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ACC invites Pittsburgh, Syracuse to join conference

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(AP) - The Atlantic Coast Conference has extended its northern reach, adding Pittsburgh and Syracuse. Now the question becomes, will the league stop there - or keep growing to 16?

John Swofford, commissioner for the Atlantic Coast Conference, speaks to reporters in 2008, in Atlanta. (Photo: Associated Press)

The ACC announced Sunday that its council of presidents unanimously voted to accept Pittsburgh and Syracuse, a move that increases its membership to 14 and sends the Big East scrambling - again - to replace two of its cornerstone programs.

"We are constantly evaluating the competitive landscape to ensure the conference's viability for years to come, and this, I believe, has staying power," ACC Commissioner John Swofford said on a conference call.

"First of all, we are very comfortable with this 14," he added. "The only thing I would add to that is that we are not philosophically opposed to 16. But for now we are very pleased with this 14. We think it is just an excellent group."

The announcement caps a turbulent week of reshuffling for the ACC. It likely will lead to another dramatic shift in college athletics and could mark the next step toward the era of 16-team superconferences.

Texas A&M already has announced its intention to join the Southeastern Conference, leaving the future of the Big 12 in doubt. And the board of regents at Oklahoma and Texas are meeting Monday to discuss the possibility of the universities leaving that conference.

The invitations came after Pittsburgh and Syracuse submitted letters of application to join the league, the ACC said. It is unclear when the move will take effect. The Big East's exit fee is $5 million, and schools wanting to leave must provide 27 months' notice.

"The Big East has been Pitt's conference home for nearly 30 years. It has been a good home that we will leave with many fond memories and many strong friendships," Pitt chancellor Mark Nordenberg said on the call. "All of us are committed to working with (Big East commissioner John Marinatto) to make this a smooth transition."

Saying the league was excited about adding to its "northern tier," Florida State President Eric Barron confirmed to The Associated Press on Saturday that the ACC had received the application letters from Pitt and Syracuse.

He said 11 of 12 league presidents attended a meeting in Greensboro, N.C., last Tuesday, with the other participating by phone. During the meeting, they unanimously approved raising the exit fee to $20 million - up from $12 million to $14 million - for any member leaving the conference, a maneuver seemingly designed to keep the remaining ACC schools in the fold.

The latest moves are sure to create even more bad blood between two conferences that became embroiled in a nasty lawsuit the last time the ACC expanded by adding schools from the Big East. A multibillion dollar settlement reached in 2005 included the scheduling of nine interconference football games.

Pitt and Syracuse bring the number of programs making the Big East-to-ACC jump in the past decade to five, and Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich said the most recent moves were "kind of a shock to everybody."

Syracuse was one of the original targets of a previous round of expansion by the ACC along with Miami and Boston College in 2003.

"We are pleased that Syracuse adds a New York City dimension to the ACC, a region in which we have built strong identity and affinity, and we look forward to bringing ACC games to the Big Apple," Syracuse Chancellor Nancy Cantor said in a release. "Overall, for Syracuse, this opportunity provides long-term conference stability in what is an uncertain, evolving, and rapidly shifting national landscape."

The ACC ultimately added the Hurricanes and Virginia Tech for the 2004 season and brought in BC for the following season as its 12th member.

Now the question is how the ACC's latest round of expansion will affect the rest of the college sports landscape.

The future of the Big 12 remains in doubt, with Texas A&M already announcing its intention to join the Southeastern Conference. The board of regents at Oklahoma and Texas are meeting Monday to discuss the possibility of the universities leaving that conference.

There already has been speculation that West Virginia would be a target for the SEC to balance out that conference and grow to 14 members if and when Texas A&M finally joins.

Until now, the focus of this most recent round of realignment had centered on the Big 12. Oklahoma could be leaving for the Pac-12 and taking Oklahoma State with it. Texas has stated its desire to keep the Big 12 together, but the Pac-12 could be an option as well as football independence, a la Notre Dame, which competes in the Big East in all other sports.

There also have been reports linking Texas to the ACC, a move that could include Texas Tech. Other reports indicated two more Big East teams - Connecticut and Rutgers - could be under consideration by the ACC.

While the addition of Syracuse and Pitt brings the ACC to 14 members, 16 might make more sense. Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany has said his league is set with 12, but could reconsider if other conferences make additions.

When the Big Ten was looking to expand last summer, there was plenty of speculation about Big East schools on the Big Ten's target list.

But the Big Ten added only Nebraska from the Big 12, and a few months later the Big East announced TCU from the Mountain West Conference was joining the league next year.

Complicating matters for the Big East, different numbers of its schools play football and basketball, and they often have different agendas. The nonfootball members - which include Georgetown, Marquette and Villanova - help make it one of the nation's strongest basketball conferences. The other football-playing members are West Virginia, Rutgers, Connecticut, Louisville, South Florida and Cincinnati.

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