PROVIDENCE, RI and GREENSBORO, NC: Both the Big East and the Atlantic Coast Conference have brought in PR help for their showdown over the ACC's expansion thrust.
Mark Fabiani and Chris Lehane, who earned their swashbuckling reputation for crisis consulting during the Whitewater investigation, were hired to publicize the lawsuit filed by five Big East schools to stop the expansion. And, in response to mounting negative press, the ACC hired Raleigh, NC-based agency French/West/Vaughan (FWV).
Anything but an obscure struggle, the dispute between these behemoths tapped into larger issues surrounding college sports, especially the importance of television dollars and the commercialization of collegiate athletics.
In the end, the Big East lost two vital football programs, Virginia Tech and Miami, and its remaining universities face an uncertain future. The law-suit, filed in early June, seeks an injunction and monetary damages.
Although the ACC took the initiative in attempting to grow, its rival came out with the lawsuit and an aggressive media outreach effort run by Fabiani and Lehane, who also worked for Al Gore's Presidential campaign.
"We try to take the approach you use in politics in a campaign, which is to be proactive and aggressive, and drive the coverage of a story by aggressively putting out the facts," Lehane explained.
When his agency was brought in, after the lawsuit was filed, the ACC was "in reactive mode," said FWV president and CEO Rick French. FWV represents the conference, as well as its nine universities, not all of which favored the expansion plans that were never set in stone.
"We had to deal with a very fluid process," French said. "It's kind of like catching a tiger by the tail."
"What we've been doing," he continued, "is talking about why expansion makes sense, getting some of the proponents of expansion out there because many of them had been quiet through the process, including some of the university presidents, and working with those who opposed expansion."
Another challenge was to take the heat off conference commissioner John Swofford, who had been portrayed as leading the charge for expansion when it was based on a vote by the universities.
For his part, Big East commissioner Michael Tranghese was more reticent.
"Michael felt that to speak out on the issue once or twice was better than continually commenting on it," said John Paquette, the Big East's associate commissioner for communications.