Embattled Leaders in the ACC


The ouster of UVA president Teresa Sullivan is just the latest (and most vivid) example of current and future ACC member schools experiencing unrest at their highest administrative levels.  Given that the conference is still viewed by many as a ripe target for poaching (and this despite its aggressive history in acquiring new schools), the added variable of real and potential leadership changes in the conference’s schools is another variable to the conference realignment conundrum.

Sullivan was discarded over revenue and expense clashes with board members  (and perhaps expedited by public and private workings of state leaders) regarding the school’s traditional academic focus and long-term strategy.  Aside from the firing itself, her departure seems to have also inflamed a power struggle between the school’s provost and chief operating officer, and made various internal assessments of the school’s problem areas a matter of public record.  For a school that was known for decades of steady influence and direction, this could be a shake-up on every level, including conference politics.

While I don’t see anything quite approaching this level of disorder in other ACC schools, there are a few current leaders who are in noticeably compromised positions:

Florida State

As noted in an earlier post, the Big 12 question is casting a lousy light on just about every higher-up at FSU.  FSU board chairman Andy Haggard has looked volatile and ignorant, President Eric Barron seems nervously defensive, Athletic Director Randy Spetman doesn’t look like he can manage an athletic budget, the boosters and school foundation have been publicly scapegoated, and football coach Jimbo Fisher seems to be playing the jester with one-liners worthy of a coach still in the SEC (and not one in the slightly less-powerful conference of the eastern seaboard.)


Athletic Director Kevin Anderson isn’t just overseeing the lackluster Randy Edsall experiment, he canned Ralph Friedgen (reigning ACC coach of the year) to do so.  Add to this the school’s upcoming elimination of eight varsity sports over budget problems, and his childish public spat with local rival Georgetown, and Anderson looks more and more like someone on the hot seat.  To my outsider’s eye, he seems the likeliest of this gaggle to depart in the near future.


President Donna Shalala, already a polarizing figure due to her political history, has been cited as the beneficiary of “friendly” loans during the Countrywide Mortgage meltdown, and has been publicly hammered for failing to halt Ponzi schemer and walking NCAA violation Nevin Shapiro from wreaking havoc on Miami’s football squad.  She has a survivor’s reputation, however, and I don’t see her going anywhere in the foreseeable future.


While the improprieties of Butch Davis and his staff are their own (and have already taken out Athletic Director Dick Baddour), and the arrival of these men on campus likely owed as much to the influence of UNC trustees as anything, academic failings fall squarely under the watch of Chancellor Holden Thorp.  And when a prominent professor such as Julius Nyang’oro appears to have hosted phony courses with free grades for the benefit of football players, the responsibility ultimately lies with Thorp.  It’s rare for sport-related academic scandals to fell executives, though the heap of woes befalling UNC has to have weakened the position of Chapel Hill’s Chancellor.  If the men’s basketball team is tied in to this mess (or even inadvertently uncovered), well, the sky might start falling.  Improvements to the football stadium might also prove to be a funding albatross, though almost certainly not as damaging as a tarnished basketball program would be.


This future member will be arriving with baggage.  Chancellor Nancy Sullivan is attempting to redefine ‘Cuse as a community benefactor intent on revitalizing the city of Syracuse and increasing disadvantaged students’ access to the school.  Along the way, the school has bought and revitalized a great deal of property all across the city, among various other good works.  On the flipside of this endeavor is the slippage in national rankings the school has experienced, which has raised the ire of trustees, alums, and professors.

SU isn’t the only school to adopt this community-focused model.  Notably, Brown is simply throwing buckets of cash at Providence for the next decade, while every other school in the country seems determined to become a local real estate mogul (Ohio State is a big one.)  These schools aren’t having the perception problems of Syracuse, though, and that’s where the tensions lie.

What’s all this mean in terms of football?  Unpredictability.  Even for a conference built on long-lasting relationships, sudden  shifts in leadership are a volatile force.  School and conference histories abound with decisions that rested on a single vote, or were accepted or denied based on alliances between schools.

If an institution like UVA (a “public Ivy” in the eyes of some) can change its organizational focus to a corporatized model in the course of a year, as seems to be happening, it will likely impact a major revenue sport like football.  Would Mr. Jefferson’s school suddenly be seeking acceptance into the Big 10 or even the SEC just to maximize profits?  I doubt it, but if some things come to pass I won’t discount it.

Conversely, if the theater at Florida State sparks an embarrassed refocusing on academic issues (one reflected in trustee and presidential appointments), would it effectively squelch all but the most reactionary realignment discussion?  Even a football machine like FSU would be a drastically different enterprise if its administration were filled with non-football fans, and its fanbase too apathetic from disappointing seasons to mount much protest.

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7 Responses to "Embattled Leaders in the ACC"

  1. JohnCassillo says:

    Tough to jump to the conclusion Syracuse has “baggage.” As an alum myself, it’s been frustrating to see the school focus less on students and more on community outreach, but that really hasn’t been a factor for football at all. For the most part, those strugles trace back to a poor coaching hire (Greg Robinson), and the rise of other northeast programs at the same time (Rutgers and UConn, plus Temple too, to an extent), cutting into the Orange’s traditional recruiting grounds. Under current coach Doug Marrone, those issues are being dealt with, but it’s going to take some time to repair the damage of the Robinson era.

    • Seems like you inadvertently supported my point. I think the only thing you can really argue in SU’s defense is that it not only is Cantor no longer embattled, but that her personal capital with the trustees, faculty, and alumni base is restored (and given where you took your argument, it’d be a position you probably wouldn’t believe yourself.) Otherwise, SU is bringing a volatile/compromised executive situation into the ACC leadership mix. I can’t see how that isn’t baggage. I don’t think anyone would consider it a neutral or positive factor.

      Looking at the recent specifics of the football team and the won-loss record is avoiding the issue of leadership the piece is focused on. Florida State has a baggage train, to abuse the earlier idiom, and they’re BCS contenders. If Jim Barker or Charles Steger were getting nationally publicized flak (internal and external) about the very direction they were steering CU or VT, I’d have to include them here.

  2. Sean Breslin says:

    I just wish all this realignment crap would end already.

  3. Atlee says:

    While Va Tech is currently the model of stability, it’s biggest problem is the aging leadership. Many of the top administrators have reached, or will soon reach 65 or 66 years of age. There can’t be but so many more years left in them.

    Our football coach, and the most powerful man in the athletic office, will hit 66 this fall. Plus, our AD is getting up there in age and has Parkinson’s disease. He may not be long for leadership either.

    Hopefully we are lucky and get great replacements.

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