Sports

ACC : Cut off: Lobbying by Virginia officials caused SU to lose its ACC bid in 2003

At home in the dead of the night, the craving for that next Winston cigarette must have been insatiable. How bitter that next cup of half-black coffee must have tasted.

Jake Crouthamel piped down on 30 cigarettes and drank 10 cups of half-black coffee a day during his 27 years as director of athletics for Syracuse University. But in June 2003, this Winston, the first after Atlantic Coast Conference Commissioner John Swofford told Crouthamel the ACC had revoked Syracuse’s invitation to the ACC — one the Orange had accepted, Crouthamel said — must have provided the most requisite release of all.

‘As far as I was concerned, a formal invitation is a formal invitation,’ Crouthamel said. ‘I had assumed — and this was not a one-person decision, this was a conference decision — that it had been through and through and verified. The decision was made to invite Syracuse. The call was made extending the invitation, and Syracuse agreed.’

In 2003, eight years before Syracuse accepted an invitation three weeks ago on Sept. 18 to join the ACC along with Pittsburgh, SU accepted an invitation to join the very same league. Was it well known? No. But had Crouthamel and Swofford, together, come to some kind of terms on the direction of the ACC and Syracuse?

Yes.

‘In my mind the process has been thoroughly completed and it’s over,’ Crouthamel said. ‘So all of this stuff that was going on behind the scenes was unbeknown to me at the time.’

‘A friend was calling a friend and telling me that the original phone call that I had received before was no longer valid,’ Crouthamel added. ‘And I thought it was a betrayal.’

But why was it a betrayal? On June 4, 2003, three ACC officials visited the SU campus and the ACC was set on inviting Syracuse, along with the league’s top target, Miami, and Boston College. Yet two weeks later, Swofford made that phone call to his friend, rescinding the original offer and effectively ending their relationship. The two haven’t spoken since.

Crouthamel and then-SU Chancellor Kenneth ‘Buzz’ Shaw weren’t aware of exactly what and who were truly affecting Syracuse’s ACC candidacy and why Swofford rescinded the offer. That Boston College and Virginia Tech would ultimately enter the league over the Orange lay more in unknown politics hundreds of miles away.

Simply, why didn’t Syracuse end up in the ACC when it wanted to, eight years prior to 2011? When it had not only one, but arguably two chances?

***

Bill Leighty will be happy to tell you. He was, after all, the man who screwed a Virginia Tech-ACC license plate onto the governor of Virginia’s car mere days after Virginia Tech and Miami joined the ACC in late June 2003 — days after Swofford called Crouthamel — with a smile on his face.

Leighty, the former chief of staff to Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia, knows the reason why Syracuse’s invitation was revoked: Warner. The governor spearheaded a resilient lobbying and politicking plan in June of 2003 with the goal of the ACC and its presidents extending membership to Virginia Tech, Leighty said.

‘I think a lot of people worked on it,’ Leighty said. ‘But the bottom line is it would not have happened without Mark Warner’s involvement. Period.’

Warner’s expansive efforts targeted not only Virginia administrators and its Board of Visitors, but also Division-I presidents from the ACC and across the country.

What Leighty meant was that the ACC ultimately inviting Virginia Tech over Syracuse in 2003 was contingent upon Warner’s efforts. His eleventh-hour lobbying ultimately persuaded seven of nine ACC presidents to vote for Virginia Tech. And it helped that then-University of Virginia President John Casteen was on Warner’s side from the beginning.

‘What I can tell you is that John Casteen was supportive all along,’ Leighty said. ‘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.’

Crouthamel said he later found out Casteen was going as far as threatening to pull Virginia out of the conference if membership wasn’t extended to Virginia Tech — whether or not that was just a scare tactic was never tested.

None of it was simple. And none of it was apparent to Syracuse’s administrators at the time. Crouthamel found out about Warner’s politicking efforts later, when an ACC athletic director, who he declined to name, informed him of the events.

‘Yes, it was the governor of Virginia exerting a certain influence on the ACC on behalf of Virginia Tech, saying again they would pull Virginia out of the ACC if Virginia Tech wasn’t invited,’ Crouthamel said.

***

Richard Blumenthal effectively gave Warner the time he needed. The Connecticut attorney general filed a lawsuit in a Connecticut court on June 6, 2003, just two days after ACC officials left the Syracuse campus with what seemed like concrete mutual interest.

In the suit, Virginia Tech and four other Big East institutions accused the ACC of conspiring to destroy the Big East, seeking millions of dollars in monetary compensation. Virginia Tech vowed to preserve the Big East in the suit, but the school continued working privately toward ACC inclusion with the extra time.

All the while, Warner had the administrative backing of the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors, and with that, Casteen had all the power he needed to put forth his second expansion vote only for Virginia Tech.

According to ACC bylaws, seven of nine schools needed to vote yes to admit another school. Duke and North Carolina were traditionally opposed to any expansion. Virginia and Casteen, in essence, were that seventh swing vote. But one thing is clear: The suit had some effect.

It gave Warner time.

‘I do remember that we thought we were out (of luck) a number of times,’ Leighty said. ‘But there was additional time, and I guess the lawsuit was why that happened.’

Eight times, Leighty recalls, he and Warner thought it was over. Eight times, the prospects of Syracuse joining the ACC would have been better had they given up.

But finally on June 24, when the presidents voted on each expansion plan separately, Virginia Tech and Miami were approved as the 10th and 11th teams. Warner and Casteen had won. Crouthamel and Shaw had lost.

***

Syracuse history professor David Bennett thought it was obvious SU could still join the ACC even after June 24. This was an obvious second chance as, to Bennett, it was clear the ACC would go to 12 teams to have a lucrative conference championship game.

Bennett, the former chairman of the Athletic Policy Board and the NCAA Faculty Representative from 1975-95, went to Shaw.

‘The question I had for (Shaw), it wasn’t a question, it was a strong feeling, and it was that this could not stand,’ Bennett said. ‘ … They were clearly going to add either Boston College or Syracuse. And I thought we should make a full-court press to be that school.’

Shaw and Crouthamel chose not to.

Instead, the two, along with University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark Nordenberg and then-University of West Virginia President David Hardesty Jr., worked to rebuild the Big East into the unbalanced yet formidable 16-team basketball superconference it became, Shaw said.

Boston College, though, secretly pursued the path Bennett suggested for Syracuse and ultimately joined the ACC in October 2003.

‘At the time we had no intent of leaving, at the time we were obsessed with putting the conference back together,’ Shaw said.

Eight years later, though, Syracuse is in the ACC. The move was an ‘axiomatic’ one to Bennett. It was expected by Crouthamel, too.

Still, it hurts the former athletic director. Crouthamel is the 73-year-old who birthed the Big East conference with his two Beta Theta Phi fraternity brothers at Dartmouth — the late Dave Gavitt and Frank Rienzo. Gavitt became the first commissioner of the Big East, and Rienzo is a former Georgetown athletic director. Gavitt passed on the same day — Sept. 16 — the world found out Syracuse was in talks with the ACC again.

And even with the sudden news, both personally with the death of Gavitt and professionally with his former employer, Crouthamel doesn’t mind talking about what fell apart eight years ago. What once seemed inevitable then finally came to fruition now.

‘I was not surprised at the recent news,’ Crouthamel said. ‘ … My question is why they didn’t do it before in 2003.’

aolivero@syr.edu

—Development Editor Kathleen Ronayne contributed reporting to this article

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