Bud Peterson revisits Georgia Tech’s role in last realignment frenzy

During his tenure as Georgia Tech president, G.P. "Bud" Peterson was committed to keeping the institute in the ACC despite interest from the Big Ten and SEC. (ALYSSA POINTER / file photo)

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During his tenure as Georgia Tech president, G.P. "Bud" Peterson was committed to keeping the institute in the ACC despite interest from the Big Ten and SEC. (ALYSSA POINTER / file photo)

It was 11 years ago, but former Georgia Tech President G.P. “Bud” Peterson has clear memories of conversations from that time. It was in 2011 that the presidents of the ACC member schools, to say nothing of the athletic directors, coaches, players and fans whose interests they represented, faced uncertainty about the future of their conference.

In that year, power conferences were plotting to expand, plans that made multiple ACC schools potential targets for poaching. The long-term viability of the ACC was uncertain. In that swirl, Peterson said in a recent interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a group of presidents of schools most likely to field interest from other conferences – his included – gathered to consider their commitment.

“Several of the presidents got together, and we agreed that if we stuck together, the ACC would survive and, in fact, could thrive,” Peterson said.

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That commitment, Peterson said, was the force that kept the ACC from breaking apart and provided the stability to add Pittsburgh and Syracuse later that year and, later on, Notre Dame (for all sports but football and ice hockey) and Louisville. It also ultimately was the basis for the signing of the grant-of-rights agreement and the formation of the ACC Network, developments that have kept the conference’s membership secure.

In that time, “there was a lot of discussion among the ACC presidents about sticking together and allowing the conference to survive,” Peterson said. “And that’s what led to the addition of the four other institutions.”

Having stepped down from his post in 2019 after 10 years as Tech’s president – he continues to serve the institute as a professor of mechanical engineering – Peterson no longer has that responsibility as leaders at ACC schools and across the country face questions now similar to those Peterson and his colleagues entertained.

But he continues to watch with interest and an informed perspective as this summer’s events seem to have increased the possibility of the SEC and Big Ten forming super conferences capable of breaking away from the rest of Division I.

“The question is, are the two super conferences inevitable?” Peterson asked. “I hope not. I think there might be three. But the question on the third one – and I hope if there’s a third one, it’s the ACC – but the question becomes, where does the TV revenue come from? Because that’s what (is) driving this, is the TV revenue.”

Peterson’s assessment about television revenue driving realignment is incontrovertible. USC and UCLA’s decision to leave the Pac-12 – a league the two schools helped found and have been central members of – was solely driven by the financial benefits of joining the Big Ten, a conference with a member (Rutgers) situated almost 4,000 miles away. In a previous article, Peterson lamented the state of college athletics as a “free-for-all” driven solely by money.

As for his perspective on the possibility of the Big Ten and SEC leaving room at the table for a third conference – that is indeed an uncertainty, a question whose answer will indeed rest to a large degree on the revenues provided by television that any third league can draw.

In revisiting the realignment frenzy of 2011, Peterson said that he – and many others – envisioned an eventual playoff for football that included four 14-team conferences. Believing the Big 12 could collapse, Peterson and others envisioned the ACC surviving along with the Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC.

“There are quite a number of very, very high-quality academic institutions that have pretty good athletic programs, but the relationship between athletics and academics in the ACC was something that I was proud of."

- former Georgia Tech President G.P. “Bud” Peterson

“So those four conferences, and that would have made the playoffs pretty easy,” he said. “The divisions play a conference championship, you have four teams (advancing). Of course, it cut everybody else out. So I think that’s the reason the ACC added the schools they did, because there were a lot of folks that felt like we were moving in that direction, in that way.”

Peterson declined to confirm that Tech was contacted by other conferences, though a person familiar with the situation from that time told the AJC that representatives from the Big Ten and SEC reached out to institute officials to gauge interest. The discussions were preliminary and did not go far, undoubtedly in no small part because Peterson was committed to keeping Tech in the ACC.

There’s no telling if either conference would have ultimately invited Tech to join – the Big Ten added Nebraska in 2011 and the SEC picked up Missouri and Texas A&M the same year.

There are reasons why Tech might have been an appealing addition – a new market and region for the Big Ten, the return of a founding member for the SEC – and it makes for a compelling “what if?” conversation. The added revenue would have solved a lot of Tech’s financial problems. And, 11 years later, with the Big Ten and SEC having emerged as the two dominant conferences in college sports, membership in either would provide security that staying in the ACC does not.

However, from a football perspective, would the Yellow Jackets be any more competitive against the likes of Ohio State and Wisconsin in the Big Ten or Alabama and Georgia in the SEC than they have been against Clemson and Pittsburgh in the ACC? Tech would be better-resourced, but so would all of its competitors. More broadly, would membership in either league be a fit for Tech?

Peterson was steadfast in keeping the institute in the ACC, which at that point was far more competitive from a revenue standpoint with the SEC and Big Ten than now.

“There are quite a number of very, very high-quality academic institutions that have pretty good athletic programs, but the relationship between athletics and academics in the ACC was something that I was proud of,” Peterson said.

Of course, the four-league playoff scenario didn’t materialize, as the Big 12 did not collapse, weathering the losses of Texas A&M, Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska and, soon, Oklahoma and Texas. The Big Ten and the SEC have moved far ahead of the ACC in television revenue. And the moves of USC and UCLA to the Big Ten from the Pac-12 have reignited questions about the long-term viability of the ACC.

Despite rumors and reports of the conference’s imminent demise following the Big Ten’s addition of USC and UCLA in June, the ACC has not immediately fractured, held fast by the conference’s grant of rights, if nothing else. The league’s grant-of-rights agreement obligates any school leaving the conference prior to the 2035-36 academic year to forfeit its media revenue to the ACC through that year. That is on top of an exit fee for 2022-23 of $120 million, according to ESPN’s Andrea Adelson.

The commitment of Peterson and colleagues kept the ACC together through a realignment tempest. Eleven years later, as uncertainty about the future envelops the conference again, he stands by his decision.

“If I had to do that all over again, I’d make the same decision,” Peterson said. “Given the things that we knew at the time – again, a number of us thought it was moving toward four major conferences. The ACC has historically been a conference that has a strong focus on academics, and that is a very positive thing. It’s one of the really positive aspects of the ACC. My hope is that the ACC will survive and continue, but it’s tough for a number of the institutions in the ACC to compete financially with the television contracts.”