-0, to add BC as its 12th member for 2005.
''If Boston College had left the first time, we would have been angry and hurt, but we would have understood," said a former administrator from a Big East school. ''What irritates a lot of us is that they came back into the room and were making plans for the future in our league at the same time they were continuing talks with the ACC."
For many, the process was a black eye for college athletics. ''I think the public is disgusted with all of us, and to be perfectly honest with you, that includes me," Tranghese said.
Only now, five years after the ACC first set its sights on BC, are the wounds beginning to heal. The lawsuit was settled after the sides agreed to mediation.
''There are some hurt feelings," said O'Brien, whose Eagles will face Florida State at Alumni Stadium Sept. 17 in their ACC opener. ''But that's to be expected in a situation like this."
Corrigan, who started the expansion movement 14 years ago, and still has friends in both leagues, acknowledges the damage that has been done. ''There's a lot of bitterness," he said. ''I'd be bitter if it happened to me. You'd be bitter. BC doesn't fit [in the ACC] geographical sense. But it's a private school with a great academic reputation. In every other way, it's a good fit."
It's a different fit for DeFilippo, a self-described ''Eastern guy" who one day thought he might become the Big East commissioner.
''We'll have to see how it all plays out," said DeFilippo, who said his five-year dialogue with the ACC was something any AD looking out for his school's interests would have done. ''I feel good about where we are and where we are going."