U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, recently had something to say about an important matter of policy: “Thrilled to see Virginia Tech advance to the next round of selection for a grant made possible by the CHIPS and Science Act,” Warner tweeted.
Virginia Tech fan Joe Rogers had something to say about an important matter of policy, too. He tweeted back: “Get us in the Big 10 or SEC. The ACC is a sinking ship.”
Everyone has different priorities.
A Virginia Tech fan asking Warner to help the school change athletic conferences isn’t a crazy notion, however.
For one thing, college athletic conferences across the country are in a state of flux: The Southeastern Conference raided the Big 12 for Texas and Oklahoma. The Big 10 just raided the Pac-12 for Southern California and UCLA. San Diego State has told the Mountain West it’s leaving, presumably to join the Pac-12. The schools in the Atlantic Coast Conference are bound together by a legal agreement called a “grant of rights” but some of them aren’t happy about this. They see other conferences — namely, the Big 10 and SEC — raking in a lot more television dollars than they are. Sports Illustrated recently reported that seven ACC schools, including Virginia and Virginia Tech, were evaluating their options.
After a restive meeting, the ACC has decided to come up with a new way of distributing its television revenues that’s aimed at mollifying some of those unhappy schools, but reapportioning the pie doesn’t create a bigger pie. The sports world continues to speculate feverishly about which schools might go where if the ACC blew up its legal chains. And not just the sports world. I wrote a column making the case that, in terms of academics, Virginia Tech is a more natural fit with the Big 10 than the SEC.
So what’s Warner got to do with all this?
When Warner was governor in the early 2000s, he helped get Virginia Tech into the ACC. Then-Attorney General Jerry Kilgore claimed some credit, too.
Kilgore’s office approved Virginia Tech joining a Big East lawsuit against the ACC that, in his view, helped slow down the process and create the negotiating space for Virginia Tech to get into the conference it was suing.
Warner helped persuade University of Virginia board members — who are appointed by the governor — that it was in their best interest to support Tech’s bid, a point of view that may not have come naturally to some of them.
Then-UVa President John Casteen may not have needed much persuading; by all accounts he was an enthusiastic supporter of Tech getting into the ACC. By one account, he threatened that Virginia would leave if Tech wasn’t allowed in. Whether that was a bluff or not we may never know, but the point is there was high-level political support — from a Democratic governor and a Republican attorney general — for Virginia and Virginia Tech to both be in the same conference.
That brotherly — or sisterly? — love between two major state universities is unheard of in some states. Texas A&M (that state’s equivalent to Virginia Tech) quit the Big 12 and joined the SEC in 2012 partly to get away from Texas. The feeling was the Aggies would forever be in the Longhorns’ shadow if they stayed in the Big 12; joining the powerhouse SEC would give them a more distinct identity. Texas A&M even rebuffed opportunities to continue its traditional Thanksgiving weekend rivalry game against Texas, prompting one state legislator to introduce a bill to mandate such a game — with the penalty for non-performance being the loss of some athletic scholarships. That bill didn’t pass but shows that Virginia politicians haven’t been the only ones to get involved in the politics of athletic conferences. Texas A&M’s self-induced separation from Texas won’t last, though. Now the Longhorns are following the Aggies into the SEC.
When Oklahoma announced that it was splitting from the Big 12, that meant it was also splitting from Oklahoma State. Then-Gov. Kevin Stitt was disappointed that the SEC was only taking the one school. “I’m concerned for Oklahoma State,” the governor said. “I want to make sure the Big 12 finds a home or expands, and that’s a going concern going forward. … We’re working behind the scenes to make sure Oklahoma State gets into a good spot, whether it’s an expanded Big 12 or it’s a merger with the PAC-12.” Oklahoma State is still in the Big 12, but the conference has expanded, with the addition of Texas Christian University and West Virginia, and the coming additions of Brigham Young, Cincinnati, Houston and Central Florida. So once again we see a governor getting involved in conference affiliation — and a desire to keep his two biggest state schools together.
By now, you may have figured out where this is going. If the ACC fell apart — let’s set aside the legal technicalities for now — would Virginia and Virginia Tech go together or separately to some future conference? And would our state’s leaders get involved to make sure that happened?
I ask these questions because I see very little speculation that puts them in the same conference. Generally, the chatter is that the Big 10 might want Virginia, while Virginia Tech sometimes gets mentioned for the SEC, or sometimes the Big 12, which at this point seem very much a consolation prize.
Anyone with a Twitter account can chatter. However, some chatter is worth more than others.
Sports journalist Jim Williams has reported that the Big 10 has vetted 10 possible schools as expansion candidates: California, Oregon, Stanford, Utah and Washington out west; Duke, Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Miami and Virginia out of the ACC.
You’ll notice that Virginia Tech is not among those.
Meanwhile, ESPN’s Pete Thamel reports that North Carolina and Virginia are “coveted” by both the Big 10 and the SEC. “This is what makes the prospect of landing North Carolina and Virginia integral in both leagues’ down-the-road expansion plans,” Thamel reported. “Outside of Notre Dame, there are no programs that will be as coveted by the SEC and Big Ten thanks to both geography and market.”
Given their backgrounds, Williams and Thamel likely have access to sources that the rest of us don’t.
Thamel goes on to make this case: “North Carolina and Virginia mark a geographic, population and recruiting battleground for the SEC and Big Ten,” Thamel said. “They are desirable media markets and could help with student recruiting, as they are the No. 9 (North Carolina) and No. 12 (Virginia) most populous states in the country. Both North Carolina and Virginia are in contiguous states for both leagues.” Of course, those same arguments for Virginia — adding a new market market for either conference — would also apply to Virginia Tech.
But would either conference want both schools? The argument against Virginia Tech joining the ACC back in 2003 was that the conference already had the Virginia media market so the Hokies didn’t bring much. Politics wound up overruling that business case; would they again?
There are lots of moving pieces here, and maybe a big unmoving one. First of all, that “grant of rights” to the ACC might hold schools in place, at least until it expires in 2036. If for some reason it doesn’t, there are lots of considerations, both for the schools in play and the conferences. Is it better for the SEC to take a defensive posture and add Clemson, Georgia Tech, Florida State and Miami so that the Big 10 doesn’t pick up some schools deep in SEC territory? Or would it hurt existing schools, recruiting-wise, to double up in some states — in which case is it better for the SEC to focus on adding new markets? Should the SEC look west as the Big 10 has, to schools such as Arizona and Colorado? Would that be better than adding schools in North Carolina or Virginia? Having added two schools in California, does the Big 10 need to keep looking west to find some additional playmates for USC and UCLA that wouldn’t involve such long road trips? If so, how many ACC schools could the Big 10 realistically add? And how big could some of these conferences become anyway? We could play this parlor game all day long.
Let’s circle back to the essential question: In 2003, Warner and Kilgore got involved to get Virginia Tech into the ACC. What would now-Sen. Warner, along with Gov. Glenn Youngkin and Attorney General Jason Miyares, do in 2023 to make sure that both Virginia and Virginia Tech wound up in desirable conferences, be they together or separately?
I asked spokespeople for all three. Warner and Youngkin didn’t respond, which is unusual. Both are usually quite responsive, so to me this silence wasn’t accidental. A spokesperson for Miyares did respond but said only: “Too soon to comment, but the AG is a big college sports fan and should something happen, I’ll let you know.”
The question that’s too hot to handle turns out to be about college sports. Who knew?