At a time when the ACC needed strength and solidarity to brush off rumors that the SEC would poach their schools, the University of Miami decided to deal the conference its first blow.
A damning report likely has league officials cringing right now, as the conference must deal with what may be the biggest college scandal since Southern Methodist University got slapped with the NCAA's "Death Penalty" back in 1986. Miami, the crown jewel of the ACC's conference expansion in 2004, is now dealing with allegations that a rogue booster turned the Hurricanes' athletic department into a Ponzi scheme-fueled monument to excess. Nevin Shapiro, a man so connected to the university that a student-athlete lounge was briefly named after him, may turn out to be the architect behind Miami's deconstruction.
First, let's give credit to Yahoo! Sports for being the NCAA watchdog that no one else seems capable. After rumblings of potential violations spread under the radar for months, Charles Robinson blew the story up to headline status with first-hand accounts of shadiness that few could have imagined. These reports having been brewing for nearly a year now, churned up in the wake of Shapiro's federal trial for defrauding investors in an expansive Ponzi operation. The booster's involvement with the university was a common topic while he was being prosecuted. Now, he's openly speaking with Yahoo!, and his claims seem like they may be difficult to disprove.
If the NCAA's investigation turns up evidence half as damning as Robinson's, Miami's future will make Ohio State's sanctions seem like five minutes of sitting in the corner. For the ACC, this is a problem. The conference needed solidarity as reports of the SEC luring some of its flagship members grew. Teams like Florida State, Virginia Tech, and Clemson have been named as potential SEC bait for over a year now. With Miami potentially crippled (and to be fair, they were coasting more on reputation than actual results in recent years), these three represent the balance of the conference's football power.
While Miami's impending crapstorm may not have a direct effect on the ACC, its outcome could be severe. While the conference itself will now be fighting harder than ever before to retain its strength on the football side of things, it will still have to deal with questions about the Hurricanes' problems and the legitimacy of the league itself. Even if things somehow blow over with the NCAA, this report has created a headache and a stigma that won't go away any time soon. Those are two things that will carry over to the conference itself even if there's no proven connection between the ACC and the violations.
Though there's little the conference can do about the ongoing investigation but cooperate, the spectre of the case presents a "locker room distraction" in the midst of potential realignment. Suddenly, Miami has become the Randy Moss of the Atlantic Coast Conference; it's clear what they can bring to the table, but their baggage may be the ultimate detriment. Add in the point that they're likely to face some handcuffing - if not crippling - sanctions, and their value couldn't be lower.
It's true that some headaches reform, but given Miami's low value in the face of sanctions, it seems unlikely that the 'Canes will present a Zach Randolph-esque story. Though this NCAA investigation has been going on for at least five months now, the backlash of public opinion may begin influencing decisions at schools the SEC has been taking a long look at. Will teams want to face a school that could be headed for a(n admittedly unlikely) media blackout? Would teams want to risk losing to the school that's playing without 30 scholarship athletes? Will this black eye be enough to negatively affect the conference's entire brand? In short - is the headache of this scandal and its outlying influence enough to be the deciding factor to desert the ACC?
More importantly, can Mike Slive and the SEC take advantage?
The SEC is the strongest conference in the south, and now its two regional rivals - the Big 12 and the ACC - have been weakened substantially. This opportunity to add quality programs that contribute to both the athletic and academic resume of the Southeastern Conference may never come again. Now, factor in a pissed off Mike Slive who recently exchanged heated words with Big 12 Commissioner Dan Beebe. Do you think Slive isn't going to do everything in his power to poach Texas A&M? And what about those one-to-three ACC schools who may now be reconsidering the SEC pitch? Suddenly, this quick turnaround for a 14 or 16 team expansion doesn't seem as unlikely as it did only a month earlier.
SEC programs have their problems - a long list of NCAA investigations will prove that - but none have had their doors blown off like Miami has over the past week. The league can offer the fiscal benefits of a major power conference and the prestige of five straight BCS championships. While these ACC schools may take a less blatant approach than A&M did when it comes to considering a switch, you can be assured that conversations are happening under the surface regarding potential realignment.
Of course, there are several more moving parts that muddle up the situation. Florida and South Carolina aren't happy with the idea of in-state rivals crowding their turf. Virginia Tech may not want to deal with the problems that come with their fourth conference switch in 12 years. Legal issues could hold up any potential movement for years. Regardless, the bottom line is that the potential for movement may be cresting, and if Miami's sanctions create a rising tide of issues for ACC teams, it will only boost the SEC's status as a stable destination.
This won't be a situation as dire as SMU's effect on the death of the Southwest Conference; modern NCAA rules wouldn't allow that. Still, it's a potential quagmire that could be the tipping point in any negotiations between the SEC and some Atlantic Coast standbys. That conference will have to buckle down to fight to keep their integrity intact, and that means retaining their flagship football members. If the ACC can't do that, then it's possible that Miami's upcoming sanctions could be a factor in creating the BCS's first superconference.