CHARLOTTE, NC — North Carolina football coach Mack Brown got an almost inconceivable text message from his agent three weeks ago while playing golf with one of his grandchildren in Linville, a North Carolina mountain community.
UCLA and USC were making moves to leave the Pac-12 and join the Big Ten, a shocking departure that will occur in 2024 and break up their century-old affiliation with the West Coast league.
“I would’ve bet my life that would never happen,” Brown said Thursday at the ACC Kickoff preseason event, recalling the jarring moment the news hit him on the golf course.
College football has been rocked by conference realignment for another summer, with the bombshell Big 12 exit of Texas and Oklahoma for the SEC becoming the tipping point for the latest wave.
Brown, who turns 71 next month, spent 16 years as the coach at Texas, sandwiched around his two stints in charge of the Tar Heels, which cover 14 years and counting (1988-97, 2019-present).
His is a perspective earned across six decades in coaching, underlined by a national championship with the Longhorns in 2005 and College Football Hall of Fame induction in 2018. As something of a caretaker for the sport, he addressed the ACC’s league-wide concerns.
The Big Ten and SEC will grow to 16-member conferences by 2025 as the Power Five bends toward the potential forming of two 20-team super leagues. A day after commissioner Jim Phillips said “all options are on the table” during his state of the ACC address to start this annual kickoff event, Brown expressed apprehension about the momentum and direction of things.
“My fear is if we go to a two mega-conference situation and then your playoff becomes 16 teams, maybe, you’re the NFL,” he said. “And then college football around it has dropped.
“So I’m worried that we’re having some trickle-down effects that are really changing who we are in college football. That’s just not my style. I really like college football as it is, understanding it’s going to grow, understanding there’s got to be changes. But I’m afraid we’ve got too many changes that weren’t well-thought through, and therefore we’re seeing the consequences of some of those.”
Opinion:ACC commissioner has pure vision of college sports. That puts his league at risk
Dabo:Clemson coach focused on own team and ‘not really concerned’ about realignment
Sign up for our sports newsletter:All the sports news you need to know delivered right to you!
Fourteen seasons remain on the ACC’s television contract with ESPN, which was extended in 2016 and expires in 2036. If a school leaves the ACC and moves to another conference, breaking the league’s grant of rights deal would require an exit fee of perhaps $120 million.
The ACC’s per-team estimated payouts under its TV deal highlight the widening revenue gap the league faces in comparison to the SEC and Big Ten. The ACC should pay out about $40 million per team in approaching years, while the SEC and Big Ten figure to pay out more than $70 million per team with their upcoming deals.
Brown pointed to that aspect as he remembered the circumstances surrounding Florida State joining the ACC in 1992, growing the league to nine members at the time.
ACC football expanded again in 2005 (with Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College), in 2013 (with Pittsburgh and Syracuse) and in 2014 (with Louisville). Notre Dame, an ACC sports member but not for football, has played a rotation of five opponents from the ACC each season since 2014.
“Before it was just, ‘Florida State’s independent, are they going to come here or go to the SEC?’ ” Brown said, “and they made the decision for here. Now you’re talking about rights. You’re talking about poaching people from other leagues. You’re talking about losing some people from your league and is there enough rights there for TV to pay? So you’re talking about a lot of different things now than you were back then. It’s much more complicated now than it was.
“You’re really talking about changing the scope of college football if you go to two mega leagues: very different than what we have now. The College Football Playoff is based on five Power Five conferences with five commissioners, and if you have two leagues that play at the Power Five level, you’re obviously changing so many different things. It filters all the way down. You’re not just changing leagues, you’re changing the direction of college football.”
Adam Smith is a sports reporter for the Burlington Times-News and USA TODAY Network. You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @adam_smithTN on Twitter.