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Conference Realignment: A History Lesson

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This article on college football realignment originally appeared in our 1998 college football annual. As the college football landscape continues to go through realignment and the whispers of superconferences are still heard (despite the PAC-12's decision to not expand right now), we can learn about the current state of college football by looking back at its history.

The Future of College Football

--by Tony Barnhart

As we peek over the horizon toward the 1998 football season, college football is not unlike the California coast. It is beautiful. It is calm. It is peaceful. All is well.

But just when we’ve finally become comfortable with the fact that it’s okay for the Big Ten to have 11 teams, or that, logistically, it’s easier for Miami to play a home-and-home with Cuba than with any of their comrades in the Big East, there are sign that yet another significant shift is on the way. It is no longer a question of if, but of when this monumental change to the layout of college football’s landscape will take place.

“I’ve said for a while now that I think there will be another reorganization among conferences but when it will is anyone’s guess,” says SEC Commissioner Roy Kramer, who is also the boss of the College Bowl Alliance. “My sense is that people are just biding their time, trying to get prepared to make a move when things start happening.”

If the conferences learned only one thing in the last mad scramble of the early ’90, it is this: You snooze, you lose.

Driving the Business

From this core philosophy there have emerged two undeniable truths which have driven the business of college football in the 1990s:

• There are a finite number of television dollars out there and, like it or not, the majority of them will go to those conferences that can deliver the largest number of viewers on any given Saturday. So when your competition for those dollars-i.e., another conference-expands to strengthen those numbers, you stand pat at your own peril.

• Conferences expand not only to improve television number, but also to increase their power base. That power can be used to impact NCAA legislation pertaining not only to football, but to other sports and even the ultimate structure of college athletics. It’s the athletic equivalent of the Cold War as conferences feel they must continually build up their arsenals to assure their survival.

“Sometimes expansion makes more sense politically than it does economically,” says Jim Delaney, Commissioner of the Big Ten. “You have to be aware of those things and take the appropriate action.”

No one knows exactly when the next round of athletic arms buildups will occur. But rest assured, the conferences will be ready to jump into action at the first rumble.

“My wish is that the structure of college football could remain stable a while longer,” says Mike Tranghese, the Commissioner of the imperiled Big East.

“But I’m not naïve enough to believe that it will. There are some powerful forces at work here.”

To understand what is about to transpire, it is beneficial to go back to December 1989, when the entire landscape of college football was changed forever with only one move.

The Big Ten, for so long the big boy on the block when it came to TV, took a bold step by extending an invitation to Penn State, second only to Notre Dame as a successful football Independent. Penn State accepted, and six months later it became official. The Big Ten had added an 11th member in a development that would make the rest of college football world sit up and take notice.

Suddenly, the Big Ten not only had the large Midwestern television markets of Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland, but it could also now deliver eastern markets like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

Penn State would not begin Big Ten play until the 1993 season, but the reaction to the move was immediate and ramifications could be felt from coast to coast.

“That was the first domino to fall,” says Kramer. “There was no stopping what was about to happen next.”

First Wave

The other major players in college football, afraid that the Big Ten had now become too powerful, quickly scrambled to improve their own positions:

• Penn State’s decision to seek the shelter of a conference was a sobering signal to a number of Eastern Independents. Syracuse, Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Rutgers, Temple, Virginia Tech, and Boston College all banded together-and convinced Miami to join them-to form the Big East. They couldn’t play a conference schedule in 1991, but Miami won the championship because it had the highest national ranking.

• By 1992, the SEC had added two teams (South Carolina and Arkansas) to form the first 12-team league that would be split in two divisions. Then, to the derision of many skeptics, the SEC launched the idea of a conference championship game. Those skeptics quickly changed their turn upon learning that the conference championship game generated an extra $4.5 million each year for the SEC.

• That same year, the ACC, over the protests from the traditionalists in its ranks, added Florida State and immediately improved its television clout.

That was the first wave of change. Then came another watershed event in February of 1994. The CFA television package with ABC and ESPN, which included all the major conferences except the Big Ten and Pac-10, fell apart when the SEC bolted and signed its own five-year $125 million deal that would begin in 1996.

After that, it became every man for himself as the conferences scrambled for their share of the pie.

Second Wave

• The Southwest Conference, which was formed in 1914, had to face reality. With eight schools all in the same state, it just didn’t have the muscle to compete in this brave new world. So its four most powerful members (Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Baylor) joined the Big Eight to form the Big 12.