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Football looms over Final Four

– When the Final Four convened Saturday evening, it was oddly appropriate that it did so in the massive Georgia Dome, a 70,000-seat venue built for football.

The NCAA tournament dominates the sporting conversation each March, but as tradition-rich programs Louisville and Syracuse practiced Friday for their semifinal matchups against Wichita State and Michigan, respectively, people who have spent their entire lives in gymnasiums listening to the squeaking of sneakers are realizing they have very little say in their athletic futures.

This might be college basketball’s one shining moment, but football drives college athletic departments while basketball has been a (sometimes unwilling) passenger during a period of upheaval that has lasted a decade – and shows no sign of stopping.

“We would give you diplomatic answers,” said Louisville coach Rick Pitino, whose program, in 2014, will compete in its third conference in the past 10 years. “But inside, we’re not happy about it.”

Syracuse and Louisville represent the Big East, a league formed specifically for basketball. But both schools are headed to the ACC because each has a football program that conference officials believe can help deliver television ratings and, ultimately, more lucrative network contracts.

It is the same premise that is driving Maryland, which historically has a strong basketball program and a middling football program, out of the ACC in 2014, after the Big Ten came calling last year.

“It’s simple: The money you make from football is more than you can get from basketball,” said former Maryland coach Gary Williams, who coached in the Big East, the Big Ten and the ACC. “It’s contracts. So I understand that part of it. … That’s led to every change in every conference.”

Indeed, the NCAA signed a 14-year, $10.8 billion television contract with CBS and Turner Sports to broadcast the men’s basketball tournament three years ago, but projections for a football playoff are much higher – easily topping $1 billion over eight years for just two semifinals and a final annually, according to analysis by Forbes.

But that dynamic can leave basketball people feeling as if they have no say. Williams remembers the first ACC expansion talks in 2003, when the league ultimately voted to bring Miami and Virginia Tech into the fold, followed by Boston College the next year.

Williams said John Swofford, the conference’s commissioner, came into a meeting of the nine men’s basketball coaches, which included some of the most powerful figures in the sport – Williams, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams, who had just arrived to coach North Carolina – and asked them to vote on the proposed expansion.

“We voted nine-nothing not to expand,” Williams said, “and it never got to the athletic directors. The next morning, expansion took place.”

The numbers would show that expansion hasn’t helped the ACC’s basketball profile. In the nine seasons since Miami and Virginia Tech – two supposed football powers – entered the ACC, the league has sent four teams to the Final Four. In the nine years prior to that expansion, it sent nine teams, including two schools in the same year twice. Meantime, its football teams haven’t appeared in a BCS title game since expansion.

“We had the best thing going,” Williams said. “And it’s gone.”

Those who care about college basketball say a this-was-inevitable attitude highlights problems with the sport’s structure.

In 1984, the Supreme Court ruled that the NCAA’s control of what college football games aired on television violated antitrust laws. Since then, football conferences have negotiated their own deals with networks and bowls. The Southeastern Conference’s current deal brings in $205 million annually, the Pac-12’s $225 million.

The season-ending Bowl Championship Series has been a controversial means to determine a champion, but it has been inarguably lucrative. That brings an even starker contrast with basketball, in which the NCAA negotiates the postseason television deals. The NCAA awards national championships in 36 Division I sports but has no say over the highest level of football, which is essentially autonomous.

Friday afternoon, Pitino sounded wistful about the way it once was, noting that athletes from West Virginia, which joined the Big 12 last fall, must travel 800 miles to their closest league road game.

“The one thing I will say that’s different today than it was 10, 15 years ago – you’d get some B.S. answers from the administrators,” Pitino said. “Now, they are being very transparent in saying, ‘It’s about money.’ ”

More precisely, it’s about football money, a driving force of change that even reaches basketball’s Final Four.

“We don’t like it, but we understand it,” Pitino said. “The one thing you can’t do is complain about it. Sometimes, you have to move on.”