When the Syracuse Orange were invited to the ACC in 2011, the historically strong men’s basketball program was clearly a big part of it. However, the most important reason they were asked to join was football.
At the time, SU football didn’t look like much on a national scale, but then-coach Doug Marrone had the program turned in the right direction with a return to a bowl game in 2010 and a promising 2011 season ahead (thankfully they didn’t wait to invite us until the end of the year). Syracuse had struggled in the decade prior, but there was enough history there to bank on. For the Orange, it just took several years to really get it turned around under Dino Babers.
Obviously ACC commissioner John Swofford didn’t see Babers or the surprising 2018 season coming. But he did see the importance of prioritizing football as a means to help his league grow and continue to be successful. In the time since announcing Syracuse and Pitt’s respective additions in 2011 (for the 2013 season), the ACC’s also added Notre Dame on a part-time basis, swapped Maryland for Louisville, and announced a conference network. The ACC’s also won three football national championships in the time since. The entire conference has spent at least a few weeks in the top 25 in that stretch too.
Swofford hasn’t let men’s basketball — historically, the league’s top sport — go by the wayside in that time, either. Current ACC schools have won four titles since 2011. But in part, the reason the resources continue to be there for ACC schools to succeed in basketball is because of football’s success and how that played into launching what could be a lucrative network going forward.
There are certainly issues with the ACC at times, and Swofford doesn’t walk on water. But he’s managed to navigate a rough decade-plus for college sports with his league never looking better. That’s poised to continue as long as football’s looking good. Though even if it drops back a bit (hopefully not too much), the resources have been secured for the conference’s other sports to continue to contend on a national level.
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Swofford has been commissioner of the ACC since 1997, and throughout multiple waves of expansion, television rights negotiations and the creation of the College Football Playoff, he’s seen challenging times trying to get conference and university leadership on the same page. Through it all, those first expansion efforts in the 2000s remain an key pivot point in Swofford’s career as a commissioner and the league’s history as a power conference.
“For me, the word family is cliché. A lot of places – companies, teams at every level, use that word,” Belbey said. “But here, it’s special. I don’t even know if Joe Girard was born when Hakim had that block. He certainly didn’t watch it. But for those guys to recognize and respect the guys who came before them -- they didn’t have to come. They wanted to. It was so cool that they could all be here.”
“It’s unbelievable,” said Joe Girard III. “Being from New York, I kind of knew what all these Syracuse fans were about. But coming to a TBT tournament and having the atmosphere be kind of what it’s like in the Dome for these guys and the legends, it shows you’re a Syracuse legend for life, a Syracuse brother for life. These guys are always going to have the support of our community and our fans. It goes to show we have the best fans in the country.”
X-factor: Syracuse in September — Can the Orange knock off the Tigers at the Carrier Dome with the ABC primetime spotlight on Sept. 14? An upset there would throw off the entire rhythm of the ACC season and give Syracuse a legit shot at the Atlantic Division crown. The Orange were 6-0 and averaged 48 points per game at home in 2018.
Syracuse will have a strong defense this year, but will it be enough to stifle what could be the best Clemson offense of the Dabo Swinney era, and do so enough to support a new starting quarterback? That’s the question you have to answer — and answer with a yes — to place your money with the Orange.