Realignment in retrospect: The best stories from this round of moves

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“There is no higher authority. This was a free-for-all. It’s like a bunch of kids out on the playground -- without parents around and without teachers around -- fighting and clawing and scratching.” -- West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck on college sports realignment

The free-for-all has been over for a while, but it officially ended at midnight on Monday when Louisville became a member of the ACC and Rutgers and Maryland became members of the Big Ten. One of the most tumultuous periods in the history of major college athletics began with a 288-word press release on Dec. 15, 2009 that announced the Big Ten’s interest in possible expansion. Between then and now, schools have moved, rivalries have ended and conferences have folded and reorganized. When everything started, we spoke of the six BCS conferences as the power base. Now, that group numbers only five. The former Pac-10 tried become the Pac-16, but it wound up as the Pac-12. One league, twice given its last rites, refused to die. Through the Big 12 Missile Crisis and the Big 12 Hostage Crisis, the members of the league that once merged a piece of the Southwest Conference and the Big 8 did what any squabbling family would. They nearly killed one another and then hung around long enough to hug it out. The Big Ten, which started all of this, added a name-brand football power early and then attempted reverse Manifest Destiny late. The ACC, constantly rumored to be ripe for the picking, lost one member but gained three and five-ninths (counting Notre Dame) and a newfound stability. The SEC added the television households it needed to justify starting its own network.

The Big 12 has 10 teams. The Big Ten has 14. Missouri is now part of the South. Colorado feels that much closer to the Pacific. And that’s how things are going to stay until these current television contracts get a lot closer to their expiration dates. So, while the tectonic plates are cool -- you knew you weren’t getting through this without one tectonic plates reference -- let’s take a moment to look back at a few of the best stories from four and a half years of fighting, clawing and scratching.

We don’t know where we’re going, but we’re not staying here ...

Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich made the gutsiest move in this period of realignment, though he doesn’t see it that way.

The real reason the Big Ten added Maryland and Rutgers -- survival

After Big East schools were blindsided in September 2011 by the ACC’s poaching of Pittsburgh and Syracuse, Jurich knew the Big East wasn’t a stable home for the Cardinals. So, he and university president James Ramsey decided Louisville needed to leave. But unlike nearly every other school that moved in this round, Louisville would not simply move when it received an offer and try to negotiate its buyout down with lawyers. The Big East bylaws required a 27-month notice, so that’s what Jurich gave the league.

On Oct. 13, 2011, Jurich called then-Big East commissioner John Marinatto and University of South Florida president Judy Genshaft and told them Louisville would play somewhere else beginning in July ‘14. Where exactly? Jurich had no idea. The SEC had already announced it would take Texas A&M and had moved far down the road in talks with Missouri, so the Big 12 seemed a potential landing spot. The Pac-12 had decided in late September that it didn’t want to expand further, so it appeared there would still be a Big 12 to consider Louisville’s interest.

“I wanted to be up front with John Marinatto,” Jurich said of the former commissioner, who learned of the Syracuse and Pittsburgh exits in a call from reporter Brett McMurphy on the day that story broke. “I didn’t want them thinking that I was going behind their back.”

To do that, Jurich had to take a pretty big risk. At Marinatto’s urging, Jurich didn’t put Louisville’s exit notice in writing. That way, it couldn’t be discovered by a reporter’s public records request and broadcast in one stability-killing blow. Still, Jurich was honest with the league’s other athletic directors. Louisville was leaving. It may not have been public knowledge, but it wasn’t exactly a secret. “You’re on a limb,” Jurich said. “But I’d rather be out on a limb with all our cards on the table. Everybody knew I was dealing with integrity. That was more important to me.”

Louisville’s first search for a new home failed. Jurich won’t say much publicly, but those who know him say the Big 12’s decision to take West Virginia instead of Louisville was a crushing blow to an athletic director who built a program that looked, acted and raised money like those in the five wealthiest conferences even without the benefits of membership in one of those leagues. When the Big 12 opted to remain at 10 schools, it left Louisville with a looming deadline and no new destination.

Because Jurich was up front with the other Big East schools, it’s conceivable that Louisville might have been allowed to stay had its efforts to find a new conference failed. After all, Cincinnati, Connecticut, Rutgers and USF were also lobbying to leave. But a graceful return wasn’t a certainty. Jurich didn’t care. “I never really looked at it that way,” he said. “I don’t know if we would have or wouldn’t have [been welcomed back]. We’d have gone somewhere, I promise you that. We have too much to offer.”

Had Big East members felt spiteful -- and silly; Louisville had more to offer than they did -- the Cardinals risked going back to Conference USA. But after 13 months of waiting, the realignment Tilt-A-Whirl cranked to life again. In November 2012, Rutgers and Maryland accepted invitations to the Big Ten. The ACC, which had been the subject of many rumors but zero defections, suddenly needed another member. And it needed one that could start on July 1, 2014. The stragglers in the Big East all lined up to get in, but ACC leaders didn’t need to do much work. In the process that landed Pittsburgh and Syracuse, they had examined and vetted all the potential Big East targets. It took less than two weeks to decide on the Cardinals, vote and offer an invitation. “The prep work was already done,” ACC commissioner John Swofford said. “That’s what helped us and allowed us to move so quickly.” Meanwhile, Louisville's early notice allowed the Cardinals to negotiate an $11 million buyout. That saved Louisville $4 million off the going rate.

Jurich believed all along he had a program worthy of a place in a power conference. That’s why he felt no butterflies in 2011 when he told Marinatto and Genshaft that Louisville would leave. But Jurich, who had also taken Louisville from Conference USA to the Big East, knew nothing was certain in realignment. He didn’t relax until he got the phone call from Swofford in November ‘12 inviting the Cardinals to join the ACC. “I learned a long ago never to get too excited until it’s a done deal,” Jurich said. “When it was a done deal, we were very, very excited.”

On Tuesday, it was officially, finally a done deal.

Atta boy, Del!

No school wandered through the conference hinterlands quite as thoroughly as TCU. Between the dissolution of the Southwest Conference after the 1995-96 school year and the reunion with four former SWC foes in the Big 12 in 2012, the Horned Frogs were members of the WAC, Conference USA, the Mountain West and the Big East (sort of). Why sort of? TCU never played a game of any kind as a Big East school, and the impending collapse of that league in ‘11 forced Frogs athletic director Chris Del Conte to examine other options.

With Texas A&M and Missouri headed out of the Big 12, Del Conte knew that conference needed more members to stabilize. The Big East was an awkward geographic fit for the Frogs; the Big 12 would be perfect. Del Conte heard from Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione that three more schools required convincing if TCU wanted to join the Big 12: Baylor, Texas and Texas Tech. Del Conte figured that if he could swing Bevo’s vote, the rest would fall in line. So, on Oct. 4, 2011, Del Conte drove south on Interstate 35 to Austin to meet then-Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds. He didn’t have an appointment.

Del Conte came that afternoon armed with binders full of information explaining why TCU would fit so well into the Big 12, but Dodds kept him waiting. At 3:30 p.m., Del Conte found himself face to face with the man who held TCU’s conference fate in his hands. Del Conte stuck out a hand. “Chris Del Conte,” he said. “Texas Christian U!” Dodds shook Del Conte’s hand, but something had been lost in the exchange. “He doesn’t hear Chris,” Del Conte said. “He just hears Del. He says, ‘Del, let’s go get ourselves a drink and discuss this.’”

Happy hour stretched past dark as the two men talked. Del Conte kept trying to bring out his binders so he could shoehorn in some information about TCU. All Dodds wanted to do was ask about Del Conte. Dodds obviously has a nose for a story, because Del Conte’s personal tale is fascinating. His parents were Italian immigrants who met while doing mission work in Mexico. They moved to Taos, N.M., and founded a home for foster children on a 147-acre ranch. Chris and his two biological siblings grew up alongside hundreds of foster brothers and sisters.

After telling his life story, Del Conte figured he’d have a chance to talk about the Frogs. Dodds had other ideas. “He said, ‘I’ve heard enough, Del,’” Del Conte said. “And he just walked away.”

The next morning, Del Conte got a call from his confidant, Castiglione. Del Conte remembers the call this way: “Joe goes, ‘I don’t know what you did, but you’ve got the vote. The Frogs are in.’” The morning after, at 7:42 a.m. central time, Del Conte was backing out of his driveway when he received a call from Big 12 interim commissioner Chuck Neinas letting him know TCU had an invitation to join the league.

He still isn’t sure exactly what he said to sway Dodds, but Del got the job done.

chris del conte inline

Don’t mess with trademarks …

No school took the potential breakup of the Big 12 harder than Baylor, and with good reason: Had the conference disintegrated, the Bears were staring at Big East, Mountain West or Conference USA membership. So, Baylor president Ken Starr threatened a lawsuit to keep the SEC from taking Texas A&M. At the same time, a PR firm hired by Baylor devised a campaign to flood the email inboxes of university regents around the state.

The “Don’t Mess With Texas Football” campaign debuted on Sept. 6, 2011 with great fanfare. It asked this question: “Will Texans stand by and watch hundred-year-old rivalries be cast aside as the state's largest universities align themselves with other states across the country?”

The campaign used a popular slogan to rally support against those interlopers from the Sweet Tea Belt who might destroy the Big 12. Texas and Texas Tech would have been fine. They would have gone with Oklahoma and Oklahoma State to the Pac-12. This really was all about Baylor. Still, the printed material did everything but claim brisket would be banned east of College Station. Unfortunately, the Bears backers didn’t get the proper clearances.

"Don’t Mess With Texas," the slogan affixed to thousands of bumpers in the Lone Star State, was trademarked by the Texas Department of Transportation as part of an anti-littering campaign that began in 1985. “Let’s just say there are a lot of Aggies who work for TxDOT,” a Texas A&M source said in a text message, “and the campaign was very short-lived.”

How short-lived? By Sept. 9, 2011, the slogan had morphed to “Rise Up For Texas Football.” It obviously didn’t stop Texas A&M from joining the SEC. The Aggies accepted a conditional invitation on Sept. 7 and officially accepted on Sept. 25. Fortunately for Baylor, the Big 12 stayed together long enough for Art Briles’ offense to shred most of the league’s defenses.

Secret Agent Harvey

School and conference officials had to be careful about how they communicated during the complicated courtship rituals of realignment. Most schools were not like Louisville, announcing their exit more than two years in advance. Nebraska’s situation in 2010 was more common. While the other members of the Big 12 waited to learn which of their members wanted out, Nebraska chancellor Harvey Perlman and athletic director Tom Osborne examined the Cornhuskers’ options. A candidacy for Big Ten membership would require a face-to-face meeting with commissioner Jim Delany, but the arrangement for that meeting seemed more like a communiqué from MI6 to James Bond -- only without the visit to Q’s workshop.

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Perlman still won’t say where he and Osborne met Delany on May 25, 2010 -- only that it was about an hour’s ride from the still-undisclosed city into which they flew. They had strict instructions from Delany about how to get to the site of the meeting. “You will fly to this location,” Perlman said. “You will stay in the hotel room. You will be picked up by a driver at nine o’clock in the morning. You’re not to talk to the driver. He won’t talk to you. Just get in the car.”

Perlman said he followed the instructions explicitly. That wasn’t the case for Osborne, who can’t really travel under the radar. After all, he is one of the best coaches in college football history and a three-term member of the U.S. House of Representatives. “I see Tom in the lobby talking to someone,” Perlman said. “We’re supposed to be incognito.” Did Perlman say anything to Osborne? “I pretended like I didn’t even know who he was,” Perlman said.

Later, Osborne explained to Perlman how close they were to blowing their cover. “He said, ‘That’s the head of the Big 12’s football officials,’” Perlman said.

Perlman and Osborne escaped the hotel otherwise unnoticed and had a productive meeting with Delany that helped convince the Big Ten’s boss that Nebraska was the correct school to add to his league. Still, the level of secrecy and spy-versus-spy antics did prompt one question: Did the message containing Delany’s instructions self-destruct? “Don’t file a public information request,” Perlman cracked. “I don’t have it anymore.”

A few words on secrecy from a ninja

No conference commissioner kept a lid on things better than the ACC’s Swofford. You’ve already read about the advance warning the Big East had when the ACC grabbed Pittsburgh and Syracuse. Meanwhile, the ACC also managed to add one of college sports’ most valuable -- and most gossiped-about -- brands as a partial member without a leak. During discussions with Notre Dame, the Domers were convinced word of their flirtation with the ACC would escape. It never did. Unlike the SEC, which accidentally released its entire welcome-to-the-league web page for Missouri more than a week before the SEC’s presidents held their official vote to extend an invitation, nothing got out until Swofford wanted it out.

To honor the end of this phase of realignment, Swofford offered a few tips on keeping things quiet. Not too many, though. He may eventually have to do this again.

1. Don’t hamstring yourself with your own rules.

After Boston College joined fellow former Big East members Miami and Virginia Tech in the ACC in 2005, the ACC’s presidents changed the league’s constitution to eliminate the rule requiring site visits for expansion candidates. Nothing sets off alarm bells like a delegation from another conference, so the ninja chose to do most of his work from a distance. Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Notre Dame accepted invitations without any realignment-related visits from Swofford or anyone else from the ACC. “In today’s world, there really isn’t any need for that,” Swofford said. “The world has gotten a lot smaller in that respect.” Meanwhile, the ACC has gotten bigger.

2. Have something else to talk about and you’ll never have to lie.

The main reason no one could pin down the talks between Notre Dame and the ACC? Swofford and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick were together regularly for two years as they helped hammer out the framework for the College Football Playoff. At the same time, Swarbrick was negotiating with the Orange Bowl -- which is essentially controlled by the ACC -- to get Notre Dame in the rotation of potential opponents for the ACC’s champion. “When they saw Jack and I having any conversations, there were a lot of other reasons for us to be having conversations,” Swofford said. “I don’t think it raised any eyebrows.”

3. Keep things inconspicuous.

The closest thing the ACC had to a cloak-and-dagger meeting during its courtship of Notre Dame was a 2012 gathering at the home of Wake Forest president Nathan Hatch that included Swofford, Swarbrick, Notre Dame president Rev. John Jenkins and then-Clemson president James Barker. “President Barker flew into Winston-Salem on the Clemson airplane with the big tiger paw on the back of it,” Swofford said. “Shockingly, somebody noticed.”

This is where rule No. 2 came in handy. Someone did call about the plane with the tiger paw, and they were told that Barker came to Winston-Salem for a discussion about the Orange Bowl. That might not have been the entire story, but it didn’t officially violate any commandments. “It was all true,” Swofford said.