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Opinion Week: We Do Belong in the ACC

Yes, this is a somewhat clickbait-y title, but I couldn’t not use it, especially given Tuesday’s article in this space.

NCAA FOOTBALL: DEC 06 ACC Championship Game - Florida State v Georgia Tech Photo by Dannie Walls/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Every game is a big game. Before we get into it, that’s the takeaway. Every game matters, and we need to act like it does.

It’s not often that I come out of the metaphorical FTRS version of the courtyard between Mason and Bunger-Henry, also known as the world of Tech non-revenue sports and history, and much less often do I get to write an opinion piece. But seeing Tuesday’s opinion made this one substantially easier to write.

Alright, let’s get to it.

I’ll begin this by quoting myself in the fourth ever edition of Rearview Mirror, which is, for those who are unfamiliar, From the Rumble Seat’s weekly history column:

“I long for the days of playing Auburn. There, I said it. Might as well start with that.”

I will be the first to admit that this pro-ACC column is an interesting argument to be coming from the resident historian. I am on the record several times saying that I wish we still maintained our historic rivalries. I get it, I started a blood feud with the Belk Bowl in 2018 after they led us on that that game was going to be Tech/Auburn and instead we got shipped out to the Quick Lane Bowl in beautiful, breezy Detroit. I’ve only been a Tech fan since 2015. I don’t have a lot of legs to stand on here. In Auburn’s case, my only memory of the last football season we played them was being a starry-eyed ten year old on the way to watch Indiana get their [Aerosmith] kicked in by Ohio State at the Rock in Bloomington. But I recall Tennessee in 2017 vividly. I remember when they dug that old cowbell before the Vanderbilt game. Though saying the game against the checkered orange and white-clad fans was a bit better attended might be an understatement, both were interesting, meaningful, and provoked emotion from our fanbase. That was really a fun environment to be a part of. So why am I saying I don’t want that?

I think the better question is, why isn’t every game like that?

It amused me to see an old column of mine cited as evidence that we don’t belong in the ACC on Tuesday. Really, this was shaping up to be a completely different column, one much more “rah-rah, go Jackets” than what this turned into. Levi cites the (admitted) failure of the “Notre Dame of the South” model as a reason we should still be in the Southeastern Conference. I think a much better one to look at would be a look at the late and post-coaching days of Bobby Dodd found here.

The SEC, whether academically, institutionally, competitively, philosophically, or legislatively, was rapidly becoming a poor fit for Georgia Tech. That’s the sentence summary right there. For more detail, check out the latter two related articles. But that’s beside the point. We didn’t leave because of the allure of life as an independent, but rather because going alone was less bad than being in a conference of teams that despised us for what we were both on and off the field. Tech being Pat Narduzzi’s whipping boy for its alleged cut blocking was nothing compared to the chorus of accused elitism, media bias, and carpetbagging from most of the rest of the conference.

Auburn wanted us out of their neighborhood; the school in Athens wanted us dead to rights. Alabama completely, thoroughly hated us. Compromise would have been a miracle.

And it wasn’t meant to be.

Tech didn’t aim to become an independent, it saw it as the only way for the football program to survive. If you think the effects were mediocre for football, it was a thousand times harder for the rest of the athletic programs, but football was what kept the lights on. Dodd had no way to envision the explosion of conference bowl tie-ins - as late as the early 1960s the Rose Bowl would consider Alabama for the eastern representative slot - monetary payouts, or the other colossal shifts in the landscape. Sure, professional sports were coming, but independence was supposed to be Tech’s way to stay ahead of that curve.

I think the fact that West Virginia doesn’t play Pittsburgh every year is a travesty. I think that Lousiville and Cincinnati should still fight over a Keg of Nails. Auburn, Tennessee, Alabama falling off of our schedule is a bad thing. One of the great shames of modern college athletics is conference realignment.

But here’s the thing: the SEC isn’t going to come crawling back any time soon.

The Mississippi schools still hate us. The Athenians would rather eat the posts of their victory bell like beavers and saw the ABSOLUTELY EXTRANEOUS COLUMN out of the middle of their arch made of repurposed lampposts than see us in the SEC East. Great, now I’m worked up about the extra post, too. Auburn was our closest institutional peer in 1963 and wanted us as far away from the conference as possible, for their own benefit in the Atlanta exposure and on the recruiting trail. They don’t want us back now.

But it’s not like we have no one where we’re at, either.

Clemson is our second most important rival. We stole their legendary, game-inventing coach away with the allure of giving him more money, and rode that all the way to being the South’s first true football power, no matter what Vanderbilt says.

We’ve played Duke for going on ninety years now. Auburn’s time as our second most-played rival is not long for this world. Sure, it would be nice if Duke fans, uh, existed outside of the November to March timeframe, but, for a team that our whole fanbase seems to act is a gimme game every year, we’re only .586 against them all time, pretty competitive, rather than the one-sided tilt one might expect, based on tone. It’s been a chippy game in the past, even so much as becoming a noted storyline from this past year. Familiarity, by definition, breeds contempt. This one is long overdue.

Levi admitted as much in the pro-SEC piece, but VPISU has burgeoned into a legitimate rival. End of story.

To paraphrase the writer’s room Slack conversation, Miami is not a rival, they’re just [ABBA]holes. But it’s okay to hate [Alan Parsons Project]holes. They earn that right by demonstrating a repeated pattern of not being, well, not all that nice.

Add to that Florida State, for obvious reasons, when we’re lucky enough to catch them on our schedule; North Carolina, a school we have a competitive .545 record against and have played more times than Alabama; Virginia, a school who has every right to give us credit for incinerating their one great hope to win it all and a school that we’ve played more than Vanderbilt (and who, by the way, will match Tennessee in 2021); and the occasional visit from storied rival Notre Dame — that’s the bones of a good football schedule, and some teams that should, by all measures, make your blood boil, for their actions on the gridiron, with conference politics, on the basketball court, or in the classroom.

The main thing stopping any of these teams from being a team that gets our fanbase excited is, well, the fanbase. The reason we see a conference we were in for a shorter time as a “rightful” home is because we can’t take the blinders off and appreciate what’s in front of us. For a fanbase that (rightfully, in my opinion) derides our neighbors to the east when they incessantly carry on about past glories of one Herschel Walker, or whatnot, we sure don’t do a good job of putting our money where our mouth is. The thing is, emotion is contagious. People who see us excited about our team, amped up about our opponents, and living in the moment respond to it. It sells them on the allure of Bobby Dodd Stadium, rather than pining over teams we haven’t come across in decades.

Every game is a big game.

It takes one game to build this acrimony. I still hear about the Syracuse “Airball” basketball anecdotally, and every time, the mention of the team makes my blood boil. I didn’t come into my Tech fandom with any ill-will to the Orange, but it took one game of heckling and one phone call about ACC ELITE MEN’S BASKETBALL did plenty for that (Sidenote worthy of Basketball Opinion Week: where did that student section go...?). I didn’t come into Tech hating the school in Athens, but everyone around me told me to. This helped. Talk about it, eagerly talk to people about why they should be passionate about it. And lean into it.

Every game is a big game.

When we treat games and opponents like they matter, when the most important game is the one staring us in the face, they all take on that elevated meaning we use when we talk in hushed tones of the memories of the days gone by. Oh, we haven’t played Pittsburgh enough and they’re too far away? We’ve played them just three fewer times than Virginia Tech, a school with a definable enough rivalry that there’s a reddit flair for it, and have palpable historic roots with the boys on Cardiac Hill. Minnesota and Michigan are a negligible forty miles farther apart and have been trading a little brown jug back and forth for a century, and cultivated a rivalry with 650 miles of lakes, factories, and cheese between them in the days before radio and television, let alone the internet.

I’m not saying we have to all wake up, head to Pittsburgh, and metaphorically cut block the Cathedral of Learning. I’m just saying it’s possible to feel for them in a way that just means more than whatever you feel for them now. It’s not lying to yourself, it’s setting aside some of the emotional bandwidth left open for Auburn and Tennessee and directing it towards Heinz Field rather than, say, Jordan-Hare.

This is all not to say that there could be windfalls, particularly financially, if we went back. The eyes on the football program might change. Or we could struggle for relevance and attention. In the ACC, particularly in the Coastal, particularly right now, we are in a place that institutionally, academically, on the football field, and in every other sports, is a good fit for Georgia Tech.

Could it divisions be better? Absolutely. I’ve thought long and hard about positive realignment in college football, and whether it’s something like an ACC South (Miami, FSU, Tech, Clemson, Louisville, and the Virginia schools) and North (Boston College, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, and Tobacco Road), ideally with a cross-divisional rival like, say, keeping Duke, pods, or just having a few protected matchups (Clemson, FSU, VPISU, Duke, etc.) and rotating the rest, meaning we’d see the mysterious Syracuses and Boston Colleges more often, allowing to build some of those shared experiences, I think internal reorganization could benefit the conference greatly.

Georgia Tech has a path, though not always smooth, if things work out, to being the Coastal’s equivalent of a Clemson-like behemoth sitting on top of the division. I know that’s a bold thing to say about a team that went 3-9 and lost to an FCS team last year, but branding, investment, and hype are what this team needs. So be the conference’s answer to big city attention and its keystone in the capital of college football. Schedule series with Alabama, Tulane, and Vanderbilt, have Chick-fil-a Kickoffs against Tennessee, and try to get Auburn back on the schedule. These are good things. But they can complement what we have, rather than not focusing on what is now in favor of what used to be.

Dare I say it, but we already have a model for that. That’s Georgia Tech baseball.

They have their three game set with the school in Athens, annual home-and-homes with Auburn and the other in-state schools, the conference schedule, and some non-conference games. Yes, I realize that comparing one of the most extensively scheduled sports with something about as miserly as cross country or swimming is a bit counterintuitive, but it works well. Much like football, the schedule is aggressive, but gives Tech a chance to thrive. Notably, it has a balance of regional opponents, conference opponents, and major programs. Softball is similar, albeit with less historical oomph behind it, being a program that’s about nine decades younger, after all.

Critically, baseball also has a clear window towards divisional dominance.

In baseball and football, we have to seize a chance to win here and now, and to own these matchups and this league. We have to act like big games are big games and support our teams as such. We have to use our most powerful tool, our word of mouth and our actions, to demonstrate to others the value we place in them and our team. We have rivals and significant matchups, so we need to act like it, and we have opportunities to grow here, driven by an unparalleled basketball standard of excellence, competitive football and baseball peers, and the class of the country in non-revenue sports, and first to mind are tennis and golf.

Could volleyball and softball, on the whole, be better? Sure. But we are positioned to take a commanding post, if we play our cards right. We sat alone in second place in the conference in volleyball last year, and softball is ripe for the picking outside of Florida State. When it’s time to add sports, the ACC provides a holistic, sound slate for sports like soccer, a sport which some major conferences nearby lack competitions for men in, as well as things like lacrosse and field hockey.

Opportunities abound, up and down the roster of athletics.

Circling back on the Dodd point, the ACC wanted us from the start. We are in a place we belong and have wanted for decades, no matter how often we feel as if Tobacco Road sucks up all the oxygen. It’s time to let go and love-uh-hate them back. Rejoining the SEC, in its current form, is never going to happen. Besides that, we weren’t a great fit when we left, and are an even worse fit now. Culturally, academically, programmatically, we are at home in the ACC. So it’s time to act like it, and set the blood to a low boil.

Every game is a big game.

91 Days to Kickoff