Slow pace of realignment hurts college football

By Ralph D. Russo

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 7 2011 9:32 p.m. MDT

In this Sept. 4, 2011, file photo,Texas A&M yell leader rallies in front of the team during the school song before an NCAA college football game against SMU, in College Station, Texas. The Southeastern Conference cleared the way for Texas A&M to join its ranks in an announcement Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2011, but with one snag. A Big 12 school has threatened to sue if the Aggies leave the fold.

Associated Press

At some point, Texas A&M seems destined to end up in the Southeastern Conference, whether Baylor or any other member of the Big 12 likes it or not.

Then the focus will turn to Oklahoma. The Sooners leadership, clearly feeling a bit left out with the Aggies and their rivals at Texas hogging all realignment spotlight, have made it clear that they're not about to be "wallflowers" in this high-stakes game of musical chairs.

After that, maybe West Virginia will be up for grabs. The SEC could use the Mountaineers to provide some eastern balance to Texas A&M. Or Missouri. Still hoping for the Big Ten to come calling, maybe the Tigers will "settle" for the SEC.

Last year, after the Big Ten added Nebraska and the Pac-10 grew by only two, adding Colorado and Utah, many in major college football let out a collective sigh of relief. The seismic shift many felt was on its way, and not good for the game, did not happen.

Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott's plan for a 16-team league that stretched for the Pacific Northwest to southeast Texas did not come to fruition and spark other changes to major college football's landscape.

But what Scott said at the time turns out to be right. The superconference wasn't dead, he predicted. It was simply being put on hold.

Instead of a giant leap toward further consolidation of power and money, major college football is getting there through with a series of agonizing half-steps and missteps.

Change isn't coming too fast. The process of conference realignment is actually happening too slowly.

The Big 12 is being whittled into extinction. The Big East and the Atlantic Coast Conferences are twisting in uncertainty, wondering whether their teams are the next targets for the SEC or even the Big Ten.

Baylor and the other ugly ducklings in the Big 12 such as Kansas, Kansas State and Iowa State are facing the possible downgrading of their athletic programs. What if there are no spots left in BCS automatic-qualifying conferences for them?

Just go ask SMU, which currently resides in Conference USA and has been practically begging for an invite to the Big 12, how important it is to live in the right neighborhood.

"College athletics looks more like Wall Street than a group of institutions of higher learning," former Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese said Wednesday in a telephone interview.

"I don't know what's going through the minds of people already having success and wanting to get bigger. Bigger is not necessarily better."

Tranghese's analogy to Wall Street couldn't have been more perfect to explain what motivates athletic conferences to grow.

Think of them as companies. The most valuable product they produce is college football. By expanding, conferences increase the inventory of their most valuable product. That means more money for member schools.

Scott, SEC Commissioner Mike Slive and Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany would no doubt agree with Tranghese on some level. They have all said it's not just about adding teams it's about adding "value."

To be desirable, a football program doesn't just need to win games, it needs to draw viewers to television sets — lots of them.

Adding Texas A&M doesn't necessarily make the SEC stronger. It's already the strongest football conference. It does expand the league's footprint. More corporate jargon.

Someday soon people in Texas, and there are a lot of people in Texas, will likely be tuning in to SEC games on ESPN and CBS. And then the SEC, which already has a 15-year, $2.25 billion contract with ESPN and a 15-year, $825 million deal with CBS, can go back to those networks and ask for more.

Even without the Texas presence that Scott wanted when he was trying to create the Pac-16 last summer, the new Pac-12 landed a 12-year contract with ESPN and Fox worth more than $225 million per year.

The Bowl Championship Series already has created a split in major college football. There are 120 schools playing at that level, but the ones playing in the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, Big East, and ACC get a bigger portion of that multimillion dollar pie than the five other conferences playing in what is known as Division I's Football Bowl Subdivision.

As the strongest leagues grow bigger and the most valuable teams in the weaker leagues leave those conferences behind to chase the pot of gold, the gap grows wider between the haves and havenots.

At some point it seems inevitable that a more definitive line will be drawn.

Some of have suggested the schools at the top of the food chain might even consider leaving the NCAA altogether.

"That's a media creation," Tranghese said. "In all the meetings I went to in 19 years as commissioner, never once did that concept come up."

Fact is, if 64 schools in four conferences decided they didn't want to be part of the NCAA anymore, they would still need to create an organization just like it to enforce rules and run championships in other sports, said former NCAA staff member Steve Morgan.

But Morgan, who now works for a law firm in Overland Park, Kan., that assists schools with infractions cases, isn't quite so quick to dismiss the idea of the most powerful football schools breaking away from the NCAA.

He doesn't think it's likely, but "I don't think I'd ever say it's impossible."

No college sport embraces — and markets — its history and traditions more than football.

"The conference realignment is distracting and frustrating to see. It erodes traditional structures," Morgan said.

Michigan and Ohio State can now play twice in a season. Nebraska and Oklahoma, once one of the great rivalries, has gone from dying to dead. The Texas-Texas A&M rivalry is heading down that road, too.

But at this point we'd all be better off if they just got there already — because this trip is excruciating.

Follow Ralph D. Russo at Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP

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