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.”
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.
• 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.
• Three other SWC members (SMU, Rice, TCU) joined the WAC, which took the expansion idea to another level. Along with the three SWC teams, it added Independent Tulsa and Big West defectors San Jose State and Nevada-Las Vegas.
Beginning in 1996, the WAC was a 16-team league which covered nine states and four time zones.
Since all this shuffling, each of the conferences has cut its own television deals. The conferences banded together to form the Bowl Coalition, which begat the Bowl Alliance, which this season begat the Super Alliance.
For the first time this season, all the major conferences will work together in the postseason to put together a 1 vs. 2 game for the national championship. Each season, it seems, both the product and process become more refined.
What Happens Next?
Conference commissioners and others directly involved in the college football business are reluctant to discuss their issue in great detail. They don’t want to tip their hands on what their potential moves might be once the changes begin. But here, based on a number of interviews with the movers and shakers of college football, is a reasonably clear picture of what the next set of major shakeups in the sport will probably be.
On this point they all agree: The first move will again be made by the Big Ten.
When Penn State became the 11th member back in 1993, everyone knew it was just a matter of time before the Big Ten added a 12th school and, like the SEC and Big 12, went to divisional play and a lucrative conference championship game.
And there is no secret about which school the Big Ten would like to tap as its 12th member. It is, of course, the mother lode of college football properties: The University of Notre Dame.
Conventional wisdom says that Notre Dame will never give up its Independent status as long as it has the lucrative and exclusive television contact with NBC. Chances are that will remain true. While the other Independents were finding safe shelter among the conferences, Notre Dame still has the clout to do it alone.
A key here: In order to remain an Independent, Notre Dame has to eventually come to some understanding with the Bowl Alliance so that in the down years, the Irish don’t get stuck in the Independence Bowl, as they did in 1997. A few more trips to Shreveport and Notre Dame will run screaming into the arms of the Big Ten. The bet here is that ND and the bowls get things worked out and the Irish remain independent.
After taking its best shot at Notre Dame, the Big Ten will return to the strategy which originally brought Penn State into the fold, that of adding to its impressive lineup of powerful television markets. Can you say New York? Can you say Syracuse University? Yes, I thought you could.
In public, the folks at Syracuse will tell you they feel just dandy about being in the Big East. But in their heart of hearts, they know that if the Big Ten calls, they must listen. This Big East, with the competitive demise of Miami and with waning interest among the bowls, has at best a shaky football future.
Even Tranghese, whose job it is to hold the Big East together, has told Syracuse that it must listen to the Big Ten because he can’t guarantee what the future will bring.
So friends, mark it down. Syracuse will jump to the Big Ten and since there’s already a Big 12, what they will call this conference is anybody’s guess.
Oh, by the way. After Syracuse jumps, all hell is going to break loose.
“You hope nothing drastic happens but you can’t live with your head in the sand either.” Says Tom Mickle, the associate commissioner of the ACC. “You have to have some idea of your next move if things start happening.”
There are some disagreements on a few points, but roughly, this will be the sequence of events once Syracuse jumps to the Big Ten:
• The Big East will be out of the football business and Trandhese will begin to scramble, looking for homes for its football-playing members. Some of those schools will find a new home in the ACC.
• The ACC will have another major philosophical battle over expansion. The traditionalists will argue that the ACC doesn’t have to follow the pack, that they can go at it alone with nine members. They will argue that it will only hurt the conferences if it had to further divide the league’s most precious commodity-tickets to the ACC Basketball Tournament.
But the ACC has had significant turnover among its athletic directors since the discussions of 1991, further weakening the power of the traditionalist. The pragmatists will rule the day, and the ACC will bring in three Big East refugees: Miami, Boston College, and Rutgers.
Miami is a no-brainer. Academically, it is in tune with the other ACC members and all indications are that under Butch Davis, the football program is cleaning up its act. It would also give the ACC two of Florida’s big three school and anchors on both ends of the state.
The ACC will pass on Virginia Tech and West Virginia, schools with greater geographical proximity to current members, in favor of strengthening its position in the larger eastern television markets. The Boston and New York markets are too rich to pass up.
• Virginia Tech, West Virginia, and Pittsburgh will begrudgingly accept invitations to Conference USA. The remaining Big East member, Temple, should recognize this turmoil as its cue to get out of the football business.
• The Pac-10, never wanting to be outdone by the Big Ten, becomes hot to trot for expansion. It will make another run at Texas and Texas A&M, which it did unsuccessfully several years ago. But once again, the Texas state legislature will remind the schools that it controls the purse strings, and that no Texas team is going to be a member of a left-coast conference.
When that effort fails, the Pac-10 will reach out and finally touch Colorado, which has long wanted to be a member, because the Buffs practically live in California when it comes time to recruit. Plus, the lifestyle and attitude of Boulder is more akin to Seattle and Los Angeles than Lincoln, Neb. And Manhattan, Kan.
For its 12th team, the Pac-10 will look around the West for another school that plays strong football. Bringham Young, which to its considerable anger got left out of the Alliance bowls with a 13-1 record in 1996, will make the jump.
• With Colorado gone, the Big 12 will think long and hard about a replacement and will finally invite Southern Methodist. SMU, which went to the WAS when the Southwest Conference folded, is on the way back in football under second-year coach Mike Cavan. The school is about to build a new, on-campus football facility, and Cavan has been given the financial commitment by the administration to make the Mustangs competitive once more. The Dallas market is one the Big 12 cannot ignore.
• The SEC will stand pat with its 12 teams and high television revenue, unless Arkansas uses this opportunity to get out. The Razorbacks left the Southwest Conference just before it folded and financially, has benefitted enormously from being in the SEC. Competitively, however, the Hogs have struggled in football. They won an SEC West title in 1995, but other than that, it’s been a tough road. Arkansas football is struggling. Back in the days when it was winning Southwest Conference championships, the state of Texas was its most fertile recruiting ground. One of the keys to recruiting Texas is going into that state and winning, which it did. When Arkansas stopped playing in Texas, it stopped getting players from that talent-rich state.
Word from inside Arkansas and inside the SEC is that Arkansas will never leave its current home as long as Frank Broyles is the athletic director. Last year the SEC divided over $58 billion in revenues among its 12 members. The bounty would not be as great in the Big 12.
• The WAC, which turned into an unwieldy 16-team league in the previous round of expansion, will lose three members in the next round, and add a school from the Big West (we guess Nevada over Utah State and New Mexico State). The conference will miss BYU, its most celebrated program, and struggle without any major media markets.
• Conference USA does the most work of all, in hopes of getting a better television contract. In addition to picking up Pittsburgh, West Virginia, and Virginia Tech from the Big East, C-USA will also get Rice and TCU from the WAC, forming a 14-team league that stretches from West Point, NY (Army) in the East, to Fort Worth, TX (TCU) in the Southwest. It truly will be a Conference USA.
• Many independents, particularly in the south, will find life alone in Division I-A difficult at best. Scheduling problems and being completely shut out of bowl money will drive the remaining indies to unify. Middle Tennessee will move from I-AA to I-A in 1999 and join other southern independents Central Florida, Southwestern Louisiana, Northeast Louisiana, Louisiana Tech, and Arkansas State to form a league, and hopefully generate bowl clout.
One scenario would have this league champion playing the Big West champ in the Humanitarian Bowl. Or perhaps the Music City Bowl in Nashville would be a good fit.
The SEC and Mid-America Conferences stand pat. The Big East folds.
Not only does BYU shake the less-revenue-producing schools from the lower division of the WAC, but at last gains a legitimate shot at Bowl Alliance bid.
Although a bit heavy with 14 teams, markets like Pittsburgh, Tampa, and Fort Worth are huge pluses. Garnering an Alliance spot is a must for conference legitimacy and C-USA will get a guaranteed spot. The addition of West Virginia gives the league a ready-made football power and large state school, which the league had been missing.
The Miami-Florida State game is now a conference game that the ACC can claim its own, obviously bringing TV money. The addition of the Boston and New York markets is key, and don’t overlook the fact that Mike Krzyzewski and Bill Guthridge love visiting the basketball-rich Northeast on a regular basis.
Anyone would love the move from the WAC, with conference games in California, Utah, and Hawaii, into a conference with four other teams in-state.
The conference championship game is enough to consider the conference a winner, but the Denver market is a plus.
• Big 10
Again, the conference championship game plus another eastern market with Syracuse
• UAB and South Florida
Two schools that did not even have football programs in 1990 will now be members of a Super Alliance conference
For obvious reasons.
• Big East
• Big 12
The media market of Dallas is nice with the addition of SMU, but losing the state of Colorado and the Nebraska-Colorado rivalry hurts.
Losing BYE practically assures the league to be shut out of the Super Alliance.
• Notre Dame
Slowly but surely, the conferences are squeezing the Irish out.
Peace at Last?
Once everything shakes out, all television contracts between the conferences and the networks will have to be renegotiated to reflect the worth of the new leagues. After that is done, and the multi-year agreements are in place, college football will again be at peace. But for how long?
“I’m hoping that after the next round, things are going to stay in place for a long, long time,” says Kramer. “But I wouldn’t bet the ranch on it. No way.”
The ACC absorbs Miami, Boston College and Rutgers from the Big East. In order to balance the divisions, the four North Carolina schools must be split. North Carolina and Duke for basketball purposes, are separated. North Carolina, as the strongest football program among the four, is placed in the North because the South includes Florida State, Clemson and Miami.
Old Big 10
New Big 10
Syracuse bolts enthusiastically for the Big Ten. The league will still be called the Big Ten even though it has 12 members. Geographically, the split doesn’t make sense, but the two divisions are balanced for both football and hoops.
Old Big 12
New Big 12
When Colorado jumps to the Pac-10, the Big 12 will consider Arkansas, but ask SMU to return from its WAC exile. All five Texas schools will be in the South Division. Missouri agrees to swap to the South because of basketball. The Oklahoma schools are not separated.
San Diego State
San Jose State
San Diego State
San Jose State
The WAC loses BYU, TCU and SMU to expansion. Nevada becomes the newest member.
Old Conference USA
New Conference USA
Colorado eagerly leaves the Big 12 for a conference just one time zone away and the guarantee of at least one home game in California every year. The conference invites BYU instead of Utah, giving the edge to football over basketball. The four California schools are split because of travel. Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah (BYU) are adjacent states and closet to Los Angeles (UCLA, USC).