Virginia Tech (in white) plays Boston College in 2007. Courtesy of User B.
Virginia Tech (in white) plays Boston College in 2007. Courtesy of User B.

Governors leave their legacies in many ways.

For Mills Godwin, it’s the sales tax we pay at the grocery store and the community college system.

For Linwood Holton and Douglas Wilder, it’s in the form of opening doors that were previously closed.

For Mark Warner, it’s Virginia Tech’s football schedule.

To be fair, Warner has other things he can claim as part of his legacy, too, but I’m not here to discuss those today. Instead, I’m here to ask: Is part of Warner’s legacy — getting Virginia Tech into the Atlantic Coast Conference — about to come undone?

If you’re a sports fan, perhaps you’ve already been following the drama over the tensions within the ACC, tensions that could conceivably blow the conference apart. If you’re not a sports fan, the important thing to know is that lots of money is at stake and politics might potentially be involved.

First, let’s revisit the past. While the University of Virginia has been a member of the ACC almost since the conference’s founding in 1953 (the ACC was founded in May, UVa joined that December), Virginia Tech has been somewhat peripatetic, moving from the Southern Conference to independent status to the Metro Conference to the Atlantic 10 to, by the early 2000s, the Big East Conference. In terms of prestige, the Big East was a step up from previous alignments, but the Big East was also unstable — a mix of small schools that were focused on basketball and bigger universities where football was king. 

The ACC had been slowly growing from its Mid-Atlantic roots, adding Georgia Tech in 1979 and Florida State in 1991. Lest anyone think that this is about academic associations and other high-minded things, I suggest you sit down because I have some shocking news for you: This is all about money. Georgia Tech brought in the Atlanta media market; Florida State brought in, well, Florida.  

Anyway, come the early 2000s, the ACC had nine members. The NCAA, the governing body for college sports, had just authorized teams to add an additional game — a conference championship game for football — but only if a conference had 12 members. The ACC was concerned that some of its members (primarily Clemson, Florida State and Georgia Tech) might leave if it didn’t expand to 12 to allow a conference championship game, so the ACC was on the hunt for new members and the closest place to look for them was the Big East. Again, this was all about money — that conference championship game was seen as a new moneymaker. 

The three main targets were Boston College, Miami and Syracuse. Yes, yes, they were good schools and all that, but they also had football pedigrees — and brought in vast new media markets. The ACC had no interest in Virginia Tech — nothing personal, just business. The school in Blacksburg would add no media market that the conference didn’t already have.

Tech, though, very much wanted to be in the ACC. It also had an ally in Richmond: then-Governor Warner. 

This 2019 report by WRIC-TV in Richmond has the most detailed account I’ve found:

“I heard from friends in Southwest Virginia saying ‘Hey, Virginia Tech ought to make a run at joining the ACC,” says Warner. “And I thought about what it would do for the Commonwealth, for economic development. This makes some real sense.”

Warner tackled the issue head-on. He started working the phones just like it was an election. He was calling governors, school presidents and athletic directors across the Mid-Atlantic.

“We had some pushback,” Warner explained. “Initially, from the North Carolina schools who wanted the other TV markets of the other additions.

“Candidly we had more than a little pushback from some of the fans and some of the alumni at UVA.”

Another good account comes from WRAL-TV in Raleigh, North Carolina. It’s a bit dramatic and contains one glaring factual error (the University of Virginia Board of Visitors does not have 100 members; it has 17 members appointed by the governor). The key thing, though, is not the number, but that appointment method. “I did have to remind the UVa board members that they serve at the pleasure of the governor,” Warner told WRIC.

Other accounts suggest that one of those who didn’t have to be strongarmed was UVa’s president at the time, John Casteen. “What I can tell you is that John Casteen was supportive all along,” Warner’s chief of staff, Bill Leighty, told the Syracuse Daily Orange. “They did it very quietly, but I think that John Casteen recognized that it was a boost for the rivalry between Virginia and Virginia Tech, and I would actually say that Casteen and Warner were co-conspirators in this thing.” 

The paper quoted Syracuse’s athletic director saying that Casteen even threatened to pull Virginia out of the ACC if Virginia Tech wasn’t included. Whether that was a scare tactic or not, we don’t know. But the politicking worked. The only way the ACC could get enough votes for expansion was if Virginia voted “yes” — and Virginia would only vote “yes” if Virginia Tech was part of the deal. In June 2003, the ACC voted to add Miami and Virginia Tech. This came as a shock to Syracuse, which thought it had the votes to get in. In fact, the vote came as a shock to lots of people because a two-team expansion left the ACC one team short of the desired 12. But Tech was in, as of July 1, 2004. Eventually, Boston College entered in 2005, as did Syracuse and Pittsburgh in 2011, followed by Notre Dame (except in football) in 2013 and eventually Louisville in 2014.

Warner jokes — or maybe it’s not a joke — that his role in strong-arming Virginia Tech into the ACC made him popular among the Hokie Nation. “I was brought out at halftime at Lane Stadium in front of 75,000-odd fans, at least for a brief period of time,” Warner told WRIC-TV. “I had about a 98% approval rating — at least in Lane Stadium.” Years later, he still considered it such an accomplishment that he featured his role in Tech’s admission to the ACC in an ad in his 2014 Senate reelection campaign that featured former Virginia Tech star (and NFL Hall of Famer) Bruce Smith testifying that “no one did more to get Virginia Tech into the ACC than him.” 

This kind of political involvement in college sports is not without precedent. Then-Texas Gov. Ann Richards — a Baylor graduate — is said to have insisted that her alma mater, a private school, be included in the Big 12 when three Texas state schools (Texas, Texas A&M and Texas Tech) were involved in setting up the conference in 1994. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell — a Louisville grad — got involved in lobbying the Big 12 to admit his school, for a time scuttling West Virginia’s bid. (In the end, West Virginia got in and Louisville went to the ACC.)

All of this potentially becomes relevant with the latest news about the ACC. For those who don’t follow college sports, here’s what to know: The college sports landscape is once again unstable, and money is the reason. Two conferences are pulling ahead of all the others. The Southeastern Conference plucked Missouri and Texas A&M out of the Big 12 in 2012; now they’re set to add two more Big 12 defectors, Texas and Oklahoma, to grow to 16 schools. Meanwhile, the Big Ten hasn’t had 10 members for a long time; it now has 14 — and, come next year, 16. The University of Southern California and UCLA have pulled out of the Pac-12 to join the formerly Midwest-centered Big Ten to form a conference that will stretch from coast to coast.

That’s left other conferences — the Pac-12, the Big 12, the ACC — scrambling to keep up. More teams means more TV revenue — assuming, of course, they’re the “right schools,” meaning marquee schools with big fan bases and big media markets. College sports coverage these days reads a lot like a “Game of Thrones” season: Will the Big Ten try to lure some more schools away from the Pac-12? Will the SEC want to add more schools? Will the Pac-12 and Big 12 find themselves on a collision course as they try to add new members to make up for the ones they’ve lost? Or will they merge? And what about the ACC? Yes, what about the ACC?

The issue here — I can’t stress this enough — is money. Great big heaping gobs of it. The Big Ten and SEC are set to fill armored trucks with cash from lucrative broadcasting deals. The ACC schools feel themselves falling behind — perhaps by $30 million, according to Sports Illustrated. The ACC schools are bound through a legal agreement called a “grant of rights” — in other words, the schools have granted their broadcast rights to the conference through 2036. That’s supposed to make it effectively impossible for schools to leave, unless they pay a monstrous exit fee — $120 million. 

This week, Sports Illustrated published a bombshell report that said seven ACC schools, including Virginia and Virginia Tech, have been meeting with lawyers to explore just how airtight that “grant of rights” really is. The latest news is that the ACC will come up with a new revenue-sharing agreement that would direct more money to the most successful programs as a way to appease those restive seven schools. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports that Virginia Tech Athletic Director Whit Babcock confirms the school has looked at “options that might be out there.” Perhaps the key sentence: “Babcock declined comment on whether Virginia Tech and/or the seven schools together have met with other conferences.”

For now, David Teel of the Richmond Times-Dispatch reports that the ACC commissioner professes that “we’re all in this together — emphatically” and ESPN says that the athletic director at Florida State, perhaps the school with the most market value if it were to bolt, says “we’re thrilled to be in this league and want to stay here.” Maybe so. But things can change and the college sports landscape is changing fast.

Meanwhile, college football fan sites are rife with speculation: Would the Big Ten want Virginia? Would the SEC want Virginia Tech? Or would the SEC conclude that Virginia Tech doesn’t bring enough market value to a conference that, with Texas and Oklahoma, will soon add what the College Raptor website calls the two most profitable college football programs in the country? (It ranks Virginia Tech 23rd.) I have no idea. What I do know is this change in the revenue-sharing option has to be approved by the ACC presidents, and nine of the 15 schools are public institutions, which means at some point their presidents are answerable to, well, somebody in office. 

Every state has a different form of governance, but in Virginia, college presidents report to boards of visitors that are appointed by the governor. Gov. Glenn Youngkin surely has better things to do than get involved in questions such as which athletic conference Virginia and Virginia Tech play in. However, officeholders often find that outside events intrude on their agendas. Meanwhile in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis certainly seems to have lots of thoughts about what colleges should or should not be teaching. It’s not hard to imagine him having opinions about whether Florida State should remain a member of the ACC. And it’s not hard to imagine that all these college sports machinations might someday find themselves coming to Youngkin’s attention, whether he wants them to or not. If so, Youngkin might find himself in the same position that Warner did two decades ago: trying to get Virginia Tech into a sports conference that may not want it. 

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at