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Sunday, July 17, 2022

Call Me Deacon Blues


It was early to mid December when I first heard the podcast.

I’m confident saying that for two reasons: The first is that I remember where I was: the parking lot of a restaurant I tend to visit just once a year - when my free birthday coupon comes in. I was listening to a then-recent episode of Southbound, but I had somehow missed both the episode header and the title of the book that was being discussed, despite it having been mentioned no less than twice in the intro. The author being interviewed by host Tommy Tomlinson - I later came to learn it was Ed Southern - was speaking about the history of college football in the south, much of which I had explored when researching CMB150; the south's lean towards the sport and North Carolina's contrasting allegiance to college basketball; the way the world ground to a halt in mid March 2020; and the unintentional-but-no-less-poignant contrast between Bama and Wake Forest present in the Steely Dan lyrics: "They got a name for the winners in the world/I want a name when I lose/They call Alabama the Crimson Tide/Call me Deacon Blues" - his wife's and his college sports allegiances, respectively. I was already intrigued, and when I put my car in park, I went to the episode title to find out the name of the book. Fight Songs: A Story of Love and Sports in a Complicated South. 

This is the second reason I'm confident of the date: I exercised the restraint of putting the book on my Christmas list rather than running out and getting it right then and there.

Sure enough, my mom got me the book for Christmas. At Southern's suggestion and my preference, she headed to a local bookstore - Scuppernong Books in downtown Greensboro. I started reading nearly immediately, and for a few reasons - not the least of which being my not always prioritizing reading and wanting to give it the proper attention - I wrapped up on vacation at the Carolina coast in early May. And while the title Fight Songs spoke to my band nerd heart, the book was "we'll herald the story and die for her glory" and "Dixie's football pride" in premise, if not prose. 

One of the first things that struck me was that the book was hyperlocal to me, in both time and space. Ed Southern attended Wake Forest and currently calls Winston-Salem - a half hour to my west - home. But it also took place in, functionally, the present day. My reading selections are primarily nonfiction, but they tend to be either evergreen or identifiably in the past. Fight Songs begins at the top of the still-enduring pandemic, as the world ground to a halt. In the exercise of "where were you when..." Southern speaks of the ACC men's basketball tournament - its cultural significance, both in the conference's previous iteration and enduring still, to North Carolina. In 2020, the Greensboro Coliseum hosted the tournament in its ancestral homeland - or half of it, at least. For me, having attended the women's tournament the week before, I had every intention of seeing the men as the pandemic's impact hit the American shores. on Wednesday, we received word that the Thursday quarterfinals - which I intended to attend - would be closed to spectators. Other conference tournaments began calling it off, and by mid-day Thursday, before tip of the Clemson-Florida State quarterfinal, the tournament was canceled.

As for Wake Forest, it probably should be my favorite ACC team. Hell, maybe it is. When University of Maryland, College Park was still a member, it was easy, but since their defection, there's no true frontrunner. Wake's the local school, sure, but it's also a small, selective, nondiverse private school, which runs counter to my public regional university roots. Plus, the size of their marching band leaves some to be desired. Carolina and State get my tax dollars, sure, but I've never had much use for flagships, despite the previous mention of UMCP. I've been known to state UVA, with an insider chuckle to the folks who know my particular connection to March 16, 2018. But while I don't claim Wake, I've probably been to their stadium just about as often as any other, including my own alma mater, where I haven't attended a game live in a decade and a half.

As a foil to Southern's Demon Deacon allegiance sits his wife's Alabama, boasting more championships than anyone else currently playing college football at the highest level by any reasonable metric. Baked into that dichotomy is a definition of what "south" truly is, as our North Carolina hitches its wagon to college basketball in a way that seems to defy a southern identity. Indeed, Southern's interrogation of a sense of south parallels my own. In Southern's case (and yes, he acknowledges the auspice of his family name) North Carolina is surely south, but is it south south? For me, I still hesitate to consider myself a southerner despite having lived in some definition of the south nearly my entire adult life and having 3 1/2 southern grandparents (my tongue-in-cheek 1/2 reference being a nod to my DC native grandmother, while also acknowledging that DC - especially growing up there Black in the 1920s and '30s - was and is largely a southern city).

The book is a love story, to be sure, and speaks of Southern and his wife's courtship, marriage, and life together, against the backdrop of their respective southernness and college sports allegiances, but also of the pleasures and pitfalls of college sports in particular: sports' power to unite; the mismatches born of realignment (and Syracuse fans at Stamey's pales in comparison to what's to come); and the immense wealth generated by sports - especially football - that seems to enrich everyone except the proletariat, except lately with the onset of NIL. It reaches back to college football's march south from its northeastern roots in the long shadow of the Civil War and brings us through integration, in the macro and micro, to the present day. While I'm hesitant to put this into the universe, the book is thorough enough with the legacy of the "complicated south" that certain school systems might be inclined to affix it with a certain three letter acronym and ban it from instruction. Fight Songs pulls no punches, and in such, it digs deep into a sport, a system, hell, a region and country we all love, even while daring to delve into the finer points of its makeup.

There are a few books I've been known to revisit, and I've got a good feeling this will be one of them. I encourage y'all to check it out too.

Friday, July 15, 2022

Rights and Wrongs


The ACC Grant of Rights is either the smartest or stupidest thing its member institutions could have done.

It may be both.

As another round of college sports realignment hangs in the air, the only teams that don't seem to be in play either already found their seat in growing superpowers the SEC and Big Ten, or are in the ACC. During the last major reshuffle, the member institutions swore what functionally amounts to a blood oath to one another: They contracted to “irrevocably and exclusively grants to the conference during the term all rights necessary for the conference to perform the contractual obligations of the conference expressly set forth in the ESPN agreement..” This means that even if a school were to leave the conference, all assets they would stand to gain from their new landing place through media rights would be remitted to the ACC. Practically, it makes the schools untouchable, so long as the grant of rights remains in play, which at present is until 2036 without some sort of intervention.

Conventional wisdom is that were the grant of rights not in place, the ACC would be in jeopardy. Geographically - as though that still matters - they already share nearly their entire footprint with the two 800 pound gorillas, and the more football-fronted schools in particular would make an excellent addition to either. The conference members have fortified themselves from poaching, but in doing so have locked themselves into a media rights deal that will continue to fall behind the power players. What the conference gained in stability, they lost in agility. While others can renegotiate and make forays into new media, the ACC remains locked for the next 14 years.

The grant of rights first came into being in 2013 near the close of a previous round of realignment. The ACC had been a primary aggressor at that point, decimating what was then the Big East, but tasted its own blood when losing the Terps to the Big Ten. Fearing future volatility, the first grant of rights centered around the contract with ESPN at the time; it was modified in 2016 with the groundwork for what would become the ACC Network and set for 20 years, to expire in 2036.

The thing is, 20 years is virtually an eon when it comes to the everchanging media landscape. Imagine, for example, a 20 year deal inked 20 years prior, in 1996. At that point, there's no way it could have anticipated even ubiquitous high speed internet and wifi, much less ESPN+, conference networks, YouTube, streaming services, and virtually every game being televised in some fashion. Knowing how rapidly the landscape changed in the first dozen years or so of the 21st century, the members had to have known that there was no way to imagine what the landscape would be 20 years hence. In walling off their city, they also shielded themselves from some modicum of progress. 

Time what the future holds for the conference. They may be faced with an impossible choice: Letting the contract stand pat may mean taking less than they're worth, but to seek to rework the terms could provide the out that potential deserters need to answer other calls. Meanwhile, the SEC and Big Ten have reportedly both said there won't be any more moves - for now - and a big piece of that may be that the most attractive candidates are currently bound to the ACC. Should the grant of rights fall, the realignment land grab would likely spring back into high gear.

Friday, July 8, 2022

No Division

(Yes, I'm well aware of the huge disturbance in the force that happened just over a week ago. I'm sure I'll get into that that at some point, possibly when/if the dust settles. In the meantime, I did get most of my thoughts out in this tweetstorm.)

So long, Atlantic. Farewell, Coastal. We barely knew thee.

No, seriously. 17 years of divisional play and I still can't get it right.

The ACC has done away with divisions, and in doing so will likely be the first Power 5 conference to make the move to divisionless football for a league of 12+ members. Rather than division champions meeting in Charlotte in early December, the two best conference records - tiebreakers withstanding - will play for the championship. The move meets two goals: First, having the top two teams meet gives the conference the best chance to put a team into the College Football Playoff: Whichever team wins will pick up another quality win, and there's no chance of, say, a 7-5 division champion pulling an upset and scuttling the conference's chances. It also ensures that conference teams will meet as often as possible: Each team will play its three permanent opponents annually, and meet the remaining ten teams twice every four years, ensuring a home-and-away experience on each campus for any four year players. In doing so, they combat one of the less savory aspects of large conferences: conferencemates meeting so seldom that any shared affiliation is merely a formality. Famously, SEC conferencemates Georgia and Texas A&M have met just once in the decade that the two have shared a conference.

The SEC's expansion, in fact, may very well have set the wheels in motion for this style of scheduling. With the expansion to two seven-team division plus a permanent crossover rival, SEC teams could only cycle through the rest of the opposite division opponents once every six years. At that point, someone more clever than I mapped out the 3-5-5 scheduling model the ACC now employs; quite a few folks took a shot at mapping out permanent rivals. I was one of them. Still, the SEC's longevity and relative stability as a conference led to more natural pairings of permanent opponents, such that mot models looked pretty similar in what matchups they preserved.

In contrast, the schools of the ACC vary greatly in terms of longevity with one another. Charter members like UNC and UVA have faced one another in the South's Oldest Rivalry since 1892, while Louisville, the league's newest member, shared the Big East with a few current members, but as both a temporal and geographic outlier has little history to speak of. Some programs bring history from previous leagues with them; Some rivalries are more recent constructions.

To begin with, the schedule made all of its lobs, preserving FSU-Miami, Virginia-Virginia Tech, and UNC-Duke and UNC-NC State. Clemson-NC State maintain the Textile Bowl as the Carolinas' land grant PWIs; old Big East tilts like Pitt-Syracuse and Boston College-Miami remain as well (curiously enough, Miami-Louisville, both former Big East members but never simultaneously, are also paired). The slate features a few closed triangles: The northern triumvirate of Syracuse-Boston College-Pitt, and the Research Triangle of UNC-NC State-Duke. Like geographically, Wake Forest breaks with its Tobacco Road brethren, matching only with their Methodist counterparts at Duke. 

Still, even the misses won't be strangers, as league opponents not protected will still play 50% of the time. The ACC is slated to begin this schedule in 2023; the SEC and Big Ten are currently exploring how future schedules will look for them, though recent and future realignment will certainly play a role.

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