ACC looking for ways to boost revenue, shrink financial gap

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner Jim Phillips leads a league bringing in record revenues, with more and more money going to member schools.

It’s also a league struggling to keep up with peers in the Big Ten and Southeastern conferences.

League schools have talked for years about finding ways to close that growing gap. But as the Big Ten and SEC expand to add marquee names, the ACC’s concern becomes more pressing and even stirs uncertainty about its long-range future in terms of whether schools might eventually try to chase money elsewhere.

For now, that means trying to squeeze more money out of a long-running TV deal, kicking around ideas and even holding out hope that Notre Dame might one day shed football independence to join the ACC and boost the bottom line.

At ACC Kickoff preseason media days on Wednesday, Phillips said “all options are on the table.”

“It’s significant … so it deserves your attention,” Phillips said in an interview with The Associated Press. “It deserves creativity. It deserves all that you have to try to figure a way for a path forward that really makes sense and that brings additional value to the conference.”

The league’s deal with ESPN, which included the long-sought 2019 launch of its own network, runs through 2036. It also has an extension of a grant-of-rights provision that gives the league control of media rights for any school that attempts to leave for the duration of the deal, which is a move to deter defections in future realignment.

That appears to have the ACC on stable footing for the immediate future. But for how long? Figuring out a way to better grow the financial picture could determine that.

Phillips described the league and ESPN as partners with a mutual interest in making the ACC Network as profitable as possible to support the league.

“How can they have a partnership and an asset and not want it to really be thriving over the next 14 years?” Phillips told the AP. “That doesn’t make any sense. So they are motivated. And when you talk about (how) we’re considering multiple options, it’s just that.

“You’re not trying to eliminate potential opportunities, you’re trying to create. . You can do something with your network. You can do something with events. You can do something certainly with expansion if you so choose. But there has to a value in whatever move you end up making.”

The ACC’s most recent tax filing listed a record $578.3 million in total revenue while distributing an average of $36.1 million per school for the 2020-21 season, which included Notre Dame as a one-year full football member for scheduling purposes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Additionally, TV revenue has increased from roughly $288.6 million in the 2018-19 fiscal year before the launch of the ACC Network to $397.4 million in 2020-21.

And yet, years of healthy growth are heavily outpaced by numbers coming out of the SEC and the Big Ten. For that same 2020-21 season, the SEC reported nearly $833.4 million in revenue and an average distribution of $54.6 million, while the Big Ten checked in at $679.8 million and an average $47.9 million payout.

And with those leagues announcing upcoming name-brand additions – Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC, USC and UCLA to the Big Ten – the revenue gap could grow more aggressively.

“It’s a concern, yeah,” North Carolina State coach Dave Doeren said. “If one school is getting $30 million more than another school, they can do more things with the money. It’s been that way for a while, though.

“If you look at what’s happened, we’ve still had a team in the playoffs (seven of eight) years. So we’ve overcome it. But you wouldn’t like to overcome it if you didn’t have to.”

Several others shrugged off the topic.

Louisville offensive lineman Caleb Chandler, a sixth-year senior, wasn’t focused on it because he’ll be gone next year and “won’t affect me in any way.” N.C. State quarterback Devin Leary said he wasn’t worried about it, either.

“You want to talk about revenue and gaps, like that’s just – I coach football,” Boston College coach Jeff Hafley said. “That’s beyond me.”

And then there was Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, whose program has reached six College Football Playoffs with two national championships.

“I don’t have any concern because other people worry about all of that stuff and deal with it and figure out whatever,” Swinney said. “I mean, Lord have mercy, in 2036 I don’t know where I’ll be. That’s a long time and they will figure all of that stuff out.”

Besides, there’s little the ACC teams can do other than win games and become more appealing brands. Beyond that, it’s up to league leadership to figure out the next moves.

“I think you have to be measured and it has to be ultimately good for the long-term health of the conference,” Phillips told the AP. “To make a move just to make a move is not the right thing for the ACC. It just isn’t.”

Lane Kiffin staying at Ole Miss with ‘a lot of work left to do’

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Mississippi coach Lane Kiffin says he has informed school officials he will be staying at Ole Miss, putting an end to speculation that he was the leading candidate to fill the head coaching vacancy at Auburn.

“Same as I said last week: I’m staying here and we have a lot of work left to do,” Kiffin told The Associated Press in a voice message.

Kiffin added he has not signed a contract extension with the school.

The 47-year-old Kiffin is 23-12 in three seasons as Rebels coach. No. 20 Mississippi finished its regular season 8-4, losing four of its last five, including a 24-22 loss to Mississippi State.

Auburn was playing at No. 8 Alabama in the Iron Bowl, and its coaching search figured to heat up soon after its season concluded.

Auburn fired coach Bryan Harsin earlier this month and has gone 2-1 since under interim coach Carnell Williams, the former star running back for the Tigers.

With Kiffin off the market, Auburn is eyeing a former Mississippi coach to be its next coach.

A person familiar with the search told the AP that Auburn is interested in Liberty coach Hugh Freeze. The person spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because Auburn was not making details of its search public.

Freeze coached at Ole Miss for five seasons before leaving in disgrace in 2017 after the school discovered he used a university cellphone to call an escort service.

He landed at Liberty and has gone 34-14 in four seasons with the Flames.

Nebraska signs Matt Rhule to 8-year deal

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After six straight losing seasons and more than 20 years removed from its 1990s heyday, Nebraska is turning to Matt Rhule to rebuild its program and make it competitive in the Big Ten Conference.

Rhule signed an eight-year contract to be the Cornhuskers’ next coach and will be introduced at a news conference, the school announced.

The 47-year-old Rhule quickly turned around downtrodden programs at Temple and Baylor before leaving for the NFL to coach the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers fired him in October after he started his third season with four losses in five games.

“It is a tremendous honor to be chosen to lead the Nebraska football program,” Rhule said in a statement. “When you think of great, tradition-rich programs in college football, Nebraska is right at the top of the list. The fan base is second to none, and I consider it a privilege to have the opportunity to coach in Memorial Stadium on Tom Osborne Field. My family and I are so grateful to become a part of the Husker Family, and we can’t wait to get started.”

Rhule was 11-27 with Carolina and left with about $40 million remaining on the seven-year, guaranteed $62 million contract he signed in 2020. The contract made Rhule the sixth-highest paid coach in the NFL when he signed in 2020, according to Forbes.

Nebraska said it would release details of Rhule’s contract.

“It is a privilege to welcome Coach Matt Rhule, his wife, Julie, and their family to Nebraska,” athletic director Trev Alberts said. “Coach Rhule has created a winning culture throughout his coaching career, and he will provide great leadership for the young men in our football program.

“Matt is detail-oriented, his teams are disciplined and play a physical brand of football. Matt also has the personality and relationship-building skills to build a great staff and excel in recruiting.”

About an hour after Rhule’s hiring was announced, wide receiver Trey Palmer announced on Instagram that he would declare for the NFL draft. Palmer, who transferred from LSU after last season, had three 150-yard games this year and set the Huskers’ single-season record with 1,043 yards.

The Huskers are among eight Football Bowl Subdivision programs with at least 900 wins, and they have won or shared five national championships. The last one came in 1997 under Hall of Fame coach Tom Osborne.

Five coaches have come and gone since then, most recently the quarterback of that ’97 team, Scott Frost.

Alberts fired Frost on Sept. 11 after the Huskers opened 1-2, with losses to Northwestern in Ireland and to Georgia Southern at home. They were 3-6 under interim coach Mickey Joseph and finished the season 4-8 following a 24-17 win at Iowa.

Nebraska was 16-31 in four-plus seasons under Frost, never finishing higher than fifth in the Big Ten West or going to a bowl.

In four seasons at Temple, Rhule coached the Owls to 28 wins. That included 26 from 2014-16. Temple was 10-4 in 2015 and reached the American Athletic Conference’s inaugural championship game. In 2016, Rhule led the Owls to a 10-3 record and an AAC championship. The conference title was the first in 49 seasons for the Temple program, and the Owls reached bowl games in consecutive seasons for the first time in school history.

Rhule was named Baylor’s coach in December 2016 in the wake of an investigation that found the private Baptist university had not responded adequately to allegations of sexual assault by players, resulting in the firing of Art Briles.

Rhule’s trajectory was similar at Baylor, where he went from 1-11 in 2017 to 7-6 with a bowl game the next season. In his third and final season, Baylor was ranked in the top 10, played in the Big 12 championship game and finished 11-3 after a Sugar Bowl loss to Georgia.

Rhule’s collegiate success provided him the opportunity to take over as the Carolina Panthers’ head coach in 2020. He guided the Panthers to five wins in each of his first two seasons before this year’s 1-4 start got him fired.

Rhule has ties to the Big Ten. He moved from New York City to State College, Pennsylvania, as a teenager. He played linebacker at Penn State from 1994-97 and began his coaching there as a volunteer assistant.