Louisville is officially coming to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The conference’s Council of Presidents unanimously approved the University of Louisville’s application to join and extended the school a formal invitation Wednesday morning. Louisville’s athletic teams currently compete in the Big East. The school projects to join the ACC in 2014, pending negotiations with its current conference.
“The University of Louisville is honored to join the ACC, a conference with a long history of excellence in athletics and academics,” Louisville’s president James Ramsey said. “The ACC will be a great home for ‘UofL’ and our commitment to great academics, groundbreaking research and top-notch athletic teams.”
Louisville’s switch follows a wave of conference realignments that saw Maryland defect from the ACC to the Big Ten last week. The Cardinals will replace Maryland, and — with the expected arrival of Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Notre Dame by 2014 — the ACC will feature 15 teams in all sports except football. Notre Dame will remain independent in football and play five ACC games per year.
Realignment rumors have swirled around Virginia, too, as numerous recent reports suggested the University might follow Maryland to the Big Ten. Athletic Director Craig Littlepage issued a statement Tuesday quashing that growing speculation.
“The University of Virginia is a proud member of the Atlantic Coast Conference,” Littlepage said. “Neither representatives of the athletics department, nor President Teresa Sullivan, has received invitations to nor sought membership in other conferences … We look forward to continuing this relationship far into the future.”
The ACC’s athletic future appears brighter with the addition of Louisville, which features two of the nation’s most prestigious basketball programs. The men’s squad reached the NCAA Tournament Final Four in March, and the team’s 38 total NCAA appearances are the fifth-most all time. The women’s team has advanced to the Sweet Sixteen three of the past five years, including a runners-up finish in the 2009 NCAA championship.
ACC Commissioner John Swofford said Louisville would “simply take Maryland’s place in terms of our basketball scheduling and in Olympic Sports,” which would make the Cardinals one of Virginia’s primary partners in basketball and ensure the schools play two games each year. Louisville will also assume Maryland’s spot in the Atlantic Division for football.
Louisville’s football team peaked with a 12-1 record and an Orange Bowl appearance in 2006 but struggled after then-coach Bobby Petrino bolted for the NFL. Louisville posted a 15-21 record during its next three seasons, but has returned to the national spotlight since coach Charlie Strong took the reins in 2009. The team boasts a 9-2 record this year and remains in contention for a BCS bowl bid.
“With the addition of the University of Louisville, the ACC continues to be well positioned for the future competing at the highest level in all facets of the collegiate experience,” the ACC Council of Presidents said in a joint statement. “The ACC continues to be a vibrant conference that remains steadfast in its commitment to balancing academics and athletics.”
Although Louisville enhances the ACC’s on-field product, its academic ranking falls below the majority of the conference’s members. In the most recent US News & World Report, the ACC featured seven schools in the top 50 and all but one school sat in the top 100. The conference’s most recent additions follow that mold — Notre Dame ranked No. 17 and Pittsburgh and Syracuse tied for No. 58 — but Louisville’s No. 160 rank would be the ACC’s lowest by 54 spots.
Lousiville’s 51 percent graduation rate also lags behind the ACC’s 12 current members, which see an average 81.2 percent of students graduate within six years.
North Carolina Chancellor Holden Thorp cited Louisville’s athletic prowess as a primary factor in choosing the school ahead of the academically higher-ranked University of Connecticut, widely reported as another prospective new member.
“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,” Thorp said. “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… but Louisville — Jim Ramsey is an excellent leader in higher education, and he’s done a lot with their university, and it’s on an upward trajectory.”
Swofford dismissed the idea that adding Louisville was purely a sports decision, stressing that the conference seeks to balance both academics and athletics.
“We felt Louisville was the best fit for the Atlantic Coast Conference at this point in time in every respect,” he said. “I think that when you look at Louisville, you see a University and an athletic program that has all the arrows pointed up, a tremendous uptick there, tremendous energy.”