'It is insane' — How the ACC's contentious, back-and-forth expansion deal ultimately got done

On Aug. 4, hours after the Big Ten acquired Oregon and Washington and the Big 12 acquired Arizona, Arizona State and Utah, ACC presidents gathered with commissioner Jim Phillips late on that Friday night.

Many within the league thought their pursuit of expansion had ended. The conference had been seriously exploring for more than a week adding the Arizona schools, Utah, Cal and Stanford, even holding communication with the presidents of those schools.

With three of the five heading elsewhere, the book on ACC expansion was expected to be closed.

Not so fast!

Conversations persisted, talks intensified and Phillips continued to move forward on the expansion proposal despite some of his biggest brands — Clemson, Florida State and North Carolina — pushing back against the measure.

On Friday morning, within the first 20 minutes of their meeting, ACC presidents got the required 12 votes to approve expansion before the clock struck 7:30 a.m.

What happened in between?

We take you inside the ACC’s pursuit and eventual agreement to expand to 18 members — a month-long endeavor with a variety of twists and turns:

Aug. 1

By this point, on the same day the Pac-12 revealed its streaming-only media package to league presidents, the ACC had seriously engaged in expansion discussions with Arizona, Arizona State, Utah, Cal and Stanford.

The move was triggered by Colorado’s departure from the Pac-12, which was made official July 27.

The ACC’s conversations with the five schools were serious. Phillips held discussions with the five presidents. However, while there was some momentum in the endeavor, the ACC found itself behind a rival Power Five conference: the Big 12, which had both geography and time on its side. Commissioner Brett Yormark had been pursuing the Arizona schools and Utah for months and had held intense discussions with Arizona specifically.

Aug. 4

As Pac-12 officials readied to approve the Apple streaming deal at an early morning meeting, Washington and Oregon, some 20 minutes before the meeting was set to begin, informed the league that they were leaving for the Big Ten.

The move set off a cascade of dominoes.

Under pressure to quickly make a decision from the Big 12, the Arizona schools and Utah committed to join the league, ending any conversation with the ACC.

That night, ACC officials met to discuss the expansion situation, which many within the league presumed to be dead given the circumstances. It was far from over.

Prominent Stanford officials, Notre Dame administrators and Phillips all kept alive the possibility.

“It was sheer chaos,” says one Stanford official who wished to remain anonymous. “We pursued the ACC aggressively. We kept pushing.”

The ACC's expansion saga finally comes to a close with the addition of Stanford, Cal and SMU. (Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)
The ACC's expansion saga finally comes to a close with the addition of Stanford, Cal and SMU. (Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images) (Jacob Kupferman via Getty Images)

Aug. 7

During that weekend, ACC athletic directors met on a call Saturday, where — to the surprise of some — the idea of expansion was presented as very much alive.

By Monday, Aug. 7, the possibility of expanding to add Stanford, Cal and now SMU became a real reality. League administrators had previously vetted the schools, and they now pored over financial models for such an expansion package.

With other power leagues increasing in membership, some ACC officials felt pressure to also add members, a “strength in numbers” approach, says one source. The move would also increase revenue, something that is critical for a league whose powerhouse programs are restless over the gap between it and the SEC and Big Ten.

The expansion also gave the conference a foothold in populous areas.

“You get a presence in California. You get a presence in Texas. You already have a presence in Florida,” says one ACC official who supported expansion. “That’s the three largest states in the country.”

Aug. 8

For the first time, SMU emerges publicly as a third team in the expansion package in a report by Yahoo Sports.

The school and ACC have been engrossed in what many consider a fickle courtship for more than a year. The Mustangs offer to enter the league without receiving revenue shares for as many as seven years. SMU offered similar proposals to both the Pac-12 and Big 12, to no avail.

But ACC administrators see the school as a good academic fit, an ideal location for a foothold (Texas) and maybe more than anything, an affordable move.

With deep-pocketed boosters and an obsession to move to a power league, the school eventually increases its proposal of accepting zero TV shares to nine years — a key change late in the process.

“We just want in,” says one SMU benefactor.

Aug. 9

During a presidents' call on a Wednesday night, an expansion proposal to add Stanford and Cal or all three fails by a vote of 11-4.

Twelve of 15 votes are needed for passage. Notre Dame, as a partial member, receives a full vote and is vehemently in support of expansion. The four dissenting votes — Clemson, FSU, North Carolina, NC State — cite a variety of factors for their position.

(1) They don’t believe there is enough additional revenue to incentivize such a move.

(2) They are against lengthy cross-country travel at a time when athlete health and well-being is at the center of an athletes rights movement.

(3) They believe the conference should not prioritize expansion and should instead focus on a further revenue distribution model from the base television money.

The additional revenue from expansion “does not move the needle,” one administrator from a dissenting school says.

Aug. 11

Prominent political figures, such as Condoleezza Rice (Stanford) and George W. Bush (SMU), begin to encourage officials at the four dissenting schools to reconsider.

“Hell,” says one conference executive, “if I had Condi Rice in my camp, I’d use her too.”

Rice is especially integral, spending hours on phone calls with ACC officials in an attempt to convince them to change their minds. Rice and athletic director Bernard Muir take leading roles in Stanford’s push for membership given the school’s unstable situation on the academic side.

School president Marc Tessier-Lavigne announced his resignation after an independent review of his research found significant flaws in studies he supervised. And the school’s provost, Persis Drell, is on her way out as well.

ACC officials were unsure who was making the decisions and how real the proposals were. The Stanford board involved itself as well.

“It’s a real mess,” says one ACC administrator involved in the talks.

Aug. 16

According to high-ranking ACC officials, expansion is considered a long shot or even “dead,” as one person described it.

“It was in the freezer,” says one athletic director.

But as things quieted publicly, Phillips and officials at the conference headquarters continued to hold conversations on expansion, specifically with Stanford officials. Persistent as ever, Stanford administrators and board members began to communicate with Bay Area mate Cal about making more concessions as a way to join the ACC.

By Aug. 18, serious work began at ACC headquarters on new financial models that, at that point, were not shared with league schools.

“We’ve seen nothing,” one school source says.

“If they have something, they aren’t sharing it with us,” says another.

Aug. 21

This is a Monday morning. And it is the start of Phillips’ week to make it happen.

He is equipped with the new financial models that he believes will satisfy the four dissenting schools. There is now more money to share, and there is a plan to reduce travel for the original 14 members and Notre Dame.

However, a scheduled presidents call the next day, Aug. 22, is suddenly canceled.

More than a week later, a source identifies the reason: Phillips instead met with the presidents — and later ADs — from the four dissenting schools to present to them the new financial model.

(1) Stanford and Cal will enter the league at a 30% share for seven years — far less than they originally planned — and SMU will enter at a zero share for nine years, two more than originally planned. This frees up more than $50 million in new money from ESPN, which is required to give a Tier 1 TV share to the league for each new member ($24 million per share for a total of $72 million). A portion of the new money will be evenly distributed to the original member schools while an estimated $25-30 million is placed in an athletic-success pool for distribution. The expansion schools will still receive other distributions from the league, and their TV shares will escalate through the course of the Grant of Rights.

(2) In a key component to reduce travel, the 15 original ACC members will only be required to send each one of their sports to the Bay Area once every two years. Under another component, eastern members and the two new western members would meet in Dallas to conduct competition in Olympic sports. SMU’s location provides a sensible central hub. It’s unclear if these components have been formalized.

Aug. 24

By this point, Phillips has met, in small groups, with every president in the league to present the new financial model, and he completes a week of meetings by presenting the model to the full group of athletic directors on Thursday night.

On Friday, there is a sense that presidents from both Carolina schools and even Florida State are seriously considering changing their vote.

“The league has done a good job of finding a solution,” said one official from one of the four schools. “I think this is going to eventually pass.”

While the three continue to discuss the situation, Clemson officials make clear their stance: The Tigers are against this expansion proposal.

Aug. 28

There is believed to be enough supporting votes.

ACC presidents schedule a meeting on Monday night where a vote is expected.

“They don’t call a meeting without a vote and they don’t vote without knowing it will pass,” says one ACC official.

Heading into the meeting, some even believe that the vote will be 14-1, with Clemson against. But no one is quite sure. Only one of the four dissenters needed to change its vote for the measure to pass. Would others join them in “yes” votes?

However, they never meet. An on-campus shooting at North Carolina postponed the meeting for four days.

Aug. 31

Roughly 11 hours before the rescheduled presidents call, the North Carolina board chair, David L. Boliek Jr., and vice chair, John P. Preyer, release a stunning statement.

They announce that a majority of the UNC board of trustees opposes expansion. It is the first real public sign that the expansion proposal will pass.

The panicked move is seen by many as a way to pressure dissenting presidents who are waffling. That includes the board’s own leader, UNC chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz, as well as NC State president Randy Woodson. Insiders had at first believed that the Carolina schools would be required, for mostly political reasons, to vote together.

“F*** that,” says one ACC official. “Miami and Florida State don’t vote together. You don’t have to do that.”

From the time that the presidents' call was originally scheduled, to the time it actually transpired — roughly four days — Florida State officials ended any flirtation with supporting the measure and told colleagues they were joining Clemson in voting it down.

UNC, Florida State and Clemson’s positions did not faze NC State athletic director Boo Corrigan and president Woodson. As early as last weekend, the school had decided to change its vote given the new financial proposal.

It was shocking for some that the two would vote differently. While the schools report to their own boards, the North Carolina board of governors acts as an umbrella overseeing both of them. The presidents have worked together in the past, and the two athletic directors, Corrigan and Bubba Cunningham (UNC), are close.

“What does this do to the political landscape of NC State and UNC?” asks one official working in the state.

NC State’s football team and athletic administration arrived home after 3 a.m. Friday after playing Thursday night at UConn to open the 2023 season. Four hours later, the school casts the deciding vote.

“It is insane,” says one ACC athletic administrator.

Sept. 1

Less than 20 minutes into their 7 a.m. ET call, ACC presidents pass the motion to expand by what is believed to be a 12-3 vote, with NC State having supported the measure.

At 3 a.m. in Hawaii, a small group of Stanford administrators — key to the entire process — held a quiet celebration. The Cardinal football team plays at Hawaii on Friday night.

Was there champagne? Balloons? Cake?

No, says one Stanford administrator who requested anonymity.

“We’ll tell the team when they wake up,” the person said. “I’m going back to bed.”