At 3 p.m. on a dazzlingly sunny Saturday, a windowless wood-paneled hotel lounge is the last place a visitor to the seaside resort of Ponte Vedra, Fla., should want to be. But for Miami athletic director Paul Dee, a solitary soft drink is a vacation unto itself these days. Since Miami's football team went to its third straight title game in January, representatives of the Atlantic Coast Conference have besieged Dee with phone calls, urging him to join their fold. And throughout the Big East's annual meeting in Ponte Vedra this past week, Dee's current colleagues, desperate to keep him on board after the ACC's announcement last Friday that it intends to invite the Hurricanes to join it in a 12-team superconference, kept cornering Dee in hallways and pleading with him in boardrooms to be true to his roots. "I am," the 56-year-old AD said, sipping his Coke and rubbing his red-rimmed eyes, "in a really uncomfortable position."
And also an enviable one. When Dee made the leap from Miami's legal counsel to head of its athletic department 10 years ago he inherited a football team whose rap sheet was more noteworthy than its stat sheet Two years later some observers, including SI, suggested he be replaced. But slowly, by hiring coaches like Butch Davis and Larry Coker, Dee ushered Miami football into an era of dominance. On Friday, when the nine-team ACC decided to follow the Big 12 and the SEC and grow to 12 teams—which would allow it to hold a football championship game—Miami was its key target. "What Miami has accomplished over five years is amazing," says Florida State athletic director Dave Hart. "If this deal comes to fruition, it would elevate our conference's profile and prestige."
Whether realignment would best serve Miami is the question keeping Dee awake at night. Although the tougher competition in the ACC would mean his school could no longer tap-dance to a BCS bowl, a move could have financial benefits for Miami's 14 scholarship sports. According to USA Today, all but two programs in the Big 12 and SEC made a profit in the 2001-02 academic year, while Miami lost $1.4 million—despite winning a national title in football and going to the NCAA basketball tournament. The ACC says Miami would receive a revenue boost of $3 million annually in its souped-up league. Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese disputes that figure and spent the better part of the past week assuring Dee that a new revenue-sharing system can be devised. "This is a crisis," Tranghese said on Monday. "At the end of the day, Miami is going to make a decision, and that decision is going to drive the wagon."
By switching allegiances Miami could set off what Tranghese calls "the most devastating blow to college athletics in my lifetime." The Hurricanes would likely be joined in the ACC by Boston College and Syracuse, leaving the Big East with just five football schools—minus, perhaps, Pitt, which could be courted by the Big Ten. The Big East could then become a hoops-based league built around its six basketball-only members. Or, in another scenario, those hoops schools could be dropped from the Big East so the conference could focus on football. Or the Big East could rebuild both sports by siphoning schools like Louisville and Cincinnati from Conference USA. To keep up, the Pac-10 might loot a league like the Mountain West and build its own superconference. "You think about those things," says Dee, speaking of the possible ramifications. "But you don't base a decision on them."
But know this about Dee—he's never been afraid to shake things up. On Saturday he reminisced about a lesson he learned a decade ago when he took over an athletic department mired in scandal. "We knew then that to move in the right direction," he says, "changes must occur."