Hokie History: Virginia Tech’s Path to the ACC
For many Hokie fans and alumni, it can be hard to remember a time when Virginia Tech was not a part of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC). For even casual fans, it is difficult to remember the days before the ACC’s current 15 team configuration. What began as an exclusive, academic-oriented seven-member conference evolved to become one of the most dominant athletic conferences in the NCAA and an undisputed part of the “Power 5” conferences.
The ACC’s expansion is part of the broader realignment that took place in the 2000s, upending college sports – particularly college football – and creating the conditions that exist today. Virginia Tech was a part of this realignment, and undoubtedly benefitted from becoming a. member of the ACC. But this was far from a guarantee at the time. Let’s turn back the hands of time and review this critical period of Hokie History when Virginia Tech moved to the ACC.
Early Conference Affiliations
Before joining the Big East, Virginia Tech bounced around various conference affiliations and was twice an independent in athletics. Between 1922 and 1964, Virginia Tech was a member of the Southern Conference – which ultimately spurred the creation of the Southeastern Conference (SEC) in 1932. The founding charter members of the Southern Conference included a mixture of current SEC and ACC teams: Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi State, North Carolina, North Carolina State, Tennessee, Virginia, Virginia Tech, and Washington & Lee.
The Southern Conference did not last long with its charter members. In 1932, the western schools all left and created the SEC. The Southern Conference added additional members to replace them, but in 1953 seven members met and decided to break away from the conference to found the ACC: Clemson, Duke, Maryland, North Carolina, North Carolina State, South Carolina and Wake Forest. The ACC later added Virginia and Georgia Tech, while South Carolina departed for the SEC.
This left Virginia Tech in the depleted Southern Conference. Virginia Tech did not leave for the SEC in 1932 and did not leave with the ACC in 1953, resulting in the Hokies remaining in the Southern Conference until finally deciding to opt for independence in 1964. Virginia Tech remained outside any conference affiliation for 25 years.
Joining the Big East
Seven basketball powers founded the Big East conference in 1979. The conference remained predominantly basketball-focused until inviting Football-only associate members beginning in 1991 in an effort to grow the reach of the conference. This unique configuration meant that there were essentially two parts of one conference: the smaller, Catholic, legacy basketball members (Georgetown, Villanova, Providence, St. John’s, etc.) and then the larger state universities and larger private schools that comprised the Big East’s football product. The 1991 additions included West Virginia, Miami (FL), Rutgers, Temple, and Virginia Tech.
Virginia Tech joined the Big East around the same time that it brought on the legendary football coach and alum Frank Beamer. The Hokies hired Beamer in 1987 and joined the Big East in 1991. In 1993, the Hokies had their first bowl appearance in six seasons.
As most Hokie fans know, Beamer turned Virginia Tech into a national power towards the end of the 1990s and as a member of the Big East. Beamer’s Hokies won the Big East conference title in the 1995 and 1996 seasons, going on to play in major bowl games against established powers like Texas and Nebraska. In 1999, Beamer and his once-in-a-generation quarterback Michael Vick led the Hokies to a national title game appearance.
The Big East of this time period stood on par with the other conferences. The Miami Hurricanes won national titles as Big East members in 1991 and 2001. West Virginia was a perennial top-25 team and had great success in the conference. Virginia Tech built upon the success of the 1999 season and became, like West Virginia, a regular top-25 team and an established, if sometimes shaky, national power.
But the Big East’s configuration was not stable. The charter members of the conference – mostly smaller, private basketball-oriented schools – began clashing with the larger Football-oriented members. No other conference had the same basketball/football divide, and the schools were all frankly too dissimilar for the Big East to survive. Conference realignment was bound to happen.
The Battle to Join the ACC
Within the Big East, there were a number of schools that openly and publicly lobbied to join other, more-established conferences. Those schools were Virginia Tech, Boston College, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Miami, and Boston College. The natural landing spot for any of these schools was the ACC given the geographic proximity and the ACC’s continued emphasis on academics in addition to athletics. Further, the ACC knew that it had to expand in order to keep up with other big-time conferences, and there was considerable fear within that conference that some members would try to leave for the SEC.
Bob Holliday at WRAL Sports has a fantastic article that summarizes some issues Virginia Tech had in making itself attractive as a candidate for the ACC. Initially, he writes, the ACC focused on Syracuse, Miami, and Boston College in order to bring in new TV markets without sacrificing the conference’s emphasis on excellent academics. Miami and Boston College, particularly, marketed themselves to the ACC as a package deal, according to Holliday’s reporting. The ACC commissioner at the time, John Swofford, maintained that the conference would consider new members who possessed strong academics in new geographic areas with the potential for new TV markets.
Here’s where Holliday’s article sets the situation for Virginia Tech at that time:
"Virginia Tech did not fit those templates… the ACC’s stated goals in 2003 were to expand the conference’s geographic footprint and get a foothold in some new and large TV markets. Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, did not score points in either of those categories."
Mark Warner: UVA Bully
Now this is where it gets really juicy. In 2003, Virginia Governor Mark Warner began aggressively courting the ACC on behalf of Virginia Tech. Governor Warner made it a top priority to get Virginia Tech into the ACC and join their in-state rival – the University of Virginia. Recounting the process at the time, now-Senator Warner remarked in an interview that “we had some pushback. Initially, from the North Carolina schools who wanted the other TV markets of the other additions. Candidly we had more than a little pushback from some of the fans and some of the alumni at UVA.”
The ACC required a supermajority of member universities to approve new members. With Duke and North Carolina opposed to Virginia Tech’s membership, UVA’s vote held enormous importance. Warner himself said to ABC 8 News that he “[had] to remind the UVA board members that they serve at the pleasure of the governor,” which hardly details the string-pulling that he went through.
For that story, let’s return to Bob Holliday’s article where he revisits Governor Mark Warner bulldozing and bullying the University of Virginia’s board members and president into accepting Virginia Tech’s membership:
"Virginia’s Governor issued marching orders: UVA President John Casteen could only support an ACC Expansion vote that included Virginia Tech… I realized [that] John Casteen, the President and CEO of the University of Virginia, would either follow Mark Warner’s game plan to get Virginia Tech invited to join the ACC, or face the wrath of the Virginia Board of Visitors, all 100 of whom were appointed by Gov. Warner. Checkmate!”
Governor Warner’s aggressive advocacy worked, and on June 18, 2003 the presidents of the ACC member institutions voted to extend Virginia Tech an offer of membership. The league presidents also extended an invitation to Virginia Tech’s Big East rival, Miami, while waiting another year to formally invite Boston College. As we all know, both Pittsburgh and Syracuse eventually joined the conference, as well as Louisville when charter-member Maryland departed for financial reasons.
It is hard to imagine Virginia Tech joining the ACC without Governor Warner’s interference. Through sheer political will, then-Governor Warner was able to bend the will of an entire athletic conference because of the power he held over UVA’s president at the time. Warner still highlights this as a signature achievement of his time in the governor’s mansion. In his 2014 re-election campaign for Senate, Warner actually produced an advertisement with Hokies legend Bruce Smith recounting Warner’s role in bringing Virginia Tech into the ACC.
Virginia Tech’s path to the ACC was winding. Virginia Tech failed to join the SEC and ACC out of the original Southern Conference. The Hokies then embarked on decades of independence before settling in the Frankenstein’s monster creation of the Big East football affiliates. When the Big East began its collapse, the Hokies were at risk of finding themselves left behind yet again.
Fortunately for Hokie fans, that did not happen. Virginia Tech joined the ACC as a full member in all sports and has since won four ACC football titles – including in their first year of conference membership, 2004.
The ACC has been a fantastic landing spot for Virginia Tech at both the academic and athletic level. Although history shows that no conference ever remains static for too long, Hokie fans can rest assured that the ACC with Virginia Tech in it continues to be one of the strongest and most stable conferences in the NCAA and in the Power Five.