When the college athletics conference realignment dance began anew, Louisville appeared to be left in the lurch. Rutgers and Maryland abruptly announced that they were yanking their teams from the Big East and the Atlantic Coast Conference, respectively, for the Big 10 — moves that had a dual impact on the Louisville Cardinals.
The Big East’s status as a major football conference, already endangered, was becoming even more tenuous. The more stable ACC, however, had an immediately vacancy.
But, despite Louisville’s recent high performance in recent sports, the Cardinals were not favored to join the ACC. Why couldn’t UofL simply slide into Maryland’s spot, fans asked?
Here was a reaction, to The Courier-Journal, which represented conventional wisdom among the sports commentariat:
“Could Louisville fit in the ACC? It could. Will it happen? I don’t think so,” said former Virginia Tech basketball coach Seth Greenberg, who is now an ESPN analyst. “I think the ACC looks down their nose at Louisville academically. I don’t know why, because there are surely other schools in that league that Louisville would be competitive with academically.”
This mattered less than Greenberg thought. On Wednesday, UofL joined the ACC, probably starting in the 2014 season.
So what do academics have to do with sports? Consider the ACC International Academic Collaborative, which coordinates academic collaboration between the member schools. Notice the tagline at the top: “Only the Ivy League includes more top 40 universities.”
So the ACC likes to brag about its academics. In the latest U.S. New & World Report rankings, Duke ranked No. 8. The only other school in the top 10 with notable athletics was the Pac-12’s Stanford (No. 7). Virginia (No. 24), Wake Forest (No. 27), UNC (No. 30), Georgia Tech (No. 36) Boston College (No. 44) and Miami (No. 44) were all in the top 50.
The lowest ranked school was North Carolina State, at No. 106.
Louisville was ranked No. 160.
This did not exclude UofL from being chosen.
OK, UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp did say this about UofL’s selection:
“Well, it was really all of the presidents who discussed it, and I think that what we felt was that what the ACC needed the most was to add the most exciting sports program that we could. That is the way to ensure that the success of the ACC in sports was successful enough to allow us to keep our group together, and we talked about that extensively.”
Thorp also said that the ACC’s leaders took into consideration Louisville’s “trajectory.” In other words, he conceded that UofL isn’t ranked as highly as its future ACC brethren.
To take the comparisons further, using U.S. News’ data, Duke’s four-year graduation rate is 89 percent. It has an endowment of $5.7 billion. It accepts 14 percent of its applicants.
Louisville’s four-year graduation rate is 22 percent. Its endowment is $769 million and it accepts 72.7 percent of its applicants.
OK, Duke is a private school. Let’s pick on N.C. State. Its four-year-graduation rate is 44 percent, its endowment is $617 million and it accepts 52.3 percent of applicants.
Those rankings don’t show a full picture, argues Joseph Steffen, a biology professor at the University of Louisville and chairman of the faculty senate.
For instance, Louisville fares quite well in Fulbright scholars and research endeavors when compared to ACC schools, Steffen said. And there’s that issue of trajectory. Steffen agrees with Thorp and his boss, UofL President James Ramsey, that the school is improving.
And the move to the ACC could accelerate that movement, Steffen said.
How? Steffen borrowed a biology term: “cross-pollination.”
As the ACCIAC illustrates, athletics conferences often collaborate academically. For UofL, this means the potential for faculty from ACC schools to visit and teach at UofL, and vice versa. High-profile games in North Carolina, Virginia and elsewhere means more exposure in parts of the country where UofL hasn’t treaded much in recent years — leading to more applicants from those areas.
“Now, we’re going to be in those markets, not just athletically but academically,” Steffen said. “We want students to know that, hey, UofL produces a lot of undergraduate Fulbright scholars, we want students to know that the New York papers have rated us as one of the top feeders to important graduate schools.”
Reputation also plays a role, he said — simply being affiliated with those schools can help.
Look at it this way: Hang out with the smart kids, you get labeled a smart kid.